Rudresh Mahanthappa: South Asian Jazz Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, son of Indian immigrants, says he didn't think about his ethnic identity growing up. But on his new album Kinsmen, he and other like-minded South Asian American jazz musicians, fuse American jazz with a global sound that embraces the music of India.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: South Asian Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Finally this hour, as we look back at 2008, here's a musical development from a group of jazz musicians in New York.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIEGEL: This comes from an album called "Kinsmen" and it's the brainchild of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. It features other American musicians of South Asian descent and an Indian saxophonist who was the first person to adapt the saxophone to Indian classical music. As Howard Mandel reports, the project marks a significant departure from previous efforts to blend East and West.

HOWARD MANDEL: Rudresh Mahanthappa didn't think much about his ethnic identity growing up in the college town of Boulder, Colorado, son of Indian immigrants. Then he went off to study jazz at North Texas State University.

Mr. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA (Alto Saxophonist): Growing up in Boulder, I mean, it's a pretty white community, you know. I don't think it's unique to me to just think of yourself as being white, actually. When I got to North Texas State, I realized I wasn't white. And I think what made me realize fully that I wasn't white was that - that was the first time I was around a significant African-American population. I mean, the African-American population at that school was quite large. So I didn't necessarily have a space where I fit in, you know, as an Indian-American, like, I didn't know a lot of other Indian-Americans. I didn't know a lot of people in the same boat.

MANDEL: But there were others in that boat. Rez Abassi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was four years old.

Mr. REZ ABASSI (Guitarist): How much should I learn by the time I was four years old about the Pakistani culture is probably something that's more in my subconscious. Because in my conscious mind, I feel like I'm purely an American. That's what I did - I surfed, I motorcycled, I, you know, played rock 'n' roll. You know, all the things that basically kids do when they grow up here.

MANDEL: Yet the music Abassi plays with Rudresh Mahanthappa and the other members of the ensemble on "Kinsmen" is deeper than a watered-down version of East meets West.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: Three decades ago, South Asian music in the United States was represented by sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, popularized by British guitarist John McLaughlin, and electrified by Miles Davis with tabla player Badal Roy.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: On the corner was Miles Davis' amplified fantasy of a global sound. Rudresh Mahanthappa's "Kinsmen" is the result of a determined search for the real thing that started with a recording he got as a teenager.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: My older brother, kind of as a joke, gave me this CD called "Saxophone Indian Style." And it was unlike any saxophone playing I'd ever heard before. And for me, that was like a real entry point into dealing with Indian music as a saxophonist because it wasn't so far-fetched. It's like, well, this guy is doing it.

MANDEL: Years later, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, Mahanthappa went to India to work out his ideas with the saxophonist he'd heard on that album, Kadri Gopalnath.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Listen, I'll play it three times. I'll play it three times. One...

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

Mr. KADRI GOPALNATH (Indian Classical Musician, Master of South Indian Carnatic Music): OK, one, two, three. One, two, three, four. One, two, three. One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

MANDEL: By the time they met, Gopalnath had been accepted as a master of South Indian Carnatic music. But it hadn't always been so.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: You know, he tells me stories of working eight, 10-hour shifts selling transistor radios in an electronics store, and then coming home and practicing until four in the morning, and sleeping four hours and going back and doing that again, every day.

MANDEL: Mahanthappa didn't have to take low-level day jobs, but his career path wasn't laid out for him, either.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: There was no template for an Indian-American jazz musician. There was a template for a white jazz musician, an African-American jazz musician, even a Latin jazz musician. So we're all kind of trying to blaze some new trails in the best way we can.

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

MANDEL: Mahanthappa blazed his trail by combining two distinctly different ways of making music.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: The first thing you have to consider with Indian music is that there is no harmony. There's only melody and rhythm. But what I'm playing comes from - what my vocabulary is informed by is a lot of harmonic stuff.

MANDEL: Mahanthappa wrote pieces that accommodated both approaches, so he and Gopalnath could bounce ideas back and forth.

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

MANDEL: On "Kinsmen," the American-inflected alto sax, electric guitar, bass, and trap drums meld with a Carnatic trio of alto sax, violin, and hourglass-shaped hand drum. Guitarist Rez Abassi found he had a pivotal role in connecting these sounds.

Mr. ABASSI: We try and come up with ideas that can put the melodic element and the rhythmic element of Indian music with the harmonic element of jazz. I think "Kinsmen" was a really great project that did that very well, specifically because Rudresh went out to India. He shared ideas with Kadri, and he came back and he put it through his own pool of ideas and ended up with this sort of harmonic, melodic, rhythmical, textural music.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: The music on "Kinsmen" represents the changing demographics of America. Mahanthappa, Rez Abassi, Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer, and drummer Sunny Jain are children of a recent wave of immigrants and members of a burgeoning South Asian jazz circle in New York. Like others before them, these young musicians claim jazz as their own.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: We're here - we're part of the American landscape. You know, we just happen to be playing jazz or improvised music. And this is a new music. And I'm glad that there are few of us doing it. And it's also making it OK for other Indian-Americans to pursue what have long been considered taboo careers, because as an Indian-American, you don't play music. You don't go into the arts, you're supposed to do something real. I mean, I get email messages from people all the time that are not only like I really like the music, but thank you for going out there and doing this. Thank you for making this OK.

MANDEL: The music they're creating is another example of how open to fresh ideas American culture can be. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

(Soundbite of song "Longing")

SIEGEL: You can hear more of Rudresh Manhanthappa's songs at

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.