When I first heard the raga jazz pieces on Charu Suri’s album The Book of Ragas, Volume I, I was immediately fascinated by her music. The combination of the jazz combo accompanying a vocalist singing Sufi music freely, flying over musical structures created by western instruments, struck me as very original and beautiful.
A little while later, I discussed that album in an article I wrote commenting about the encounters between jazz and Indian music. Read the English version here.
Before she published her second album in August, Suri sent me the tracks to listen to. As with her first album, I was captivated by the work but it raised a few questions in my mind. Interviews with her to which I had listened treated her music and her journey into raga jazz in a very basic way. As a fan of jazz and Indian classical music, I decided to speak to her myself and ask her about the things that I felt were missing in other interviews.
Charu Suri, who now lives in the New York area, was born in Madurai. She began to study music from the age of seven. She learned to play the veena and the piano, specialising first in Western classical music and later in jazz.
She first ventured into raga jazz with The Book of Ragas, Volume I in 2019. Her new album, The Book of Ragas Volume II, was nominated for the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in the World Music category. It was also included in the list of notable albums published in August by the Jazz at Lincoln Centre.
Suri has performed in such illustrious venues as Carnegie Hall in New York and participated in several jazz festivals, including the online South Coast Jazz Festival.
This is not just an interview. This is a passionate conversation, slightly edited, about some key aspects of Charu Suri’s music and the various traditions from which she draws inspiration.
Raquel Rodriguez: I have been reading about raga-based music to prepare this interview and it’s clear that that the raga is a very complex musical concept…
Charu Suri: Yes, it is. For many people. Even me, I am learning every day new aspects of the raga and appreciating how deep that sublayer of music is. And I am taking Hindustani vocal lessons myself.
You are from South India, right?
Yes, I was born in Madurai and grew up in Madras, so the music tradition I grew up with, apart from western classical music, is Carnatic music.
And the music you are doing now is based on the traditions from Northern India and Pakistan.
Yes, Hindustani music. I am learning with a guru. She’s amazing. She lives in Canada right now and she is teaching me Hindustani ragas and Hindustani style of singing.
How long have you been composing and performing music in general?
I started at the age of seven, my entire life. But jazz is relatively new. I was doing classical music. Themes and variations. One could say variations more than jazz. Jazz is a niche, and only for the last three years.
When you say classical, you mean western classical, right?
Yes, definitely not Indian classical. I have composed symphonies, piano works… At college I composed chamber music and for big orchestra.
But I read in a previous interview that you played the veena.
I did, I used to. I learned it from my grandmother. But the veena is a little bit hard to play now.
What made you then venture into composing and arranging music that connects you back with South Asia?
I felt that there was a disconnect with some of the music that I was writing. I didn’t feel that it was my true self because jazz has always been a quest for identity. No matter who is writing jazz, it has always been a quest for self-expression and identity. The idea that I was creating jazz to conform to a western sound and a western ideal wasn’t enough for me.
I obviously have heard and played the Songbook [as classic jazz songs as known]. It’s not that I can’t do it. Certainly, the western ideal of jazz is something I have done for several years now, and I also composed in that [style]. But a part of me longed to show the world something new that only I and my journey could provide.
That uniqueness of contributing to the jazz repertoire was what moved me to do the vocal ragas. Because I always asked myself, “What is my contribution to this genre?” And so, it was not enough for me to follow and extend what already had been done. I wanted to change the game a little bit.
But then, instead of choosing Carnatic music, you have chosen ghazals and Sufi music.
Yes, I have chosen Sufi music. This came about when I met Apoorva Mudgal at a gig and she introduced me to Sufi music. We jammed and I loved the combination. It was just stunning. I had never thought that I could celebrate different improvisation traditions under one roof. But this was possible – to unite Islamic Sufi music, Indian Carnatic and Western jazz in one framework because we all come from cultures of improvisation. That’s how this all started.
It was ambitious, it was multi-layered, it involved a lot of participants, but I think we created something that is different and new and moving. Every single time I play my work, every jazz musician there has said, “I have never heard anything like this”.
I agree. I said the same in the first article I wrote about jazz with roots in South Asia.
And for me that’s the greatest compliment, I could ever have. Because you know, you don’t want to be like anyone else. That is the whole idea. When you hear Norah Jones, it is Norah Jones, when you hear Duke Ellington, it is Duke Ellington. When you hear Billie Holiday, it is Billie Holiday. What makes you be you?
