Indian American musician Sheela Bringi has been exploring the musical connections between the United States and India. A vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist (she plays the harp, bansuri and harmonium). Sheela talks about incorporating ancient Vedic chants into modern music, a genre she refers to as Vedic Jazz
You have used Sanskrit and Vedic mantras in your music. Vedic chanting requires adherence to swara shuddhi and askhara shuddhi. Do you retain that in your music? Could you point us to some albums for examples?
I learned mantras and shlokas from my mother, a retired Professor of Hinduism and Sanskrit in Boulder, CO. My mother studied Sanskrit and Vedic chanting from her grand uncle, who was a Sanskrit scholar in the former Mysore Maharaja’s court. In regard to akshara shuddhi, my mother has worked with me on precise Sanskrit pronunciation. In spite of that, I may have a trace of an American accent that can be heard on my recordings. With regard to swara shuddhi, in some cases I retain the swaras of traditional Vedic chanting in Revathi rāga taught to me by my mother, in other cases I change the rāga.
I also consciously incorporate a tāla structure into the melodic rendering of shloka and mantra on my recordings. For example, I set the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra (called “The Three-Eyed One from my album Incantations), in a cycle of 7 beats (mishra chāpu). The tāla is accented by a North African bendir drum with layers of interlocking handclaps (you can hear the saṁ of the tāla where the first handclap enters the track). My training in the rhythms of the jazz tradition, my study of Hindustani rhythms with Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri at CalArts, and Carnatic rhythms from my father, has influenced this kind of musical re-imagining.
Another example is the track “Saraswati”, also from Incantations. Here, I’ve set the devata mantra for Goddess Saraswati to Hindustani rupak taal (7 beats) accompanied by the harp. As well, the track “Peace Mantras” (from the album Shakti Sūtra), is a string of Shanti Mantras from the Upanishads, set to a slow 4/4 “rhythm & blues” beat (equivalent to a slow Hindustani kaherwa taal or Carnatic adi tāla), accompanied by the harp tuned to Hindustani Bairagi (equivalent to Carnatic Revati) and Bhairavi rāgas. This track features the voice of my vocal Guruji Sri Subhoashish Mukhopadyay.
I’ve also added other elements like harmony and diverse instrumentation to set the mantra or shloka to music in a new way.
Vedic mantras sound good by themselves. What is the rationale of setting them to music? Do you consider them as mantras or Sanskrit verses when you render them?
I agree that Vedic mantras sound good by themselves...and I believe they are the most powerful when chanted in the traditional way. However, I’m not sure that people who are unfamiliar with their traditional context or culture would be able to appreciate them in the way that we can. My aim is to frame the traditional essence in a way that people who are less familiar can listen and appreciate it.
For my CD Shakti Sūtra, I worked with a New Age record label called New Earth Records based in Colorado. They approached me after hearing my concert and were interested in releasing a mantra music CD with me. In the West, setting Sanskrit mantra, verses and devotional bhajans to music is done mostly by artistes who are non-Indian (Deva Premal, Krishna Das, etc), and where the content is mostly cut off from its traditional context. The idea was to create a mantra and bhajan album aimed for a Western market that could serve as a bridge between cultures. I wanted to make a record that retained the essence of tradition, but framed in a way that new audiences, especially the emerging “yoga market”, could relate to. This vision is how Shakti Sūtra was born.
How do you incorporate the Blues and Jazz elements into your music?
From a young age, I was fortunate to have had extensive training in the idioms of jazz alongside Indian music. When I sit down to write original music or work on a new arrangement of traditional Indian material, it’s mostly a very organic process for me to incorporate these elements into my music. It happens most of the time naturally and spontaneously. I also collaborate with other musicians who further add, extend or refine these elements.
Do Jazz and Blues artistes do this kind of crossovers too?
