Like any diaspora, South Asian musicians are adept at moving seamlessly between multiple cultures and inhabiting multiple identities at the same time. But the question of identity and of which label to fix to them is urgent only for the outsider. For them, they simply are who they are. Born of South Asian parents into a non-South Asian society, their loyalties as well as their muses are not static.
Rez Abbasi is a Pakistani-American jazz guitarist widely acknowledged as one of the best and brightest of his generation. Recently ranked the #1 Jazz Rising Star guitarist in the prestigious Down Beat Critics Poll, Abbasi’s guitar playing and compositions have been labelled “pure genius” by the authoritative on-line jazz magazine All About Jazz. In 2010, his album Natural Selection was given end-of-the-year kudos by NPR (America’s National Public Radio) for moving jazz forward. In over 20 years of performing, Abbasi has played with a galaxy of contemporary jazz greats and has led or been a key member of several groups such as the Indo-Pak Coalition, Invocation and RAAQ. He is married to the Indian-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, who is a well-known performer in her own right.
Here is an interview with Abassi.
Nate Rabe: You left Pakistan at the age of four and growing up you were surrounded by American music and cultural references. To what extent do you consider yourself to be a Pakistani?
Rez Abbasi: I do recognise my roots as Pakistani yet since my upbringing was American, I view myself much more as an American. Due to my pursuing music, South Asian culture has become more important in my life. For decades I've immersed myself in the culture because of the music.
NR: Are there other aspects of South Asian/Pakistani culture that you particularly love or identify with?
RA: The food for sure! But also I really enjoy the crossover kind of films from film makers and actors like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Om Puri, etc. I just saw the movie Bhag Milkha Bhag, which was amazing, other than some of the gratuitous dance scenes. Also writers such as Rushdie, Moshin Hamid and others.
NR: How does a Pakistani boy in Southern California grow up to be one of the jazz world’s most highly regarded guitarists? What sort of music did you listen to as a kid? Was it mostly Top 40? FM radio?
RA: My father wanted to become a professional vocalist but the pressure was too much. He sang and still sings mostly ghazals. My mother is a published poet and has high regard for art. So that's where I got it. Up to 16 years old, I had listened to rock and Top 40. I still do on occasion because music is either good or bad regardless of genre.
My brother took me to his friend’s house when I was 11 to watch a Led Zeppelin live concert video and that was an earth-shaking experience. I soon started playing and became interested in bands like Rush and Van Halen, to name the standouts.
NR: To what extent was Hindustani classical music listened to you in your home?
RA: It was mostly through Bollywood, as little as that was. When I was 18, we went to a house party and Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain were playing. What I viewed only five feet in front of me was not only eye opening but difficult to comprehend...in a good way!
NR: Does the idea of using Bollywood musical sensibilities in your music ever arise? An American jazz/Bollywood record?
RA: In my opinion, especially the newer Bollywood is not a style you can expand or manipulate. Bollywood uses a plethora of ideas from the West and usually it comes out as imitation. That's not to say there aren't great composers because there are! I think AR Rahman is exceptional because most of his work stands on its own, beyond the visual. I don't need to see the film when I hear his music. Shankar Eshaan Loy also writes some nice things. My point is that if someone were to use a theme from Bollywood, apply some jazz chords and jazz rhythm section to it, what would be the point when that theme only sounds Indian because it's sung by an Indian vocalist in Hindi or Urdu? Maybe old Bollywood would work better...
NR: You studied with Ustad Allah Rakha. Was that you choosing an outstanding and well-known guru, or him/others suggesting that you better pay your dues first? What was he like?
RA: My time with Ustad Allah Rakha was very brief and it was more of an introduction to tabla. I studied afterwards with one of his disciples but only for a year. I felt I needed to place more emphasis on guitar and compositions as opposed to a new instrument.
NR: Did studying the tabla help with your guitar playing?
RA: Not sure if that alone helped my guitar playing but it was an introduction to rhythmic structure which always helps with music. I used to improvise rhythms on the tabla with a metronome and that would open the door up as well.
NR: What made you choose the guitar? And jazz, not ‘rock ‘n roll’? Were there influences that led you away from percussion/tabla to the guitar? Was there anything in your South Asian background that cried out ‘jazz’ rather than ‘rock’ or ‘classical’?
RA: I started guitar because my uncle and brother encouraged me. When I discovered jazz at 16 years old, it was timely because I also had to make a decision as to what to do after high school. Because jazz was becoming a serious endeavor to study in college, as classical music had always been, I had a "reason" to move forward with music. I doubt I would've lasted as a rock musician and I didn't want to pursue that lifestyle or move in those circles. As far as western classical music, I did play classical guitar for a little over a year and studied orchestral scores from Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven and Bartok particularly. But pursuing a career in that music is not fulfilling to me as I'm an improviser by nature.
NR: You often record and play with other South Asian jazz musicians, like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahantappa. How did three South Asian-Americans become so accomplished in jazz and all at the same time? This seems to be an almost astrological coincidence! Exciting but quite unexpected.
RA: I'm five years older than those two, so it's not a perfect coincidence. But more of a coincidence is that we all share a liking towards similar types of music or artists in and out of jazz. We've listened to and investigated a number of same ideas even before we met. There are other South Asians that are in music and even jazz music that don't have our collective tastes. I think ultimately, living in New York also drives people together to collaborate.
NR: Would you say there is an affinity between jazz and Indian classical music, both of which rely on improvisation as the main means of interpretation, that makes jazz particularly attractive to South Asians such as you, Vijay and others? Who are some of the other South Asians working in jazz in the States?
RA: There is an affinity but there are quite a lot of differences. What Indian classical musicians go through is a lot different as far as study and performance than jazz musicians. Their limitations of having no harmony serves them melodically and rhythmically. We have to deal deeply on a harmonic level and that inevitably serves our way of improvising. If done with objectivity and sincerity, there can be value in bringing these genres together to create one sound. That's something I hope I've done well and will continue to do even better.
As far as other South Asians in jazz, there are a few: Sameer Gupta, Sunny Jain, Harish Raghavan, Ravish Momin, Sundar Vishwanathan, Sachal Vasandani, Prasanna, Rafiq Bhatia, Fareed Haque and I'm sure I left someone out...
NR: Edward Said, in Orientalism, said something to the effect that a Westerner could never truly understand what it meant to be Asian and therefore, he had no right to speak or pronounce about Asian society, culture or mind. Do you agree with that and is this in part one of the reasons you and Vijay and Rudresh work together so much...because there is an inherent reluctance to speak (play jazz) as an American? Or put it another way, do you feel that as a Pakistani-American you are compelled (either by market forces, industry forces, public expectation) to make jazz that is always tinged with Asian references to be taken seriously?
RA: Well, first off, we are all American. We have our roots in South Asia and from a Western perspective, I speak for myself, I've revisited the culture. Given we have parents that were brought up in South Asia, we were influenced first hand, it wasn't watered down. This, plus the fact we are married to Indian women influences our musical process. Music transcends any cultural barriers. If studied and taken seriously, anyone can grasp a worthy amount of musical attributes from any culture. So I don't agree with the statement of "no right to, etc.", but it is true that someone from a Western perspective wouldn't be able to fully understand what it feels like to be Asian. Maybe if they moved to Asia at an early age, as I did to America, the environment would become more internalised.
NR: Yeah, i don’t agree with the ‘no right to...’ logic either, being a white boy who happened to be born in India. But I’m wondering if you feel that the jazz music industry expects you to somehow mix your South Asian roots in with modern jazz? Or in other words, would you/could you be as successful if you never referred to your South Asian roots, only collaborated with non-Asians and essentially did not draw on that part of you?
RA: I don't know the answer to that, how could I? But in this industry one needs to stand out somehow unless they are one of those lucky ones that are handed gift after gift. I avoided the South Asian aspect for years until one day I simply realised my vision can't be separated from the South Asian part. As far the industry expecting my music to sound Indian/Pakistani influenced, I would just say that I never want anybody to expect anything from my music other than it being inspired. If people expect it to sound a certain way, they'll be surprised every time because you can't guess what a creative person will do next!
NR: I love the name Indo-Pak Coalition! It is an idea that resonates I think in the heart of so many Indians and Pakistanis and yet it is an impossible dream in the real world. Can you share a bit about how and why you guys chose to perform under that name.
RA: Indo-Pak Coalition is a group Rudresh founded. It has political overtones but in this case since we live in the US, we see signs that say Indo-Pak as a means of bringing people together. The community in North America from what I've seen has no real issues with the separation of the two until it comes to cricket!
NR: What are you working on at the moment?
RA: A few albums. I have a new group called Junction, kind of my first hard hitting fusion group. Then we're about to do a new one for Kiran which is always interesting. Soon I'll do a standards album with my group called RAAQ - Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet. And finally in 2014, my third with the group Invocation! I would also like to eventually do another trio recording. The 2012 album, Continuous Beat is my first trio record and I'm very happy with it!
Visit Rez Abbasi’s website.
Nate Rabe was born and raised in India. He comments on South Asian culture and music from Kuala Lumpur. He also nurtures two blogs dedicated to music: The Harmonium Music Blog and Washerman’s Dog.
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