It’s not uncommon for musicians to find inspiration in a realm beyond their musical upbringing. Violinist Trina Basu takes that idea to the next level, having been raised in a Western Classical tradition and subsequently immersing herself in the worlds of both jazz and Indian Classical music. A native of Miami, Florida, Basu received a fellowship in 2007 to study Carnatic Classical violin in Chennai, India. After arriving back in New York, Basu found herself performing in a wide range of style-defying ensembles.
Today, Basu co-leads the chamber ensemble Karavika, as well as Brooklyn Raga Massive, A.R. Balaskandan’s Akshara, Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra, Neel Murgai Ensemble, and many others. As an educator and music therapist in the New York area and beyond, Basu has organized musical initiatives focusing on both underserved youth, hospitalized children and adults, and Alzheimers and stroke patients. Like her own performance career, Basu’s educational work focuses on expanding the musical horizons of her students.
Along with her musical partner and husband Arun Ramamurthy, Trina Basu will perform at The Jazz Gallery with a quartet rounded out by cellist Marika Hughes and bassist Rashaan Carter. The mission of the group, called Nakshatra, is to reimagine “the potential of string Chamber Music for our global times.” We caught up with Basu via phone, and discussed the breadth of her musical career
The Jazz Gallery: I’ve heard unbelievable recordings of you and Arun playing duo. Can you walk me through the experience of incorporating Marika Hughes and Rashaan Carter into your sound?
Trina Basu: Thanks! This show will be the first time we’re playing as a string quartet, so it should be fun. As Arun and I have been building more original material together, we’ve experimented with bringing other musicians into the fold. Marika and Rashaan have been friends and colleagues of ours for several years, and they’re two of our favorite musicians and improvisers. We’ve had our hearts set on playing with them, and this show at The Jazz Gallery seemed like the right time to bring them in. Marika and Rashaan will give us that beautiful low-end that is so essential to the string quartet sound.
TJG: So what will you be playing together at The Jazz Gallery?
TB: The music is all original, written by Arun and myself. We’ve been playing together for about ten years. We met playing music in a group called Akshara back in 2007. We were playing on similar scenes but come from different musical backgrounds: Arun is a Carnatic South-Indian trained violinist but is influenced by much more, whereas I’m trained as a Western Classical violinist who came into Indian Classical and other styles later in life. When we met, we had great musical and personal chemistry. We ended up getting married several years later, and now we have children together, so life has gotten pretty crazy. Over the past couple years we’ve been developing original music together and it’s really exciting. The music will draw from our roots in tradition but will take on new shapes reflective of our individual voices.
TJG: So what does that mean for the sound you’ve created together, in musical terms?
TB: Our music is rooted in the Carnatic ragas and rhythmic structures. As a string quartet we can tap into the chamber music sound and create beautiful rich drones which is perfect for raga improvisations. There is a lot of experimentation and “breaking rules,” if you will, but we do try our best to retain the spirit of the raga or whatever it is we are tapping into at the moment. We’re both influenced by so many different styles of music but I think you will also find threads of jazz, western classical, and some version of experimental minimalist music.
TJG: In what sense would you use the term “chamber music” to describe Nakshatra?
TB: Chamber music is all about the fluidity of the players and how they work together as a family or team, listening and supporting each other, each playing a role in the unified sound. In Indian music, the concept of chamber or ensemble playing doesn’t fully exist in the same way. It’s more of a soloistic tradition, where a main artist is supported by other musicians who shadow them. In Nakshatra we are approaching ragas from the chamber perspective, creating a space for lots of freedom and group improvisation, going for those beautiful lush string sounds, for our voices to come out individually and collectively.
TJG: Can you tell me a bit about the role of improvisation in the tradition of South Indian Classical violin?
TB: Improvisation is an integral part of Indian classical music, both in Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. It plays a strong role and is fully integrated into the compositional structures. As an oral tradition, you learn to sing everything first and that allows you to really understand the way a raga moves. Over time it becomes part of you. The idea of learning from a guru over a lifetime and repeating phrases, ornaments and gamakas (bends) within the Raga, makes embodying the sound like learning a language. And you eventually become fluent and creative within it. Ragas have personalities and rasas (emotions) that are tied to them: Being able to tap into the spirit of a raga from your own perspective is a big part of the music, and is a core element for our ensemble.
TJG: Can you think of a defining moment where your musical influences–Classical, North Indian, jazz, and beyond–began to coalesce for you?
TB: I remember being in college and hoping that one day I would be able to make creative music that reflected different parts of myself. I craved to improvise and tap into a more personal spirit of music which Western Classical wasn’t doing for me at the time. While my roots are classical and very near and dear to my heart, I wanted to be making music that felt like it was coming from me. I had opportunities to learn Indian classical music and jazz, and to sit in on jam sessions. Eventually my love for Indian music took me to Chennai, India in 2006 on an Artist Fellowship for six months, where I gained a foundation for Carnatic violin. Those six months went by fast, but I was able to focus purely on the music for that time.
My influences started coming together when I came back from India and moved to New York City. I met people with similar interests and found welcoming venues that supported the music I wanted to make. I formed Karavika with cellist Amali Premawardhana and played with others including Akshara, Adam Rudolph’s Go Organic Orchestra and Brooklyn Raga Massive, which all gave me a platform to experiment with integrating and exploring my own voice in a way that I hadn’t before. Now, I’ve been in New York for about ten years, and I do feel that my playing is more fluid, especially in terms of improvising and bringing together these different elements.
TJG: It actually sounds like integrating these interests and influences has not been a struggle for you, since you’ve really found such wonderful venues for cultivating these musical interests.
TB: I do feel like I’ve found the right people and places in NY. Not fitting into any one category or tradition can sometimes make you feel out of place, but I don’t feel stuck, and my interests have taken me where they’ve taken me, so I’m happy with the direction I’ve gone musically and still evolving of course. Becoming a parent has actually helped me realize many things that have played a big role in my evolution as a creative person. As a mom, your day is full of interruptions, and you can’t simply get in the zone at any given moment, because your children are there all day with you and have bounds of energy all the time. Yet, having kids has taught me to surrender, not worry, and be present in that moment, so that when the next moment comes, I can take full advantage of whatever that moment will be, whether it’s with my kids, enjoying a beautiful day at the park, and talking about the incredible wonders of the universe, or whether it means getting in your practice headspace and zoning in. Being a mom definitely showed me how to improve my ability to prioritize time, focus, and live in the moment.
TJG: Speaking of kids, I know you’re involved in education in a number of different contexts. Whether teaching jazz, improvised music, Carnatic, or Classical music, do you notice similarities among your students?
TB: I mostly teach children who live in Brooklyn, so regardless of their background or culture, or what type of music I’m teaching them, their day-to-day experience has similarities with everyone else’s. As their teacher, it’s my responsibility to bring them music that reflects our world and our local community. I teach based in the Suzuki approach and Western violin, but I bring a lot more to the mix. My students get exposure to beautiful styles and musical traditions of the world, traditions that they may have a personal connection to. I’m bringing more and more improvisation into my curriculum from a young age which I think is so important in developing self-confidence and creative expression. We also perform every year at our community nursing home. A big goal I have is to bring in more female composers to my educational world. We take it for granted that when we’re raised in a musical tradition, no matter what it is, we have very little or no real formal exposure to women as leaders, composers, instrumentalists, or improvisers. In today’s world, it’s important to make these changes and be a part of the evolving social narrative that will represent us all.
Nakshata plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, September 12, 2018. The group is presented in association with Brooklyn Raga Massive, and features Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, and Rashaan Carter on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.