Updated: Oct 14, 2018
Two years ago, I was given a precious and surprise gift. It was May 2016, and the school year had just concluded; I had briefly come home to Minnesota to spend a weekend with loved ones before flying to Munich for a summer program.
Although it was sunny and lovely, my flight to leave was unexpectedly delayed by two days. My musician mother then made a completely new request of me— the studio recording of her new project, Maithree: The Music of Friendship, was slotted to start right before my updated departure: would I spend my last day in sunny MN inside a dark and cool studio?
Um… sure! I connected to the studio’s Wifi and took the meeting I was missing via Skype. Beyond that, I restlessly drummed my fingers on my lap as the musicians set up, not knowing what to expect and what role I was to play— Amma had said to simply “listen”, but what was I listening for? I didn’t know the first thing about recording technology; how could I provide anything constructive? What if I had no opinions, nothing to say? And oh, God— what if my stomach growled and ruined the recording forever? Never had listening, my favorite activity, caused me such anguish.
A bit of context: my mom, Nirmala Rajasekar, is a Carnatic musician who sings and plays the veena, the seven-stringed instrument of Goddess Saraswati. (She’s also an amazing woman… but that’s for another post). Amma is my main Carnatic vocal guru— she’s certainly my inspiration for pursuing music, and although we kind of occupy different musical realms professionally, I like to circle back to her and her work. At this point, Amma had put out several solo and traditional Carnatic albums, but it had been her adult life dream to capture her numerous collaborations in a recording.
You see, my parents’ marriage took her out of India— something that she did not anticipate, given that she already was, and had planned to remain, a Chennai-based musician. In those early years, there were very few traditional accompanists living abroad. Rather than being discouraged, however, Amma decided to reach out to musicians from new idioms, starting with a UK tabla artist for a BBC project. Born out of necessity, Amma’s collaborative career has now flourished. Even now, occupying center stage of traditional Carnatic music, she continues to collaborate because she loves the excitement and challenge of working in new spaces; she constantly gets to encounter new dimensions of sound, yes, but by pushing her own limits, she also learns more about herself and where her musical imagination can lead. The meeting of minds on stage forges strong cross-cultural bonds of friendship, all the more powerful because they are rooted in art and love. As for her kids, well, they learned that the pursuit of a dream is only enhanced by life’s myriad curveballs. Plus, they got a whole new set of “Aunties” and “Uncles” from her collaborations!
So, Maithree: what is it? Well, the album— featuring Mom (veena, vocals), Michelle Aunty (cello), Boopathi Uncle (Carnatic percussion), Pat Uncle (winds), and Tim Uncle (a whole boatload of things!), recorded and mixed by Steve Uncle (Wild Sound Studios), produced by Mom, associate-produced by Gary Uncle, yours truly, and Srini Uncle, and released by Philip Uncle and his team at innova Recordings— is a lot of things. First, if you interpreted all of those “Aunties” and “Uncles” to mean that it’s a family production, then you’d be 100% right. Even though there are only two pairs of biologically-related members on the twelve-person core team, we have become a family: the best testament to the message behind Maithree. What else? It’s a thrilling musical journey combining original music and new arrangements of Indian, Irish, and Turkish tunes. It’s a statement of love and camaraderie across any “boundaries” or “borders”. It’s a timbral kaleidoscope of struck, plucked, bowed, and blowed (?!) sounds. It’s gratitude for the places to which life takes us. It’s an ode to its titular track, Maithreem Bhajatha, first written in the 1960s for a UN concert to bring a message of world peace and friendship. It’s timely. It’s art building community. And it’s just the beginning of something very special.
And me, the chance production assistant? As I sat in the cool studio that sunny May day, I did not, and could not, know how much this album would transform me. First, it became clear that I did, in fact, have opinions— many of them :). And no, I did not suddenly discover some inborn knowledge of all things studio, but Steve Uncle patiently explained every step to me and gave me the relevant vocabulary as I fumbled through my thoughts. Gary Uncle taught me about how to release albums, kindly smiling through all of my questions. Philip Uncle walked me through his every decision. My God— what an extreme honor it was to be given this kind of hands-on education. And, the band: I had known the musicians for most (or all!) of my life, but this was a different kind of intimacy. There's a completely new dimension when you’re poring over their improvisation (graphing transcriptions to decipher its power!), deciding how it fits into the album, and letting it feed and influence your own work. I finally understood that this is what Mom had hit on in conceiving Maithree: this deepening in one’s understanding of self and other.
Given my dual musical background, I was actually very suited to Maithree— something that wasn't anticipated (…or maybe it was. Mothers tend to be pretty smart that way). There are little moments on the album that make me smile as I hear them— moments where I got to make a decision that altered the course of a track. But the most beautiful thing has been the blurring of those instances, the seamless stitching together of unique fabrics: I, accustomed to scribbling alone in a corner, am forever part of a team.
What is Maithree?
“These are more than just songs. They are a rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic convergence of many diverse souls and spirits into one expressive creation. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. The Maithree experience made our hearts beat together as one in the universal language of music.”
--Gary Uncle, upon hearing the full album this summer (that is, Gary Hines, founder of three-time Grammy-award-winning ensemble Sounds of Blackness)
And if you’re lucky enough to be in Minnesota right now (oh, I how envy you!), pop into the album release on October 28, Cedar Cultural Center, 3 PM. You’re in for a treat :)
In music and friendship,