I Would Recommend Any Musician To Learn Indian Music, It Can Only Help Them Grow: Jake Charkey

I Would Recommend Any Musician To Learn Indian Music, It Can Only Help Them Grow: Jake Charkey

Jake Charkey started playing the Violin when he was six years old, and a year later, switched to the Cello. Having been brought up in a home filled with music, Jake’s earliest memories are of his father playing the lute. He stayed focused on the western classical music tradition and even graduated from music conservatory with a training that prepared him to win a job in an orchestra or join a string quartet.

But, by the time he completed the conservatory education, he sensed that he was going to take a different route. Jake was exposed to Indian music while he was growing up. He had the fortune of attending live concerts of masters like Ali Akbar Khan. He was hooked and knew right at that moment that he would someday learn this genre of music.

In this interview with CSP, he takes us through his journey with Hindustani classical music.

How and when did your formal education in Hindustani music begin?

When I was twenty-five years old, I found a teacher and began my studies in Indian classical music. I was very fortunate that my first studies were with Smt Aruna Kalle (Narayan), daughter of Sarangi virtuoso Shri Ram Narayan.  She was the one who insisted I learn Hindustani music on the cello rather than learn Sarangi.  She recognized the potential the cello had to render Hindustani music and also felt it unnecessary to start learning a new instrument since I had already achieved a good level on the cello.

Let me tell you about an interesting connection: her father had met the great cellist Pablo Casals in Switzerland and, in admiration of Pt. Ram Narayan’s prowess, Casals gifted him a complete set of his recordings of the Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach.  Aruna ji had grown up listening to these recordings, as had I, but also my teacher’s teacher was none other than Pablo Casals himself.  We are all closer than we think to each other!

Anyways, circumstances led me to move from Toronto to Los Angeles, where a friend of mine was studying under a great Hindustani violinist named Jagannathan (Jagan) Ramamurthy.  He was a disciple of Dr. N. Rajam.  I soon began learning from him after I moved to California, and then not long after that I was accepted into the MFA program in Hindustani music at CalArts. I was also learning from Swapan Chaudhury and Aashish Khan while continuing to study intensively with Jagan ji.  I was not exclusively playing Indian music at this time.  My musical interest was broad and I was continuing to play Western classical music, but also free jazz, hip-hop, reggae, and pretty much anything else anyone asked me to play.  Indian music was my main focus though.

After CalArts I moved to Montreal and continued playing Indian music with musicians there.  After two years in Montreal I won a fellowship from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute to learn under Dr. N. Rajam in Mumbai.  The fellowship was meant to last for one year, but it was extended to two years. As I began to get more and more work as a session musician for Bollywood, I ended up staying for a total of six years.  I moved back to the USA in 2016, and have been living in Brooklyn, where I perform Indian music, continue to do some session work from this side, and also play other kinds of music when the opportunity arises.

How different was the learning experience under an Indian Guru? Can you tell us an interesting moment you had with them?

Learning under an Indian Guru has many similarities with learning under a teacher in the Western classical tradition.  However, some aspects of Indian music as an oral tradition/transmission make the learning experience quite different.  A few memories:

I recall an early morning lesson with Jagan-ji  in which we were deeply exploring an alaap; he was playing phrases one at a time as I repeated them.  There was no talking and the atmosphere was one of deep concentration, perhaps even trance-like.  At a certain point I had a great deal of difficulty rendering the phrase he had just played and I broke the trance by laughing nervously at myself.  He instantly ended the lesson, saying “you are too fixated on outcomes, we will continue tomorrow”.  I remember being shocked, but once I got over it, I realized what a valuable lesson I had been given.

Dr Rajam (Ammaji) was much the same.  She hated to speak unnecessarily, especially in a teaching context.  I would arrive at her home and she would open the door and without saying a word, gesture towards the music room, where I would get set up.  She would not speak, but rather indicate that I should begin playing whatever we had been working on last.  Sometimes, a whole two hours could go by with barely a word exchanged, just demonstrations on the violin or her singing to indicate to me what path I should take in a given raga.

Ammaji has been more than a teacher of music to me.  She has been like a mother to me, a role model, not only in music, but in humanity.  I spent many hours and days outside of lessons with her, traveling on trains around India for her concert tours, sleeping on the floor in hotel rooms, running errands with her and for her, helping her backstage, learning how to cook from her.  The music I have learned from her has been deepened by all of these experiences.  To me this is what Guru-Shishya Parampara is about, the cultivation of music through a holistic, familial relationship between the student and teacher.

When you began your journey with Hindustani music, what was the scenario like in Canada with respect to Indian music? How popular was it and how much has changed since then?