That has always been, I think, a composer’s dream. When I hear a Mahler symphony, I can tell you right now, there’s no other composer that can write like Mahler. You cannot mistake it.
When I was a child, I wanted to compose like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, but my piano teacher said, “We don’t want you to compose like Tchaikovsky, we want you to compose like yourself.” And I used to laugh at what she said because when I was very young I just said, “Come on! I want to compose just like Beethoven!” And then she said, “But you are not Beethoven” and I would get very angry when she said that.
And now you sound like yourself.
Yes, it’s been a wonderful and rich and rewarding journey and having met so many people around me who have that. I am blown away by the response to the ragas. I never thought in a million years that I would have this much love and reception from musicians for these particular jazz albums, both Volume I and II.
It’s been referenced by very prominent musicians again and again as something that they listen to and they take inspiration from, which is beyond my dreams. It had never entered my mind that this was possible. But what ended up happening is this.
And I have always admired the tradition of Bill Evans, the small chamber jazz, the trio work. What changed was simply the modal scale and the modal structure. You have very accurately asked me, “You introduced harmony in this. Is this normal?” No, it is not.
If you go to a traditional Carnatic or Hindustani music concert, it’s not normal to find harmony when you are having the modal scale. That is purely that western idiom driving the harmonic chords that are coming up because I can’t imagine composing anything in jazz without chords. The chords are the drivers of everything in jazz.
But the modal elements are the scales. So, if you combine both, it is something absolutely new. I mean, people should be asking these questions. “Can you do this?” There is no rule that says that you can’t do it in jazz. The question is, “Who is willing to do it in a meaningful way?”
There are some composers who are doing it brilliantly, I think. But I think that particular territory is still relatively unexplored. So, it’s been great to tap into it. I’m just beginning, I’m just scratching the surface, in my opinion. There are so many ragas and so many of them have their own peculiar characteristics.
And then to find the ghazals that fit into improvising. That’s all from my Sufi singer, Falsa, who has done an amazing job I think, with this second album. So much of it is just… He listens, I listen, he listens back… And so much of that was just listening to each other before we got the direction.
The third track, Sankarabaranam, for example, is the closest raga to the Ionian scale or the western major scale. Sankarabaranam is in a major scale. One of my listeners said, “I am just blown away that there is actually a major scale in the Indian raga cycle” and I said “There actually is and this is the raga, you know?” That had Sufi singing and I finally stripped it out and made it the only instrumental track, which turned out to be really refreshing. Many people say it is their favourite track, which is interesting to me.
And you also have done a piece based on the raga Bhairavi, which, when I listen to it, it feels it has some common ground with the modal scales and cadences used in flamenco.
Bhairavi is actually similar to the Aeolian scale, probably also used in flamenco, but I don’t know. But, I feel like this is the thing: modal scales have so many folk-like elements to them. There are ragas that have Middle Eastern folk-like elements, some have the Spanish folk like elements, what shows that the ragas are universal in their appeal.
Like Raga Hemant for example, which is from the first Book of Ragas…I get so many e-mails saying how pleasant Raga Hemant is. The astonishing thing is that so many of these ragas were created independently in their own little universe, that, when everything else is happening, like the western music development or Middle Eastern folk music development, they were unaware that this existed at the same time. So, the most interesting thing is that you can find parallels to global cultures in so many of these ragas.
But the idea of harmony and chords is not always found in every single culture. That existed in Europe and obviously in America but not necessarily in some other cultures. And so, when I first listened to jazz, the knocking question in my mind was, “What about other sounds in jazz? Where are they?” And I plunged myself in trying to find them and not all of them were that good.
Some of them were trying to be fusion, a little bit from here, a little bit from there, not necessarily good. And then I thought, “How can you make a song as beautiful as Carlos Jobim songs from Brazil but yet use the ragas?” That was my quest, to write as beautiful, lyrical and poetic, and yet still have that universal appeal.
That was the challenge, but I have to say I didn’t think about all these parameters when I started writing, because sometimes I just write, but this was somehow at the back of my mind, and I boiled away by the response, because I wasn’t expecting to reach such a vast audience. I was expecting to reach a very niche audience, but instead most of my listeners are from the mainstream jazz and pop and sometimes World Music circles who are absolutely fascinated by this new sound, and that fact gives me great hope that this will be a good way for other composers to also step up. Everyone has something to offer, everyone comes from a different tradition of music.