Yes, absolutely. There is a long history of jazz and blues musicians being influenced by or crossing over into Indian music (John McLaughlin, Alice Coltrane, Jon Hassell, Miles Davis, etc). I play in a very unique crossover project called “Burnt Hibiscus” lead by composer and fellow CalArts alum Jon Armstrong. This project features me singing and playing bansuri and harp, with a 10-piece chamber jazz ensemble. The compositions, while being somewhat rooted in the idioms of jazz, are influenced by Indian classical music. In order to establish unique tonal palates for his compositions, the composer drew upon his learning from a Hindustani vocal class at CalArts and, assisted by me, researched and derived inspiration from seven Hindustani thāts (parent rāgas), one for each piece. I certainly helped Armstrong, but he essentially wrote each piece by himself, inspired and informed by the thāts.
What are your roots of Indian music in the music that you do now?
My roots in Indian music are predominantly in Hindustani music. I have also been very influenced by the beauty and poetry of devotional bhajans, Sanskrit chanting and Indian folk songs, and these forms can be heard in my music. Alongside Indian music I was fortunate to also have extensive training in Western music and the idioms of jazz (jazz piano).
I sing and play the bansuri, harmonium, and the harp.
My earliest Indian musical training was with my parents, who emigrated from India to the U.S. in the early 70’s to pursue graduate education in the Sciences. Our home was always full of music. My mother is a Carnatic vocalist from Bangalore and my father, hailing from a Tamilian family settled in Mumbai, plays the mridangam. My mother taught me the first few years of Carnatic vocal training, as well as bhajans, shlokas, mantras and folk songs, and my father taught me about Indian rhythm. I went on to fall in love with Hindustani music and the bansuri and studied it throughout my teenage years with a local teacher in Boulder, Colorado (Chaitanya Kabir).
My bansuri studies deepened with Pt. G.S. Sachdev when I was in my early 20s, living in Northern California as a college student. He is an exponent of “Gayaki Ang” or vocal style of playing and he was a protege of Pt. Vijay Raghav Rao, and Pt. Ravi Shankar. I later did my Master of Fine Arts degree at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in World Music Performance with a concentration in North Indian music under the direction of Ut. Aashish Khan. While I was a student at CalArts, I developed a painful injury in my wrists -- and couldn’t play bansuri for more than 10 minutes without pain. While I was recovering, I turned my attention to the harp, which was given to me as a gift when I was a teenager. I began lessons with a professor of harp at CalArts (Susan Allen), who encouraged me to explore playing rāga music on the harp, to improvise and to compose, while also learning the technical aspects of the instrument. It was the beginning of my journey of exploring how one might play Indian music on the harp.
My vocal training in Hindustani music has been primarily with Sri Subhoashish Mukhopadyay (senior disciple of the late Pt. Manas Chakraborty) in Los Angeles, who has been my teacher for the past 4 years. Subhoashishji also helps to guide me in my development of playing Indian music on the harp.
You have mentioned in an earlier interview that music gave you an identity while growing up. How does Indian classical music help construct social and cultural identity?
Since I was a kid, I’ve been entranced by Indian - jazz crossover music, from the group Shakti to UK producer Nitin Sawhney to Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Sachidananda and many more. Exploring the common ground between cultures and music was a natural way of exploring who I am as an Indian American woman and artiste.
Young creative Indians growing up now in the U.S. have modern South Asian musicians like Vijay Iyer, Rez Abbasi, Karsh Kale and Anoushka Shankar that they can look up to, along with a relative abundance of representations of South Asians in the media like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. These representations were much harder to find when I was young, and so the feelings of being an “other” or an “outsider” as a child growing up in a predominantly white small town can feel isolating and painful. Through music, I’d like to believe that anything is possible. For me, it was a way to explore and celebrate my roots and understand where I came from. A way to be Indian and American at the same time.
Can you describe your experiences collaborating with your fellow musicians? How does one bring together different genres, interests and talents into one beautiful whole?
For me, the first step has been to learn how to listen, deeply.
My main collaborator is Clinton Patterson, a gifted songwriter, jazz trumpetor, guitarist and producer from Georgia with a penchant for both the soulful and the modernistic. Clinton and I met while attending graduate school at CalArts have been working together for 10 years now, and he’s produced both my albums. Even though we come from seemingly disparate musical traditions, when we sit down together with the intention to play music, listen, and write, the music we create becomes an expression of our friendship. Commonalities that connect us emerge organically -- the balance of light and darkness within our musical backgrounds, for example -- where the emotions and motiffs of blues music have a conversation with the bhāva and improvisation of rāga music. Through playing with Clinton, I’ve learned that it all begins with listening - deeply and often - to each other’s playing.
