Arun Ghosh’s Odyssey

[Published in London Street-Art Design Issue 9, 2012]

Arun Ghosh is a British-Asian clarinettist, composer and music educator.  Conceived in Calcutta, bred in Bolton, matured in Manchester and now living in London, Arun Ghosh’s musical vision and vocabulary reflect his rich geographical heritage.

Ghosh released his debut album “Northern Namaste” in 2008, and his second album, “Primal Odyssey” in Autumn 2011, both on camoci records. Both albums have received widespread critical acclaim and extensive airplay, and are prime contemporary examples of the IndoJazz genre.  The first Arun Ghosh IndoJazz Sextet performance took place at the London Jazz Festival in 2007 and Ghosh has since lit up the British jazz scene with numerous intense and cathartic performances at clubs, festivals and melas in London and around Britain. Internationally, Ghosh has performed at festivals and venues in France, Germany, Austria, India, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2008, Ghosh was selected for Edition IV of the Jerwood/PRS Foundation ‘Take Five’ initiative for emerging jazz musicians produced by Serious and in 2009, he was invited to perform at the jazzahead! Festival in Bremen, Germany as part of the UK showcase presented by Jazz Services.  In 2010, he was made an Associate Artist at The Albany Theatre, London ˆ a position still held and in April 2011, Ghosh was made an Artist-in-Residence for the Southbank’s Alchemy Festival. September 2011 saw Ghosh feature as the cover star for Jazzwise magazine, the UK’s biggest selling jazz magazine and the end of the year saw Ghosh become an official Rico UK Artist.  Ghosh is one of the BT Celebrity Storytellers for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and will also appear as a featured artist for the BT River of Music events as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Arun Ghosh’s music embodies a seamless syncretism of blues and beats indigenous to North Indian rāgas.  Ghosh takes this fusion and adds to it a splash of urban funk, postmodern punk, and the contemporary groove of rock ‘n roll set amidst a precipitation of dub bass and his rāg explorations. Together this confluence of various musical forms creates a sub-genre reminiscent of Coletrane’s harmonically static style which allows for rhythmic and melodic improvisation.  Arun Ghosh’s second album, Primal Odyssey, was released in October 2011 on camoci records and represents his exploration of the sound of the classical jazz ensemble with his Horn E Bass Quintet. 

Recently I met up with Arun Ghosh in a coffee shop around the corner from the BBC Broadcasting House where he had just come from a live interview with Cerys Mathews.  Arun generously shared his time to participate in a second interview that morning with me. 

Vigo:  Arun, thank you for meeting with me this morning.  Could you begin by talking a bit about your background and introduction to music?

Ghosh:  I grew up in the north of England in a town called Bolton. It’s a small town near Manchester.  My dad is from West Bengal and my mum is Sindhi, from Sindh, which later became a part of Pakistan. And I grew up in Britain. There was no real music in the family but I was always encouraged to play.  I started from a young age playing music in school—the recorder and the violin and instruments like that.  I knew right away that music was the real driving force in my life and from that time and I just carried on playing and making up my own tunes.  I started playing the clarinet when I was twelve or thirteen.   That was partly because I was told it was a good instrument for jazz.  By that point I was into jazz.  I was listening to Courtney Pine playing on the television at the Free Nelson Mandela concert and I was really taken with it. I realised that the music I liked had that kind of sound—that sort of jazz thing.  I started making up my own music and improvising a little bit, not really working too hard on it.  I was still playing classical music really and I thought of myself as…well, I was learning from the instrument in this way.  In the meantime I was growing up and listening to all sorts of music, all the music you are exposed to in Britain—Indie music, hip-hop, rock, all sorts of things, but I was still always into jazz.  And as I got older and started performing more jazz, I realised that I was looking for new forms of improvisation and went back into Indian music. I had listened to Indian music when I was growing up, taken by my family to concerts and there was always Indian music being played at home.  It really just resonated with me again.  Once I started  playing it and working with tabla players,  getting more involved in Indian music and listening to it more and thinking about it more, I realised that it was something that was really inside me and it started to affect how I was playing, what I was choosing to write, how I was thinking about music, and so on.

Photo by Sam Ellis.

Vigo:  Bengal is one of the major artistic centres of India for poetry, music and the sciences.  I wonder if you were particularly influenced by Bengali music and culture.

Ghosh:  I have been exposed to the music of Tagore and specifically Ali Akbar Khan.  Also Ravi Shankar has this close Bengali heritage as well. I know exactly what you are saying about the kind of love of poetry, art and music and it was always present in my life.  When I was growing up I was introduced to Rabindra Sangeet by family and friends to the extent that the songs became very important to me.  I couldn’t understand most of it because it was a quite high Bengali language but I always loved the inflections. So when I play Tagore songs I am playing them word for word as such.  I have a recording on my first album of  O Aamar Desher Mati where Tagore is singing about his homeland, his beloved Bengal and that is something I really wanted to capture.