In your approach (western instrumentation and a Sufi singer), what is from the raga tradition apart from the music scale?
Definitely the rhythms that I use – the tala, the beats. And I am scratching the surface, but the basics, as for example Rupaka Talam became the basis for Raga Hemant in Book One. It became 7/8 metre and it comes from a very traditional commonly used tala called Rupaka Talam in Carnatic music, which is a seven-beat phrase.
So, there is a Carnatic component there too.
For sure! No question. Because I learned Carnatic music, yes, yes. I use the Rupaka Talam, the South Indian system. For example, the whole of Raga Hemant, even though it is a Hindustani raga, it has a Carnatic tala.
What comes first? The vocal part or the jazz combo framework?
Always the framework, the instrumental compositions. That is the framework that I give the singer and then we work with ghazals over it. Because I almost always play the improvisational parts over and over again, then I record it and send it to my players, because that is the backbone, that is the structure. And it seems to work.
I don’t have an answer for you on why, but it truly worked in Book One and Book Two, so I have decided to stick to that. This is not to say that the other way couldn’t work. The other way could work, but my singer is much more comfortable having the scale, the raga.
And how easy is this approach for the singer?
Well, this the challenging part. Typically, Sufi singing is a lot more improvised and laid back and both my Sufi singers have said that it has been challenging for them to be a bit more rigid with jazz and I can understand that jazz has a pretty rigid framework sometimes, with the chords and the forms and obviously everybody has to be on the same page with the chords and the forms, so that we can keep improvising with the chords and the forms. They felt it was tougher to count to certain number of beats.
But is there a basic melody that you start with? Or are you also creating the melodies for the vocal parts?
I sometimes do, but sometimes it comes from Umer, the singer. It is a combination. And then we decide whether that melody can be used by the vibraphone and that’s all my direction with the whole group. In so many ways this is such a collaborative effort, more than people realise. For each one of us with the trio, especially in Book Two, there’s no way to hide. So there were many sessions where I just had the vibraphone and me playing, we were going back and forth, back and forth, “Ok, this is the melody line”… “you do the melody line” “you have to do more improvisation” “so let’s mimic me” “Let’s not make it mimic me…”
We tried every single way possible. And it was a long process, longer than people realise. And before I finally got that right combination with elements of surprise, yet consistent, yet having that characteristic that only the individual player can bring, that uniqueness. It took a long trail and a good example of this is the piece Sankarabaranam, which wasn’t easy at all even though it was only piano and vibraphone because there were the middle parts that sounded too predictable. That scales, like no one wants to listen to just scales… And this is the amazing thing about composition, you listen to a scale in a Mozart composition, and it never really sounds like a scale, it’s like a journey to something else! And that is what we wanted it to be.
My next question is about lyrics. Which languages do you use? Are all of them in Urdu or some of them are in Persian too?
Yes, there is Persian, Punjabi, Urdu and the theme Aaj Rang Hai is in Hindi. Aaj Rang Hai has been translated into Hindi. It was (originally) written in Persian. The original lyrics were by Amir Khusro.
Do you speak Hindi?
I speak a little bit. Enough to understand, but my mother tongue is Tamil. One of theses days I will probably release a straight Carnatic version with lyrics in Tamil. I mean that’s what I say. This is an endless journey. I have so many different places I can go, because even in India the number of dialects, the number of folk styles, the number of traditions is musically mindblowing.
It is difficult to experiment and evolve without compromising the fixed rules within a tradition?
Yes, that is something that is really hard to do. And I don’t know how it would be if we were to follow that exactly. So we have taken some poetic and jazz licence with that. But a part of me wonders, if I want to compose following this strict raga rules, how would it sound?
And many people could say, yes I can identify the raga, which is great, but then there are some some serious classical singers who say, “You are not following this rule and that rule.” There are so many aspects of it that I still have to master and learn.
Raquel Rodriguez is a jazz blogger from Spain, currently based in Germany. She writes regularly in www.caravanjazz.es. She lived in India for five years, which is when she fell in love with Indian classical and folk music. Her Twitter handle is @rodriguezbemol