Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.
The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies. How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?
Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company. There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music. So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work. Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.
As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.
South Indian music is so linear. There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.
It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.
TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?
RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.
TJG: Do you guys discuss the similarities and differences in how improvisation is structured in South Indian music and in jazz?
RS: Well the thing is, neither of the Carnatic musicians in the group, which is me and my sister Anjna, nor Miles, Stephan, or Maria, haven’t felt really restricted. Anjna and I have been in the creative music scene for a while, listening to how people improvise in this scene, and Miles has been checking out South Indian music, so everyone has been exposed to these different ways of approaching improvisation, so when we get together, I don’t know if we’re sitting and talking about differences, so much as just jumping in and finding spaces to move around. One particular thing that I really love about this group is the way that Anjna and Stephan play together. I remember during one of these rehearsals, Anjna and Stephan were rehearsing and they hadn’t gotten to this certain cue point yet, and Stephan was like, “You know what, don’t worry, because no matter what notes you play, it’s gonna sound good.” And that was interesting to hear, and it just opens up so many things to accept the fact that they both could be playing their own structure but still finding these points of intersection that work no matter what direction you take it in. It’s just been a series of discoveries honestly, more than just sitting and discussing things.
But we’ve run into certain things, like obviously the jazz musicians think more harmonically, and Anjna is trained to think more modally, so there is some need for translation in that sense. In terms of rhythms I might be thinking of it one way, and Miles might have a different perspective. There might be different possibilites that emerge from the same rhythmic idea, so rather than discussing differences, I think we collectively build a larger palette of possibilities, and then we work with that larger palette and learn from each other.
TJG: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been studying at Harvard?
RS: I am in a program that is directed by Vijay Iyer. It’s a new program and I’m the only one in it, so I’m kinda like the guinea pig. It’s called the Cross Disciplinary track in the music department for now, but the idea is to get performance as a perspective, some authority within the department, and as a mode of research. It’s been an opportunity that I was craving. When I was living in New York, I had been thinking that I needed some time to just sit and write about what I was experiencing. Between RAJAS, and just going between all these scenes, I had gotten to that point where ideas that come up when I am in the creative music scene are still with me when I go back to India to perform with traditional musicians from there, and so they’re not really separate in that way. I am still one person and those ideas transfer, but they obviously have different implications and different contexts. So it was not just writing about those ideas, but also thinking more about the social context in which these musics exist.
One thing that I’ve really gotten interested in is the caste and gender politics in South Indian music, and just thinking about what does it mean to have a classical music that is practiced in India by a very dominant community that is very exclusive, whereas jazz is really a grassroots expression that comes from the experience of being oppressed. How do you reconcile the social context of these two forms of music? You can sort of say, yeah Indian music has improvisation and and jazz has improvisation, so that can be like a very surface level analysis but there’s also these very interesting things going on socially and its discources. So I needed a space and the resources to think about that, and I wanted to write about it. Also because I think there’s something happening in the South Asian diaspora as far as how Karnatic music is practiced here, and in New York especially, there are musicians that have been trained in classical music that are now super involved playing jazz and other forms of music, and they have a very different sort of social consciousness than the folks in India practicing this art form. There is a lot to be read up on , and just conscious of while we are making music.
It’s a six-year program at Harvard and I’m in my second year. So these are just some of the ideas that have been floating around and I don’t know what the end dissertation is going to look like. It’s probably going to have a portfolio with some of my compositions and recordings and performances. So everything that I’m doing now as a performer is contributing to my research, and then I’m reading on top of that and doing course work, and trying to tie all of these things together, hopefully it will come together soon.
TJG: I feel like gender politics and some of the social politics and activism that you’re talking about is really relevant right now not only in the South Indian community, but also in the jazz community. How do you feel your experiences have been in becoming more a part of the jazz community, as someone who identifies as a woman and someone who is a percussionist?
