"The Album Pranaam is the product of a very unique cross-cultural synthesis, in which the Eastern traditions are confronted by Western modernity."

Monsoon Trio consists of saxophone-playing brothers Jonathan & Andrew Kay and bass veena artist Justin Gray. Over the past 9 years, the trio has been studying traditional North Indian classical raga music in Kolkata, India, under their Guru, Pandit Shantanu Bhattacharyya. This innovative journey has lead to Justin designing and co-creating the “Bass Veena”; a modified fretless bass with additional supportive strings, as well as Jonathan’s development of the “Shrutiphone”; a modified non-tempered saxophone.Monsoon Trio's debut album Pranaam  is the first CD to document the collective performance of vocal and instrumental styles of North Indian Classical music on modern western instruments. The term "Pranaam" describes an offering of the highest respect as an act of complete surrender. 

How would you describe the sound of your album Pranaam?

‘Pranaam’ is the jugalbandi presentation of pure North Indian Classical music on western instruments. It is the culmination of Andrew, Justin and my (Jonathan) journey into North Indian Raga music which started 10 years ago when we visited Kolkata and began traditional training together in the Guru-Shishya Parampara with our Guruji, Pandit Shantanu Bhattacharyya. We have performed Raga music together countless times in India and North America and wanted to document this collective journey.

'Pranaam' contains 5 of the grand North Indian Ragas, Bhairav, Shree, Jaijaiwanti, Malkauns and Bhairavi, all accompanied by Subhajyoti Guha on tabla and Shayna Kay on tanpura. Rendering the Ragas on our western instruments was a learning process that greatly challenged us, eventually inspiring innovations and technical developments to our instruments to overcome the difficulties of expressing the subtitles of the Ragas. Under the mentorship of our Guruji, as well as luthier, Les Godfry, and woodwind repair technician, KevinRohm, this lead to the creation of Justin's ‘Bass Veena’ from a fretless bass and the ‘Shrutiphone’ from my tenor and soprano saxophone.

Recorded by Justin at my family cottage in Northern Canada, this was a live recording which allowed us to be interactive and intuitive in the moment, which greatly enhanced the mood and feel of the recording.

What characterizes your music philosophy?

What would the act of giving Pranaam to your Guru sound like if it was a flowing stream of music? To me, a Raga is a musical offering to the Guru, and a prayer to the whole tradition of the Guru consciousness. The Ragas have been passed down from Guru to Shishya since the ancient times until present day and therefore there can be no separation of the Raga from the Guru. The Guru is a channel of the greater Raga consciousness, and their task is to encourage and cultivate the spirit of the Raga consciousness within the Shishya, as to awaken the presence of the inner Guru, which psychically guides the progress of the student until realization.

The lineage of the Gurus have followed this system which has lead generations of disciples to mastery of the elements that make up a Raga; Swara and Laya. As a raga sadhaka, one who is undergoing the spiritual discipline of Raga music, I constantly find myself striving towards the perfection of these elements in any given Raga and Tala, and I have learned to overcome the intimidation or fear of the infinite heights this journey demands. As the quest for Swara and Laya is so sublime and endless how can one even begin to imagine perfecting what is infinite in nature? Embracing this paradox and overcoming its duality is the whole philosophy of the sadhana set before us. As our being becomes in harmony with the life of Raga sadhana, and the Ragas become natural reflections of our life-movements, we begin to experience degrees of identity with the Raga entities, a platform where these apparent paradoxes become superficial appearances of a greater power and the dualities merely two sides of one coin. The power contained in the Ragas stems from the discipline of confronting this paradox, transforming our limitations, and transcending beyond the individual into that of a universal Oneness.

Is your creative composition in blending two traditions a spontaneous process or you conceive this intellectually?

We have given a lot of importance to the cultivation and development of what is originally rooted in our jazz music background and central to our mode of musical interaction; the ‘collective consciousness’. This can be intellectually stimulated but is deeply intuitive in essence. Although not commonly a part of the ‘soloistic’ nature of Indian classical music, where the soloist is part of an intricate hierarchical web which includes other accompanying musicians, our experience of playing creative improvised music together for the past 15 years has shown us the power and importance of connecting to the ‘collective consciousness’.