Over here in the West, there is a great deal of work to do in the dissemination of Indian music.  It exists, obviously among communities of Desi people living in N. America, and in pockets out in California where Khansaheb set up his school, and the first wave of Indian musicians came to the US back in the 60’s and 70’s.  That first early exposure was great, but in some ways has limited potential for a broader or deeper appreciation of Indian music by people who don’t come from a Desi background.  For many people, there is still a strong association with hippies and psychedelia.

Only recently are we starting to see more of Indian music show up in music education, a trend that I would hope to see more of.  Ultimately it would be great to see this music appreciated in more than just a superficial way, and also to see a more educated audience generally; and to see musicians across disciplines learn from each other more deeply.

In my own concerts I have been gratified to find that even audiences that have never heard Hindustani music before are often very happy to listen to a 45 minute raga exposition.  It is my hope to begin to cultivate these audiences to understand more about what is going on in this music.

You play Hindustani music on the cello. Have you learnt an Indian instrument? If not, would you like to and what would your pick be?

As I mentioned, I have very intentionally NOT learned an Indian instrument.  If I could play one it would probably be Sarangi.  As someone who is learning this genre of music, it would be helpful to me to study Tabla and vocal music more deeply as well.  I’d love to be able to sing Hindustani music well.

Have you collaborated with western music and musicians? How was the experience and what were the challenges you faced (if any)?

I have done a great deal of collaboration with western music and musicians, both here and in India.  I would describe much of the Bollywood/commercial music I played in India as collaboration with Western music.  There are many challenges:  Hindustani music does not use harmony, whereas that is one of the main tools of western music.  It is very difficult and sometimes, perhaps, impossible to introduce harmony to raga without destroying the raga.  The great danger of fusion/collaborative music between two or more different traditions is that the music gets watered down, and sort of patched together, weakening the essence of what makes each music beautiful on its own.  Sometimes it is better to let the two things stand on their own, next to each other.

Other times it can work to throw the rules out the window and create freely, drawing from whatever is useful from either tradition.  There is no right way, but it is definitely a treacherous path, full of pitfalls.  The results can be extraordinarily wonderful, or completely abysmal.

Some of the challenges that exist between musicians in this type of experiment are that most Indian musicians cannot read music, and most western musicians have trouble understanding or being sensitive to the movements of a raga and can get in its way, Tabla players have a very different time sense than western percussionists or drummers, often pushing forward when others would hold back.  Western classical musicians have an elastic sense of time which interferes with playing in taal…and so on.  It is challenging.

Which among the many collaborations have you enjoyed the most? Can you tell us about it? 

Probably the most enjoyable collaboration has been with my own father, who wrote a concerto for me to play with orchestra.  In this piece of music he left a big open space near the end where I was able to improvise, drawing from Indian techniques.  I didn’t play “pure” Hindustani in that space but rather used the language of Indian music to be in dialogue with the music my father had written.  The experience was deeply satisfying because it felt like a very organic integration of all of my musical experience to date, and even more so because I performed it in my hometown for an audience made up of friends, many of whom have known me since I first started playing music.

Can you tell us about your first performance in India?

I’m not sure it was my first performance there, but I recall performing in the village of my Guru Bhai.  I was overwhelmed by how educated the audience was. Many people in that village play or sing, but even those who did not seem very well-versed in raga, and followed the theka closely.  How wonderful it was to feel that engagement and of course the response (sometimes quite vocal) from the audience.

How has learning Hindustani music helped your music? Would you recommend other musicians to dabble in Indian music too?

I am sure that learning Hindustani music has helped me musically in ways that I may not even be aware of.  I can also say for sure that my time sense has improved tremendously, as has my pitch, my sense of lyricism/melody, phrasing, and my overall confidence as an improviser in any context.  Having a language of improvisation at my fingertips has been incredibly useful.  Of course, I would recommend any musician to learn Indian music, it can only help them grow.

Have you also learnt Carnatic music or would you like to?

I have not learned Carnatic music.  However, my Guru was brought up playing that music and our technique is derived from Carnatic violin technique.  As such my sound is inflected by Carnatic music, and people often mistakenly think I am playing Carnatic music.  I would love to learn this music someday, but I don’t know if I will have the time.  There is already too much for me to still learn in Hindustani music.

In your experience, how has music helped merge borders?

Certainly there is more exposure than we have ever had, thanks to the internet.  But where we have breadth, there seems to lack depth.  An awareness of other cultures is a great first step towards a sense of planet-hood.  But we must do more than just enjoy on a superficial level.  Music is a language and as such require effort and study and immersion to really understand it.  Music can play a great role in humanizing people who are unknown to us, though, and in presenting an opportunity to interact with one another on a level deeper than language.

Feature image courtesy: Sahil Mane Photography