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“A genius is the one who most resembles him,” the great jazzman Thelonious Monk once said. And though Arun Luthra is too modest to call himself a genius or put himself in Monk’s league, the quote resonates with him.
Luthra’s music is an extension and manifestation of who he is and where he comes from. The child of an Indian father and a British mother, and raised in the United States and Europe, Luthra’s music combines jazz saxophone with konnakol, the classical South Asian tradition of vocalized rhythms. But while the influences come from opposite sides of the globe, they merge in Luthra’s music into a unified and cohesive whole.
Luthra is the Fall 2021 Interdisciplinary Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Arts. The program brings guest artists to campus for a semester, where they teach a course for students of different disciplines, artists and non-artists, as well as programming a series of live performances and talks for the general public to enjoy. .
Luthra performed at Jazz at Five earlier this month and took the stage with his Konnakol Jazz Project at Wisconsin Union Theater’s Play Circle Theater on September 10. jazz students and its interdisciplinary students, as well as end-of-semester projects that go beyond music.
Luthra told The Cape Times how her music reflects her essence and how the universal language of rhythm can be the foundation for social change.
Did you grow up with these two musical influences in your life?
My father’s family is from Punjab, the northwestern province of India, which was partitioned in 1947. My father’s father emigrated to British East Africa for economic opportunities, and it is where my father was born and raised.
And then my mother is English, and she is also a child of colonialism, and grew up in British colonial Africa. So my parents met in colonial Africa and eventually got married in the UK. My siblings were born in the UK, then a few years later I was born in the US
I have a very culture-oriented family, a very arts-oriented family. My two siblings are also professional artists. I was surrounded by records and books, and I was going to museums and concerts and all sorts of things. I had that in my life from the very beginning.
And then my father was an amateur tabla player, who was very fond of Hindustani music, and he was particularly fond of Sufi devotional songs. He listened to this all the time. From an early age, I fell in love with the sound of vocalized rhythms of Indian classical music, which exists in both the Hindustani tradition, the North Indian classical tradition, and the Carnatic tradition, the South Indian tradition, which I interpret.
Konnakol dates back centuries, if I understood correctly. And it started as a way to teach rhythm vocally, and then grew into a rhythm art form in its own right.
Indian classical music is an oral tradition. So when as a disciple you go to your guru to learn, you will learn everything, by memory and by ear. And anything that can be played on an instrument can also be performed vocally. So if you play a melodic instrument, they would sing melodies, sing the names of the notes that they saw. Then after you could sing it, you would play it on your instrument.
With percussion instruments, there are different ways… to hit the drum. You can hit it with the palm of your hand, with your fingertips, with one finger, with three fingers. The way this translates into vocalization is by giving each different drumbeat a syllable. Eventually these syllables broke away from actually being played on a drum and they became their own form of percussive art.
How did you come up with the idea of pairing your saxophone with this konnakol?
It’s not so much about finding the idea as just being an organic, natural flow of who I am. For me, it’s as essential a part of me as my height or the languages I speak. That’s what I mean. That’s what I like. And that’s what I want to express.
I grew up in a house where Punjabi, English and French were spoken, and where I heard Hindustani music and Sufi music, and I heard Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, and Neil Young and BB King. There was nothing remarkable or self-conscious about it. It’s just the world I was in.
One of the goals of your course, titled “The Universal Language of Rhythm: Explorations Through Konnakol and Black American Music,” is to find connections between the two, isn’t it?
That is certainly part of it. It’s very important for me to be explicit that I fell in love with the music of BB King, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, all those great masters. And that foundation is black American music, isn’t it? black culture. It is the tradition and the music that I fell in love with, to which I also bring my own cultural identity, and my own cultural experience.
And then the course just talks about the idea of rhythm as a universal phenomenon. We are in the third week of the course now, and we are reading about how Hindu mythology might describe the nature of the universe in relation to quantum physics. You can find incredible parallels, and the rhythm is really a common thread. Rhythm is in a way the primordial essence of the universe.
So when you say interdisciplinary, you don’t just mean different types of music. It is also useful to learn this for non-musicians.
Absoutely. The residence is very deliberately designed so that the course is open to everyone. This is not a course for musicians. I’m a person who really enjoys exploring the connections between disparate ideas, I find that really exciting and fascinating. So I’ve always been into theoretical physics and mythology, political activism… those things have always interested me.
To have a focused activity, this course, to really bring those ideas together is amazing to me and really exciting. And open myself up to new ideas, just by listening to what the students have to say. The other day a student was linking what we were talking about in terms of synchronous vibration to a pathology of speech and how neurons fire in the brain. The parallels are incredible.
In the introductory video of your residency, you mentioned the association of certain themes with political activism, anti-racism and colonialism. How does that play into what you talk about in class?
An essential part of my identity is that I am a child of colonialism. Without the British Empire, I wouldn’t exist. My parents would never have met. I think of the struggles they went through as a multicultural couple, interracial couple and my dad as a South Asian man (who moved) to the UK to live and make a living and then emigrated to the US United. So these ideas have a direct impact on my life and on the lives and experiences of my ancestors. So it’s very important to me that we include that in the discussion. And then, on a very practical level, music has been part of political activism for as long as there has been political activism. This is another element where rhythm is an integral part of the human experience.
I interviewed a dancer and choreographer who was artist-in-residence a year ago, and we talked about how during the Black Lives Matter protests there would be dance parties in the middle of the protests. And a lot of people didn’t understand that, how people so angry and so determined to change the world could express such joy at the same time.
Black American music, black culture, is something that transcends borders and has kind of become the musical lingua franca of the planet. Listen to pop music anywhere. Japanese pop music, Nigerian pop music, Argentinian pop music. No matter where you go in the world, its roots are in blues and swing.
You think of the people who created this music in response to unimaginable oppression and suffering. The amazing resilience, the amazing strength it takes to turn this horror into something so beautiful that the whole world wants it to be. It is inexpressible. How miraculous.