In the contemporary world of fusion music, you would be hard pressed to find more diverse, active, and open-minded artists like Roger hanschel and Ramesh Shotham.
Roger, composer and saxophonist, and Ramesh, drummer and percussionist, have extensive personal works of critically acclaimed releases with notable projects such as Trio Benares and Madras Special.
One of their most popular projects to date is the South Asian Music Residency (SAMUR), currently in its third edition.
This year, co-led by Dr James Bunch, the renowned composer, performer, conductor, educator and concert organizer of KMMC Chennai, the SAMUR III 2019 residency hosted a selected group of 12 musicians, composers, improvisers and interpreters from Germany and South Asia, working together for two weeks in Chennai.
The end result of the effort was a special concert held in the city.
We were able to chat with Roger and Ramesh to get a glimpse of the remarkable collaborations they have fostered over the years …
Welcome to Chennai! Could we first go back to previous editions of SAMUR residences? What were the highlights of the previous residencies?
Roger: I only participated in the second SAMUR, so I can’t comment on the first edition. Without choosing a particular musician, I felt the unique blend of the ensemble was the highlight.
Of course, each musician had their place in solo, but again, this is the whole ensemble that has remained in the memory of the public until today, as we have heard from some listeners.
Give us an idea of the musical exchanges that can be expected during the residency, given the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds. How complex are the exchanges, in terms of musical and verbal idioms and preferences – all working together at the same time. How exciting is all of this for you, as the Music Director?
Roger and Ramesh: It’s definitely very exciting to work with these young musicians from various genres and cultures!
After the experience of SAMUR II and with this basic information, we decided this time to focus on choosing the artists for a more result oriented process, without losing the ability to experiment. For us music directors, it’s a very satisfying process to go through.
You both have a long and well-documented history in world fusion music. Give us any idea of the power of music to bring about positive social change? How important are these intercultural exchanges to fostering a greater sense of understanding and respect for other musical and cultural traditions?
Roger and Ramesh: In today’s global situation, both politically and culturally, it is more important than ever to be open to influences from other traditions.
Understanding and respecting the musical and cultural traditions of others is a step in the right direction of global social understanding. In this sense, music has great power. Make the dialogue awesome again!
If we could take a step back, to talk about your favorite instruments – saxophone and drums / percussion. For reference, we often return to Roger’s concerts with Sandhya Sanjana and the Benares Trio, while Ramesh’s Madras Special project (also with Sandhya) features on several of our personal playlists. Tell us how you’ve seen things evolve with your chosen instruments – from player, composer to musical director. How have the instruments themselves evolved as tools of cultural exchange, in your hands, eyes and minds?
Roger: Initially a jazz saxophonist, my musical heart had also been beating for Indian classical since the early 1980s.
Performing gigs with Sandhya Sanjana around 20 years ago, the group Planet Blow were adding Sandhya’s vocal style to a rather pre-defined group situation.
In relation to this, the Trio Benares presents a deeper intercultural exchange, in the sense that the two musical worlds have to leave their cultural comfort zone, to create new and original music that meets in the middle.
Ramesh: I have always been involved in combining Indian percussion instruments with drums. Much of my music is usually designed using rhythmic patterns as a springboard for compositions.
I am open to influences from all over the world and have spent time familiarizing myself with music from various parts of the world.
Could you explain the description, “non-classical jazz mix”? What does this informal genre imply in terms of musical structures, free-form ensembles, improvisation and contemporary ideas? Is it necessary for us to understand this genre as something new, and perhaps revolutionary?
Roger & Ramesh: As musicians, we don’t like to put labels on our music. We would interpret a “non-classical jazz mix” as music that is neither Indian classical nor classical jazz, but uses elements of both genres to create our special sound.
Give us an idea of how you managed to put together such a magnificent arrangement involving bass, guitars, violins, flute, tabla and even electronic elements, apart from unusual instruments like the tar? How did you put it all together?
Roger and Ramesh: The general objective of SAMUR is to bring together musicians from South Asian countries in Chennai for a two-week residency, to open musical horizons, create new music and interact.
On top of that, it’s important for us to have a good mix of artists of both sexes. During the process of selecting these 12 artists from a huge list of applications, we thought it would be a great idea to have an equal mix of instruments and singers.
Instead of looking for 12 totally different instruments, we decided to form instrumentation groups: three singers, two guitars with the tar, three-stringed instruments like the violin, viola and bass, two woodwinds like the bansuri and saxophone, three percussionists and electronics.
In a general context, when it comes to Indian music, there is always a strong emphasis on singing, which tends to play a primary role. Is this important for you to keep in mind?
Roger & Ramesh: Not at all. The choice of three singers was a coincidence.
Give us a sense of the ideation process, experience and advice you get from associating with KNMC and someone as respected as James Bunch. What dynamic do you see when it comes to bringing together so many talents, at the same time on the same stage?
Roger & Ramesh: For both of us, it’s fantastic to have Jimmy Bunch as a co-director. Jimmy Bunch, specialist in contemporary western music, brings a whole new aspect to our sound. We are very happy to have the spaces available at KMMC to work and create over the two week period.
Do you intend to publish segments of these residences on digital platforms, such as on Youtube, Or on SoundCloud? Can we expect clips, records or album releases?
Roger and Ramesh: Of course, we document both rehearsals and performances and these videos will be posted on the platforms you mentioned. SAMUR residencies have definitely inspired musicians to pursue and nurture their individual developments as artists.
Looking to the future, at the way things are moving in popular and contemporary music circles, do you envision a greater presence of electronic music and even dance elements in your future residency efforts? How do you think EDM can potentially be a game-changer and perhaps should be taken seriously?
Roger and Ramesh: Electronic music has been around since at least the 1960s. We have gone through various styles and genres of electronic music over the decades, but one thing is certain: Acoustic music will hold up!
The technology used in all forms of music is improving and changing, of course, and there will always be artists who experiment.
The 3rd SAMUR – South Asian Music Residency organized with the KMMC of AR Rahman was held from August 18 to September 1, 2019 in Chennai. The closing concert took place on August 31 in the Auditorium of the Goethe-Institut.
– Jaideep Sen