Vigo:  We have similar upbringings I see. My father is Gujarati and I was raised with North Indian music but more so we had Gandhi and, well, you can’t compete with that…[laughing]

Ghosh:  Well, we had Subhas Chandra Bose, the real radical…

Vigo: I wish we had more Gujarati musician references growing up because whenever we misbehaved in school or at home, my father would have us read Martin Luther King and Gandhi [Arun laughs] and the next two weeks at the dining table conversations revolved around our social consciousness readings. What impressed me growing up was, being a child of a Gujarati father while being raised in New Orleans, we were exposed to all sorts of music and my father strictly enforced Indian music on Saturdays in the house.  My siblings and I hated it because we just heard noise as our ears were untrained and unaccustomed to these sounds.  What I really love about your music is that its syncretism maintains a balance that is not about “equal” but rather it maintains a syncretism that is balanced in the sense of taking from various traditions and creating a new and unique style and form of sound.

Ghosh: I never tried to emulate a particular style.  So once I started to record my own music I realised what it was that I wanted to do.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sound like a traditional Indian musician—I hadn’t grow up there, I wasn’t playing that instrument, I didn’t have the training, and so on.  What I took on was more of a sense of it, a sense of where the rāgs were from, where the melodies were from, where the rhythms were from.  And it just touched me—I think it has helped in that I didn’t have the training because I didn’t need to try to sound a particular way.  I heard a rhythm, a dhin dha or a dadra, a dip chandi rhythm, or I heard rāg malkos or vairagi and they just made sense to me.  I basically taught myself and I shaped my understanding of music inside rather than being told what it was.  I think that is why my music has its own sound.  At the same time, once it started coming into my jazz sound it was important to me that it wasn’t just a kind of Indian/Eastern styles melodies over a groove.  It was important that the drums played closely with the taal that we were in, and that the harmony, the baseline, the chords, everything all came from the rāg.  So I wasn’t mixing and matching—I had to say to the musicians, “Don’t play that note that’s not in this scale.”  So I was close enough to the music for that to be important but also detached enough from it to not mind about certain idiosyncrasies that developed because of who I was.  I think in that first album it was more important to have that Indian sound—we used tabla throughout and all the tunes were driven by the tabla.  I recorded the tabla first and then played the clarinet and then did the drums and so on because I wanted it all to be based on it so that the base patterns fitted with the groove of the tabla.  Through doing this and doing very much a studio album on Northern Namaste because I was working in the studio with Pro Tools and so on, I was able to shape it exactly how I wanted and because of this I got to work out exactly how I wanted my grooves to be.

Vigo: You produced it then?

Ghosh:  With the engineer, I was working with Will Worsley.  But we were working very closely together chopping up the loops and so on.  When it came to recording the second album by then I had a live working band and I knew how I wanted things to be.  In that time I had started to take the tabla away because I felt that I wanted the drums and the bass to open up much more rhythmically while staying true enough and strong enough to the original tabla patterns that had given birth to them.  And this then coincided with a move that we made to add an extra horn in the mix.  So before it was clarinet and saxophone, we added bass clarinet as well giving us this three horn front line. This was very much modelled on Bismillah Khan’s ensembles where he had two shehnais accompanying him as well as dolakh and tabla. I love the sound of those wind instruments playing together—playing the melody in unison or playing strongly rooted harmonies or just playing a drone underneath as we improvised and so on.  It led to this quite free-flowing improvisational way of arranging a piece. It was very spontaneous and there was just something for me in those two extra wind instruments that really gave a solidity to the sound.  Since then there that has been the sound that I have wanted to make.  So that is the sound of the new album, Primal Odyssey—the clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, double bass and drums.

Vigo: The group with whom you were playing at Foyles Bookstore during the London Jazz Festival last Fall, are they your regular ensemble?

Ghosh:  Well it’s slightly different because we didn’t have the bass clarinet that day so we used the alto sax instead.  I sort of have a regular circle of musicians who drop in and out when certain people can’t do things.  What is good about that is that it helps keep the sound fresh, always bringing new kinds of ways of looking at a tune.  Also if you haven’t rehearsed something but everybody knows how it is supposed to sound this means that the music can sound quite spontaneous.   So when we were playing that afternoon whilst everybody knew the tunes, it was clear that it could go anywhere and there was no set way of playing it.  That is quite important to me and it is very much the Indian aesthetic as well.

Vigo:  It is also part of the jazz tradition, especially present in the music musicians like of Billie Holiday.  I have listened to hundreds of her recordings and no two recordings of the same song are alike.  Also similar is Om Kalthoum’s repertoire as she reinvents song in each new performance.  Your performances recall this kind of temporality, this modality of being in the moment.  Even the way you move speaks to this kind of investment in the here and now which I much admire.
Ghosh: Performance is really important to me in terms of what I get out of myself and what I want to give.