RS: There are some striking similarities in terms of the gender dynamics in the Carnatic music scene and the jazz scene. There are all these scripts for how you’re supposed to play and act as a woman musician or a male musician. Both scenes have like a boys club, or a fraternity of respected musicians. So there’s these continuities that I see and I don’t know if that has to do with how we view virtuosity and improvisation as a society, that’s another question to ask. I’ve mostly noticed these things, and obviously I feel a lot more creative liberty here in New York in the creative music scene. Because here you can be a bandleader, and you can be a composer, and in India you’re primarily playing compositions that were written hundreds of years ago, and improvising. I studied piano when I was younger, and I’ve always wanted to compose, and I’ve had this hybrid sound in my ears that I’ve wanted to express. But both are important, like I still feel the sense of home when I go back to India and I play in traditional settings. There is that comfort in feeling like this is where my family comes from, and the sounds I have been listening to since I was a kid, but I also feel equally a sense of belonging in the creative music scene. They are both homes to me.
TJG: You also have an organization that you are the co-artistic director of—
RS:—I should say it’s actually my parents organization, that is now sort of… It’s not dormant so much as it’s a non-profit that whenever there’s a need to do educational outreach, it’s helpful to have a non-profit. It hasn’t been totally active, but it’s there. It started when my parents sponsored my mrudangam teacher from India to come here on tours, and a lot of them would be to go to universities and not only perform but also do demonstrations on South Indian music, at various music departments, so that’s when this organization was started. But probably if I take it up for my generation it would look a little different. It’s not so much about teaching and spreading the music, as it is about funding collaborative work, and continuing to bring diverse communities into the picture of Indian music.
TJG: Within the South Indian music community, do you feel like you have the opportunity to be a role model as a female musician?
RS: Perhaps. I feel like I was travelling a lot more and performing a lot more in India a few years ago, so the reason a lot more people know me there was from that period in my life when I was primarily doing traditional music there, and it’s very rare for women to play this instrument. I’ve met a couple of other young women who play, but it’s still pretty taboo I would say in the south. I grew up with a very different set of restrictions; I didn’t have a lot of restrictions growing up. My parents were really excited about me playing the mrudangam, and really wanted me to pursue it professionally. This is not the case for most people, especially in South India, where most women probably don’t have family support. I could see how maybe I could be seen as a role model, but I’ve come up with very exceptional surroundings that really encouraged me to do this, and really made it easy for me to pursue this and be happy and content in my decision. My father is really happy that I’m doing this, and that doesn’t exist for most women in South India.
I hope things change, I hope that seeing me onstage would open up possibilities for people, if anything, I don’t know. It’s a tough call though, it’s really rare for women to play this, and for people to be okay with women to play it without judgment. I think even for the women percussionists in India who have made it to a certain extent, even then they get comments like oh they only get hired for all-women concerts, or some special thing, they sort of get sidelined very easily, or seen as not as capable. And it’s really rough, but I’m not living in India right now and I’m not going through all of that, so I would say that those women are the real role models, who are sitting there and actually experiencing it in India which is a tougher environment to live in.
TJG: In terms of the music that we’ll be hearing at The Jazz Gallery, can you tell us about what we will hear?
RS: There are a couple of new pieces, but a lot of the pieces are ones that we’ve been playing in different settings over the past year, mostly in New York. But of course the material grows with each performance, and it also represents different stages of my understanding of how to compose for the group. I take some older compositions that might have been meant for a different instrumentation, and try to rework them for this context, or if there’s a composition that I want to try differently, I might do that. It’s like I was saying—a lot of the compositions are these textural roles where it’s not about playing through a melody or a rhythm, it’s about entering this sort of form and finding your own creative take on it, and maintaining that form and using it to develop some creative momentum to go somewhere. I’m looking forward to it, there’s gonna be some special moments—there always are.
TJG: Are you guys going to be recording in the future?
RS: I’m looking into something soon. Because this band has had different stages and configurations, I’d like to try and bring back some of the folks who have played before and try different combinations, and also use this current configuration and record some music with them. But it’s a big project, so hopefully some time next year or the year after.
Rajna Swaminathan and RAJAS perform at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 17th, 2016. The group features Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Stephan Crump on bass, Anjna Swaminathan on Carnatic violin, and Maria Grand on tenor sax. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.