By carefully maintaining the strict teachings of our Guru and working within the cultural framework and etiquettes of the North Indian Classical music tradition, we have found a unique and inspiring mode of collaboration, wherein the individual surrenders into that of the greater collective, where the psychic connection between the collective and that of the source, the Raga, can more harmoniously blend into one unified movement of integral development. We believe this is the only way to a meaningful Raga collaboration, and was realized in the timeless jugalbandis of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Training under the same Guru source plays an indispensable role in collectively assimilating and creating a deeply harmonious Raga language on any given day. This also supports our experience that the Raga consciousness is rooted in an objective reality which is to be individually realized by the collective members and harmoniously interwoven into one musical entity that in actuality is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is your most favored Raga/composition on this new album?

This album contains the Ragas which have grown closest to us over the years of our sadhana. There can be no comparison in terms of better or worse between Ragas as each offers a unique and personal relationship to the artist or listener that matures and over time. Just as a Mother loves all of her children, the Raga sadhak begins to see how each Raga is special in their own way and embraces the individuality of each Raga in a larger interdependent family.

Where have the ideas behind the compositions come from?

Compositionally, we are blessed that our Guruji, Pandit Shantanu Bhattacharyya, was the musical director of the album and composed and arranged the material specifically for this recording project. He arranged bandish compositions in Jaijaiwanti and Malkauns from his Guru, Pandit Prasun Banerjee, and took one old traditional Dhammar bandish in Bhairavi. The rest of the material was composed by Guruji to suit our collective and individual playing styles. It is these compositions that truly give us the platform to express the Ragas in all their beauty.

What do you want the audience to walk away with after listening to your music?

Ideally, we would like the audience to remain in quiet reflection and contemplation after listening to our music because this is what we feel after hearing a great Raga performance. Although we know we are lifetimes away from mastering this music, we have done our best to render the Ragas on this recording from the bottom of our hearts and tried to fill each moment with aspiration and sincerity. If this is conveyed to the listener then we can feel thankful as artists.

What has been the relationship between East and West in your life and music?

This album is the product of a very unique cross-cultural synthesis, in which the Eastern traditions are confronted by Western modernity. By reaching 'back’ into the vast depths of the Raga music tradition we have experienced the old-world culture in which the Ragas slowly evolve from. By looking ‘forward’, we have innovated new instruments and musical techniques that we humbly hope contribute to another chapter of the ever evolving music of North India.

After being in India for the past 10 years, the relationship between the East and West has been something very different to me then that of the modern culture. In the West, the fad has been to import only partial, superficial Truths and self-fulfilling messages of the Eastern Religions and Gurus, creating the ’New Age’ movement, a multi-billion dollar industry preying on many honest aspirants from the west. The East, in turn has embarked on mimicking the defining ideology of the ‘New World’, the American Dream and Hollywood culture, which has become an unsustainable sickness of materialism, consumerism and commercialism.

On the contrary, we have aimed to take the highest and most universal ideals from both cultures, in which the integrity of each fundamental truth is maintained while also become flexible enough to apply outside of its traditional environment. Personally, my experiences in India have enriched me far beyond my expectations and even helped me to see my own culture in a more holistic and richer light. In order for me to know myself, I had to leave my home and experience the world from another perspective, and traveling is something I recommend to everyone. It challenges you in so many ways to exceed yourself, to redefine your beliefs, to break down preconceptions and judgments of others, to problem solve with another set of tools, language and resources, to open yourself to others in humble and respectful ways which break down the ego of self-centered nature.

Traveling and immersing myself in other traditions of the world has been a huge part of my lives. Personally, it has helped me truly recognize the best aspects from my own culture; discipline, equality, structure, respect for others, respect for nature; things I had once taken for granted, or unconsciously depended on. During my time in India, my perspective on Indian life allowed me to enter into the most potent traits fundamental to Indian culture; the underlying faith of spiritual reality (soul, reincarnation), freedom of religion/worship, compassion, tolerance, contentment.

An integral synthesis of the best aspects offered by both cultures has taken time, patience and faith. A lot of energy has been put into traveling and gaining cultural knowledge and experience, and even more time has been needed to assimilate and digest what this means to me in a integral way. This endless journey is a creative process that aspires to broaden and widen the being into a more holistic and universal understanding of the individual, cosmic and transcendental aspects of our collective reality.

Many maestros have spoken about the declining popularity of classical music and the curious rise of fusion. What do you feel?

The ancient Indian, Chinese and Greek philosophers knew very well of interdependence of music and the state of culture, even to the point of predicting the inevitable downfall of their respective societies once their popular music had begun to degrade to a certain point. Have we reached this ultimatum in the age of Kaliyuga? I certainly hope not!

North Indian Raga music, in the form we know it, is the greatest fusion I know of. Dhrupad is the fusion of 2 cultures at their finest; a confluence of Hindu and Muslim music, instruments, artists and vision. We look at it now as an ancient form, but it was an intense fusion experiment that gave birth to the aesthetic of raga music that exists in North India today. Khyal is a further fusion with a new found Persian innovations and instruments. Therefore, we must remember that music is a reflection of an ever evolving humanity.

Human culture moves in waves, just as a reflection of nature, and a downward slide is none other than the inevitable certainty of the upward rise towards the next crest. We live in a fast paced, dynamic and globalizing world where the internet has empowered the individual to actively participate in the creation of a new global culture which will redefine the way in which we live. I believe this is an important period and I pray we take the time required to make mature and holistic decisions about the state of things to come; it is in our hands to decide.

I believe this decision needs to be founded on a healthy interchange between the wisdom of traditionalism, fundamentalism, and orthodoxy, with that of open, progressive, creative and free-minded ideals that aim not to sever our roots but revitalize the Truths of our forefathers in a new light. By reconciling these two poles, which are usually opposed to each other through corrupted political agenda and ideological generation gaps, as being not separate from each other, but interconnected and more importantly interdependent and necessary for a holistic paradigm shift forward, we can move into a new era of global multiculturalism that rests firmly on the traditional roots of our ancestors, while creatively using these tools to invigorate each moment and inspire our imagination, consciously propelling us collectively forward towards a truly harmonious and peaceful co-existence.  

The Album Pranaam...
If there is one place where you will feel inspired to perform, what will be that place?

In nature; in a jungle, on a mountain, by the seaside. In a place where everything and everyone is receptive to the most subtle messages of music. Nature always listens and responds because nature thrives on receptivity. Many of us humans on the other hand are constantly bombarded by the chattering of the mind and sensations which cloud our deeper receptive abilities, and to those, the inner meaning of music is lost.

What is an ideal life for your music to thrive?

The life of an artist is constantly a search for balance between their ideal environment and their ideal community; rarely are they both in the same place. Personally, I feel that greatest lessons I have learnt as an artist have been from Mother nature. I feel inspired and energized by Her beauty and harmony to no end. This is the home of my creativity.

I also feel the need for community, for collective consciousness. Living an ascetic or hermetic life detached from humanity is an ideal sadhana for some time, but for the artist in me, I need a community to share with, to inspire and be inspired by, to challenge and to be challenged by. I need to feel my art making a positive impact in the evolution of culture.

This balance between the inner creative self- who creates for the sake of individual discovery and self-perfection, and the externalizing self- who creates for the sake of the collective consciousness, becomes a dynamic play that is constantly in flux. Ideally, this artistic search for Truth, dynamically harmonizes the inner search with the outer expression, completing the circle of creation; individual, cosmic, transcendent.  For me, what unites these two energies relies on the practice of spiritual sadhana which is founded on the realization of Oneness in Consciousness so that each action is a movement of spiritual Unity expressed in physical Nature. All actions in life can therefore become a creative and artistic expression of Truth and Beauty.

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