Photo by Sam Ellis.

Vigo:  Immediately after the concert you gave at Foyles Bookstore, I literally ran across the river to catch Archie Shepp in concert at the Southbank Centre.  During that show’s intermission I was talking about your concert earlier that evening with two audience members who told me that you are active in community work and education.  Tell me about your work with children and adolescents here in London.

Ghosh:  I do lots and lots of different things.  Currently I am doing work with a big band at a school in East London—we are developing music and we are doing my music. That’s kind of interesting. I do a lot with young people who have never played music.  I am also introducing the young people to Indian music and making beats and so on.  When I am working with young people it is very “hands on” and we just play music really.  I have a way of getting through to young people because a lot of my music is quite easy in some ways—it is built on simple melodies or simple rhythms or looping base lines or looped drum patterns. So it works very well to have that headspace to work with young people because I am quite open-minded.  I think the great thing about produced and electronic music is that you can make it very easily.  Young people kind of have a great mastery of technology instinctively even if they have never used it before.  And they are also kind of experimental in terms of what they are prepared to play.  So they’ll listen to a crazy loop they’ve made, at times by accident, and they will really dig it.

Vigo:  What do you think about the place of music education today with the arts programs being cut and children having increasing difficulty in accessing music or any of the arts?

Ghosh:  Well, I think that music as we all know is an amazing thing to grow up with.  The more people who can be exposed to making it the better because it is such a great thing to be dedicated to but also because it changes the way you think about the music you hear and life in general.  I think people should be exposed to how music is created and what it is even if they don’t necessarily want to play it because I think that this kind of understanding is very important. What is difficult about the workshops I do is that I have young people that I would like to work further with but we only have one day, a week or even a one-session or two for a project.  So you don’t get the chance to develop something fully partly because you have to do something quickly and so you do something quite simply so you don’t necessarily explain.   I’ll say to them, “Use this combination of notes to make the base line and I won’t necessarily have the chance to tell them that this comes from the pentatonic scale that is a very strong combination of notes.  I just think that music education as it stands in this country hasn’t worked so well across the board because it’s been focused on people learning instrumentally (which is fine obviously) but they are learning to play just for music. That is to say they are learning in the Western tradition and you need a lot of people quite skilled in their instruments not being able to improvise or make up their own music.  Equally I think that kind of approach to playing music doesn’t turn a lot of people on and a lot of people would much rather be making electronic music.

What I would really like is for every young person in this country to be entitled to an hour’s worth of tuition—or at least half an hour—per week.  One on one is really important—there is only so much you can do in a big group. The problem with groups is that certain people always shout louder and are more keen and you don’t want to stifle that, but equally you are very aware that there are people who are too shy to say anything.  I think one on one is important even if it is shorter than half an hour.  If they want to play the cello, they should get to play the cello; if they are interested in playing the electric guitar or in singing or producing music or so on, and somehow they should be given that starting point so that they can work on their art.  What they do in Venezuela is amazing, for example. And the whole point of that is that people have got instruments to play and that is done across the board.  They are just dedicated to music education and here in the UK it is still quite elitist.  I know the previous Labour government did have a dream of universal music education for everyone but it started being cut.  In theory every child was entitled to free music tuition and it was never realised.  The workshops I do tend not to be like that—they involve working with a group in a school or a community centre, or also in the context of drama.  So I’ll be working with a youth theatre group where a couple of them will work on the music with me.

Vigo: How do you place British jazz, in the world today amidst other jazz traditions in the world from South Africa to Italy to Brazil, for instance?

Ghosh:  The amazing thing about jazz is that it is a global music from its starting point through the links between Africa, America and Europe and how this music combines politics and culture in order to create and to be what jazz wants.  Because of that it is such a universal music as it spread across the world people have made it their own.  So when you hear vulcan bands appropriating jazz harmonies and so on—you hear it in Klezmer music, you hear it in Italian and French music, we are hearing it in Indian music. It is just a headspace really with people taking their style of melodies and their style of rhythms and using it in a jazz context.

Vigo:  Would you say that jazz is one of those genres of music that is syncretic par excellence in the sense that it is one of the major music styles that has been fluidly appropriated within various culturally specific musical traditions?

Ghosh:  Yes, I would say so.  And I think also because in the history of the world jazz is a relatively new music, in that sense as it is.  I think jazz is always of the “now”.  I would say the same about reggae and I would say the same about hip hop and rock ‘n roll in terms of music developed in the last century.

Vigo:  So will we be seeing a rock ‘n roll album from you any time soon?

Ghosh:  I think my music is rock ‘n roll.  I think Primal Odyssey is very much a rock ’n roll album in terms of its drive and its influence and what it is doing. It is a mentality isn’t it really. Just as jazz is and in some ways, just as Indian music is.  It doesn’t have to be of the traditional instrumentation—it’s the spirit of it, isn’t it.

Links to Arun Ghosh: