We've been hearing disturbing news out of South Africa in recent weeks, news of deadly violence against immigrants and of thousands driven out of poor townships.

This morning, we're going to talk of a kind of grace to be found there: music. Even on the toughest township streets, one could always hear a lively beat, a soulful song. Under apartheid, even music was segregated, and that's partly how it came to be that Deepak Ram, who was raised in one of the townships reserved for those of Indian descent, learned to play a bamboo flute known as the bansuri.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Deepak Ram eventually became a master of the bansuri, and he's become known for a series of albums of North Indian classical music. His newest CD, called "Steps," is a departure. He's playing classic American jazz on one of India's most traditional instruments.

Mr. DEEPAK RAM (Bansuri Master, Musician): It has a very special place in Indian culture, especially because of its association with Lord Krishna.

MONTAGNE: The Hindu God Krishna.

Mr. RAM: Yeah. And, you know, the symbolism of the flute is that when Lord Krishna played his flute, you know, everybody that heard, including the animals and the cows and - who heard this, forgot their own individual identities and found themselves running towards the sound, which is the ultimate truth or reality.

(Soundbite of song, "Naima")

MONTAGNE: Here, Deepak Ram's take on John Coltrane's love song, "Naima." It's music the young South African could have listened to growing up. In his home, there was a mix of Bollywood, Ravi Shankar and Ella Fitzgerald. His older brother collected jazz LPs.

(Soundbite of song, "Naima")

Mr. RAM: I remember my brother making me my first flute from a drainpipe, you know, with a heavy steel pipe, and he, you know, found a drill and he just arbitrarily just drilled six holes in the drainpipe. That was my first flute.

MONTAGNE: And may I ask, how old would you have been?

Mr. RAM: I wasn't too young. I mean, I think my drainpipe flute, I was 14.

MONTAGNE: Did you actually play that drainpipe flute?

Mr. RAM: Yeah I did, actually. I did for a while. I did for a year and a half before I went for my first formal lesson, and I took the drainpipe flute with me to my teacher.

It was fine. I mean, the sound itself was just, you know, as a kid growing up, any kind of music, I mean even marching bands, I would, you know, get goose pimples, you know, when I listened to them.

MONTAGNE: Is there a tune on this new CD that we could play that, to you, brings together in music those influences?

Mr. RAM: Well, "Madiba's Dance," which is the second tune on the album, is actually dedicated to the great President Nelson Mandela, and Madiba is a respectful name, also a name of the community or clan he comes from.

So this piece, the rhythm has a kind of groovy feel. I don't know if people have seen Nelson Mandela on television. He's one of the few presidents that dances, you know, in public appearances. And he has this kind of movement, and he has this dance where he kind of holds his hands and fists.

You know, he used to be a boxer, too, so, I mean, it's difficult to demonstrate on radio. But, you know, he kind of moves his arms side to side. The groove is one, two, three, one, two three, ba, ba, ba, chi, ba, ba, ba, chi, ba.

And the rhythm of this pieceā€¦

(Soundbite of song, "Madiba's Dance")

Mr. RAM: It kind of reminds me of the sound of South Africa, you know, growing up, watching, you know, small African kids play guitars that are made from oil cans and, you know, makeshift drums. So it gives me that feeling of South Africa. So this piece, "Madiba's Dance."

(Soundbite of song, "Madiba's Dance")

MONTAGNE: From the most upbeat of South African songs, Deepak Ram finds his way to the American South and the bittersweet sound of Gershwin's "Summertime." It's a song he had heard growing up on one of those LPs his brother collected, and it stuck with him all these years.

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

Mr. RAM: I mean, I didn't realize that "Summertime" was from a musical. And without knowing the history of "Summertime," without seeing the musical, one day I decided to listen to the words carefully because, you know, as a musician, for me the melody or the combination of the notes within a melody or phrase tells a huge story. And, you know, you grab the emotions from there, and then the words for me come later. And while it's kind of a hip tune - you can play it, you know, and kind of dance to it - it has this touch of sadness in it because also, the note combination and of the lyrics, and that's so much like South Africa.

I mean, it's about this woman singing to a little baby that she's looking after, and how her parents are wealthy, you have nothing to worry about. You know, the cotton is high, and you're thinking of this really hot summer somewhere in the South, and this person who's trapped into slavery, you know, sing, and you know, it just reminded me of South Africa a lot.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I was trying to think of a couple of lyrics. I mean, I think of the obvious one: Summertime, the living is easy.

Mr. RAM: Fish are jumping, cotton is high. And you can almost feel, you know, the humidity and, you know, don't cry little - you know, your mama is beautiful. Your daddy is rich, you know. You'll get your wings and someday you will fly, you know.

So, I mean, you can imagine this person singing this thing to a little kid, giving the kid, you know, all this what is possible in your life. But at the same time, the person that's singing it, and this is my life, and it's never going to get better.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Deepak Ram, thank you for joining us.

Mr. RAM: Thank you very much, Renee. Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Deepak Ram is a master of the Indian bamboo flute known as the bansuri. On his new CD called "Steps," you can hear him playing jazz on this most traditional of Indian instruments.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can hear a couple of Deepak Ram playing both "Summertime" and "Naima" in the music section of This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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