When I was an undergrad attending Mills College in Northern California, I played in a “free improvisation” ensemble comprised of a group of about 20 students of varying chamber instruments, from different traditions, cultures and skill level. I played bansuri in the group, there was also Chinese zither, electric guitar, violin, drumset, and many other instruments. Under the guidance of our professor, we would get together every week and improvise together without any prescribed idiomatic sound and very little pre-compositional rules. There was no common tradition, grammar, and no right or wrong. Like gems among sessions of what can only be described as noise, we somehow created breath-taking improvised musical pieces of rare beauty.
How did we come together to create one beautiful whole?
I learned that playing music with others is a metaphor for human interaction. That those things that I appreciate in my friends are also the qualities that make a good collaborator or improvisor -- how to be a good listener, to be sensitive to your social surroundings, knowing when to step back and defer to another, when to be supportive, assertive, when to insist...tolerance, patience, openness.
Another skill that has helped me is the ability to “speak” music in two languages...Western and Indian music. When I play with someone who is only Western-trained, I know how to speak to them in a language they can understand...to talk about chords and modes and time signatures. Similarly, when there’s only Indian-trained musicians I know how to speak about laya and rāga and tāla, and to help translate between the two traditions, when it’s needed.
How do you integrate the different instruments that you play into your music. Do they lend themselves easily to the Indian elements or do you have to do a lot of adaptation?
I’ve been working the last several years on techniques and approaches to playing Indian music on the harp, something I call the “Hindustani Harp Project”. The harp I play spans 5 octaves, and is made of carbon-fiber, so it's lightweight enough to fly with and virtually non-destructible. Though it has 36 strings, my harp is short enough to play while seated Indian style. It's called a folk harp, and is Celtic in origin. I look forward to sharing the harp in India also!
On a basic level, I modify the Western tuning of the harp to match a given rāga that I’m working in. At that point, it resembles most closely the svarmandal, except the harp is much larger and more resonant. Typically in Western harp music, the left hand plays in the bass register and provides harmonic support, while the right hand plays melody. There’s no Indian instrument that works quite like this. My approach with the harp is to use my left hand to play a “bass line” that serves the purpose of outlining the cycle of tāla -- and at the same time provides harmonic support. This harmonic support could be purely shadja and panchama, as it would be on a tamboura, or it could be other notes that I pick from the rāga. Then, I use my right hand to improvise, play melodies or accompaniment. In order to create the effect of sliding between notes, I use my first two fingernails on my right hand, similar to how a santoor player uses hammers on the strings. I continue to watch santoor players for inspiration for techniques, as it’s the closest Indian instrument to the Western harp (and there’s no other Hindustani harpists to learn from).
The harp is one of the most ancient instruments across cultures, and versions of the harp can be found all over the world. In fact, the precursor of the veena is actually an ancient arched harp originating in India, which scholars believe made its way to Burma (the Burmese arched harp is called the Saung-Gauk, and is the national instrument of Burma).
The keyboard, mandolin, guitar, saxophone and other instruments have been incorporated quite widely into Indian music these days, and earlier adaptations of Western instruments into Indian music include the harmonium and violin. I would love to see the harp added to that list...an instrument that has origins within India itself and can be quite easily adapted.
Which are your favourite themes? How did you develop an interest in these themes?
Of all of the themes that weave through the Indian epics, mythology and song...what has captivated me the most are the diverse and extraordinary archetypes of the Divine Feminine ...from the beautiful and fierce slayer of the Buffalo-Demon (Mahishasura Mardini) whom no deity could defeat, to the serene and pristine Goddess Sharada who bestows creativity and knowledge, to Goddess Chamunda who beheads the twin demons Chanda and Munda. I became interested in these archetypal themes as I began to investigate not only the translations of the songs that I sing, but the rich, multi-layered, poetic symbolism in the texts, and their function to wake us up to the sacred embedded in the mundane. I have also been deeply inspired by the saint Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma, and her bhajans of devotion. She has insipred me in my music and in my journey and discovery of the Divine Feminine principle.
(More details are available at www.SheelaBringi.com)