Mother-and-son duo Asha Ramesh and Rohith Jayaraman’s five-track album Manam was born as a response to the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US and Jayaraj and Bennix in Tamil Nadu.
“My experience with racism juxtaposed against my immense caste privilege made me realise there is so much left to learn and unlearn,” said Jayaraman, who was born and raised in San Jose, California. “Manam feels like the first step in that journey.”
Added his mother Asha, who was born in India and studied music in Chennai, “I have been judged due to my skin colour on multiple occasions. This felt like the right time to talk about it.”
Asha and Jayaraman now live in San Jose. Ramesh established Ragamalika School of Music in San Jose in 1992 where she teaches Carnatic music. Jayaraman is a vocalist, composer, educator, and the Associate Director of Berklee India Exchange.
This year, the Berklee Indian Ensemble, in which he performs, has received its first Grammy Awards nomination for their album Shuruaat in the “Best Global Music Album” category.
Asha and Jayaraman spoke to Scroll.in about their new album Manam and what inspires them as musicians.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What is the inspiration behind Manam?
Asha Ramesh: I was deeply affected by George Floyd’s killing. I wrote a few lines expressing the pain that I was experiencing. I called Rohith and we talked about what I wrote. He really liked the lyrics and we wanted to explore more.
Rohith Jayaraman: I was really taken by what Amma had written. What really resonated with me was the fact that the words were not angry or aggressive, despite the pain that inspired them. They were full of hope, disappointment, affection, frustration, and love.
The songs were never really meant to be released but as we wrote more and more, we felt as though they all shared the same spirit. It sounds a bit esoteric but the album sort of brought itself together. And Amma came up with the name, which translates to “from the heart” in Tamizh.
AR: The songs were inspired by what we felt in our hearts. And the word, when spelled in English, is also a palindrome, which gave it a circular, cyclical feeling.
What was it like collaborating it as mother and son?
AR: This was my first time collaborating with Rohith on an original album. He would write lyrics in English and bring them to me. Together we tried to capture the meaning of the English words in Tamil. We learnt from each other.
RJ: We worked in two languages and songs went through a second layer of filtering. Everything extraneous was removed. We’d worked together on other live music projects or traditional music recordings, but nothing like this.
What encouraged you to submit Vidudhalai to the Grammy Awards as “Best Song for Social Change”?
RJ: I didn’t even know about this category until a follower messaged me about it on Instagram. She suggested that I submit Vidudhalai. We released Manam in June 2021, and the upcoming Grammy Awards are for releases in late 2021 and 2022, so I assumed we weren’t eligible. But, when she sent me the link, the site said that since this was the first year they were awarding this category, songs from 2016 onwards were eligible. We’re thrilled to be in the running.
What makes Vidudhalai such a special track to you?
RJ: Vidudhalai holds a special place in my heart. I still remember recording the song. I took breaks between verses because I was feeling so overwhelmed. And, of course, the process of arranging it with the brilliant Aleif Hamdan – who I met through the Berklee Indian Ensemble – was a grueling almost a year long process…but worth it.
Tell us about the album cover and the idea behind it.
RJ: I was introduced to Bhavya Kumar through a mutual friend. We were looking for something with a hand drawn feel – pencil sketches, line drawings – and Bhavya understood exactly what was needed. She is one of the most brilliant artists I have worked with. When we needed to create a lyric-video for Vidudhalai, we turned to Bhavya once again.
AR: Bhavya was respectful of our ideas and understood why we were making this album. She was able to translate the ideas to a visual medium so beautifully.
On your website, you have listed the films, books, comic performances that have inspired your music. How would you want your music to inspire other musicians and listeners?
RJ: We hope it inspires conversation and learning, or at least a catalyst for it. Sometimes it feels odd to think that our music can “inspire” in the same way that we were inspired by other art, but to your point, all art is inspired. And all art can inspire.
AR: If the language is simple and to the point, then music reaches a large audience. We just wanted to share our thoughts which were inspired by what’s happening around us and we are humbled that people are inspired.
What are you up to next?
AR: Aside from touring as a solo artist and singing for Bharatanatyam performances, I’m also working on new pieces with Rohith.
RJ: I will be touring with Berklee Indian Ensemble, working on a follow up to Hamsa, some experimental songs with Aleif.