Part of mandolin master Snehasish Mozumder’s mission—and that of artist-based collective Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)—is to create opportunities for artistic exchanges and cultural communication through engagement with Indian classical music. This engagement has deep roots in jazz and Western popular music, through the work of artists including John and Alice Coltrane, The Beatles and, of course, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Within his own project, Sound of Mandolin, Mozumder interprets his lineage through the lens of cultural curiosity and inclusion, playing Indian classical music and composing “raga-inspired” music. He has released 28 recordings as a leader, constantly seeking new situations for collaboration. Along with other members of BRM’s ensembles, Mozumder has re-envisioned the music of McLaughlin, Mahavishnu and Shakti to reflect his own expression and the movements of the moment in 2019. This McLaughlin-inspired project will play The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, June 19.
Before the hit, we spoke with Mozumder and BRM artist and band leader/drummer Vin Scialla. Each offered thoughts on finding new paths through the music, the challenges and triumphs of spontaneity and collaboration and the mysterious power of “the drone.”
The Jazz Gallery: Snehasish—You began playing tabla at age 4. What prompted the switch to studying mandolin, which I understand is not considered traditional to Hindustani Indian classical music?
Snehasish Mozumder: [Mandolin] is Italian originally. I am from a musical family; I’m the third generation doing music. My grandfather started a style of teaching the young kids—first, tabla when you’re 4. He used to play violin and mandolin—not like me, but some songs, some initial phrases of ragas. So when I was 4, I asked for the tabla; then when I was 9 or 10, mandolin, for some initial idea of the melodic instruction. Then, when I was 16, I switched over to a traditional Indian classical instrument—I switched over to sitar.
TJG: So you continued studying mandolin while studying sitar?
SM: Exactly, because I loved the tone of the mandolin, and I noticed that what I had heard on other Indian instruments, I played that sound on the mandolin. We had a big family, so many different rooms. In one room, my father Himangshu Mozumder, very famous guitar player, he used to play light classical and modern songs also, and [in another room] my uncle was playing sitar and another uncle was playing sarod—so from that childhood, I tried to adapt that type of North Indian classical style on mandolin. That was the very start of [my artistry]. And then there was a lot of struggle.
TJG: In what ways do you feel that your first instrument being percussive offered you certain advantages as you pursued mastering other instruments?
SM: It’s like playing a new instrument in an authentic society. It’s very hard. At the initial stage, I [encountered] many problems. But, slowly, I have come out from that. My first big achievement was in 1997, my debut album Mandolin Dreams. Then I got a little bit of international notoriety in 2001, when I had my first Europe tour—Europe and Britain, both. My last concert was at London at Bharitiya Vidya Bhavan; it’s a pretty famous hall for Indian classical music. Fortunately, at this concert, Pandit Ravi Shankar ji came to listen to my music, and he liked it. Then, in 2002, he invited me to Royal Albert Hall as a soloist at the [George Harrison Memorial Concert] “Concert for George.” And now I’m getting recognition from all over the world, and in India, but I’m really grateful to American audiences because they’re always liking a new style, especially mandolin. While I am playing Indian classical style on mandolin, all the mandolin players are sitting in the front row – that’s really, very inspiring.
TJG: You have this intimate relationship with the mandolin, and I understand you crafted your own, one-of-a-kind double neck mandolin as a result of your love for the instrument and the music. Can you talk a little bit about the instrument and its conception?
SM: Now I have 32 mandolins. And all over the world I have good friends who are custom mandolin makers. They’re making my instruments, but you never know which one will be appropriate because it’s custom, it’s handmade. Right now the instrument I’m playing is made in Kolkata and the maker is unfortunately no longer with us. But still, this is the best one I have.
TJG: You play different styles of music on mandolin, interpreting aesthetics from all over the world; what is so alluring to you about playing improvised music, returning again and again to that spontaneity?
SM: Improvisation is in various styles of music, you’re right. I don’t do all styles, but I know Indian style. We are all improvisers, but improvisation doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. There is a straight rule of the ragas. You have to maintain that; you have to maintain that rhythmic cycle. And I have many friends here [in New York]; I’m not a jazz musician, but I can collaborate with them because, since I play mandolin, I studied Western music, too. That’s why I can collaborate.
TJG: In what ways do you feel playing improvised music facilitates a cultural exchange?
SM: It happens that whatever music it is, there is a “relation” that’s called the key, the tune, the tone. So, for example in my band, I compose a piece which is based on raga, but it’s not like I’m playing that typical Indian style, all the rules. It’s based on raga, and then I compose a phrase and play it in front of all the musicians who are jazz musicians, or in [other collaborative settings that include] flamenco, blue grass and fusion bands.
TJG: Let’s talk for a moment about John McLaughlin’s artistry and the legacy of Mahavishnu. What kind of impact has that had on the music? Why do you think artists continue to draw inspiration from his legacy even now in 2019?
SM: From my childhood, I’ve been a fan of John McLaughlin. And then I heard Shakti. Very hard, challenging. And they were maintaining the rhythmic cycle—Vikku [TH Vinayakram] and Zakir [Hussain]—all the icons. This had a big impact on my thinking [toward the music]. So from that time, I liked John McLaughlin and I very much liked his style. This was the starting point. And then slowly, [the vision] came into my mind and I started to do something new.
Vin Scialla: I can add to that question. Being part of Brooklyn Raga Massive, there’s been celebrations of artists that have been influenced by music of India. There’s been celebrations for John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, and there’s been connections between those artists and music of India. So I personally felt that it was a good time to celebrate the music of John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. This is the second time this project is being presented. This time around, Snehasish is part of the ensemble, and Premik Russell Tubbs is an original member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and he’s playing with us as well. So there’s a lot of great information from Premik because he was there. He was there when this amazing movement was happening. It was such an interesting time when all this was coming together in the early ’70s—and John was the leader. He was leading this movement and putting together these incredible musicians in a way that had never been done before, and creating a completely new sound from Mahavishnu to Shakti.
What I’m interested in for this [project] is bringing in a little more of the elements that you might hear in Shakti, and incorporating more of the acoustic elements that John McLaughlin is also known for. Mahavishnu is an amazing band, and there’s a lot of electric sounds on the albums. This particular concert [seeks] to find the balance between acoustic elements, electric elements and some of the indigenous instruments of India. Neel [Murgai] is on sitar, Snehasish is playing music of India on mandolin. In addition, we have Swami Selvaganesh, who is part of the lineage—the son of South Indian percussionist Selvaganesh who was a member of Remember Shakti. Swami is the grandson of the original percussionist in Shakti, TH “Vikku” Vinayakram.
There’s a spiritual element to this music. And you can ask, “Why does it keep coming back? Why do we keep listening to it? What is the mystery about the music?” It’s hard to really pinpoint exactly what it is. However, I will say the music has spiritual, transcendental elements similar to how John Coltrane channelled peace and transcendence through his music, when he was inspired and “found the drone,” as Ravi Shankar says. That was the pivot point into a new direction.
Brooklyn Raga Massive presents Celebrating John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday June 19, 2019. The group features Snehasish Mozumder on double neck mandolin, Vin Scialla on drums and percussion, Neel Murgai on sitar, Premik Russell Tubbs on woodwinds, Dan Asher on bass and Swaminathan Selvaganesh on kanjira, and includes special guests David Ullmann on guitar and Joe Deninzon on violin. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission, $10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.