February 27, 2024

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Where India meets Jazz: Ramamurthy learned all of this as a child while growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey: Video, Photos

Arun Ramamurthy has explained it all before but is always happy to talk tabla and mridangam.

As a composer, musician and educator, his enthusiasm is evident for the percussion instruments and the sounds they produce, part of a 1,000-year-old musical form known as Indian Classical.

Based in Brooklyn, the violinist and the other members of his trio — Sameer Gupta and Beacon resident Damon Banks — will make their Hudson Valley debut at 7 p.m. on Thursday (Sept. 28) at the Towne Crier in Beacon.

As Ramamurthy explains, there are two main forms of Indian Classical. “Hindustani originated in the north and Carnatic in the south, although they came from the same place musically,” he says. “There was one root, from which branches grew. They differ in the approach to improvisation: Hindustani has much shorter compositions that have been improvised on, while Carnatic is more composition-based.

“One difference you’ll notice right away is the percussion. The tabla is northern, while the mridangam is southern and the primary rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble.”

Ramamurthy learned all of this as a child while growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, with much of the instruction coming from his maternal grandmother. “She’s the reason I play the violin,” he says. “She was a super-progressive woman and had so much power — she thought big and taught me to be unique, never forget who I am and make sure my music reflects my truest self.”

There was other music played in the house. “I got interested in hip-hop as a 10-year-old,” Ramamurthy says. “I listened to Radiohead, the blues and Coltrane, which I was hooked on. My older brother played drums, heavy metal and hard rock, so there was a lot going on.”

Basu Ramamurthy — Trina basu

He began lessons in Carnatic music at age 6 or 7. “My mother was a singer and she started me on Carnatic music,” he says. “It’s always taught vocally, as a way of internalizing the music. My dad was a lover of music and into organizing; both parents would set up tours for musicians from India. I focused on Western classical music, studying violin from 10 to 16, then shifted my focus to Carnatic, connecting with the improvisational aspects.”

While working at a day job in New York City, Ramamurthy connected with other Indian American musicians who had an interest in the form. “We’re the first generation of musicians that was born here, which gives us the authenticity to bridge these cultures musically.”

Twelve years ago, he founded a nonprofit collective, Brooklyn Raga Massive. “We’re focused on finding ways to take care of the musicians and locating sources of revenue that don’t rely on money coming from the venues,” he says.

Ramamurthy also began his own project. “I heard different grooves in the Carnatic music that I didn’t feel I could fully express with traditional instrumentation,” he explains. “Sameer and I always had chemistry, pulling ourselves in different directions and loving it.” In performance, Gupta will “represent the traditions of American jazz on drum set and Indian classical music on tabla, combining traditional and modern improvisational styles.” (The original trio included Perry Wortman on bass, but he moved out of the area.)

“In rehearsals, I would pick a raga,” Ramamurthy recalls. “I understand the raga, but Perry didn’t know it, so he interpreted it harmonically. We would improvise, and certain ideas would gel. Compositional elements were structured by letting go and putting the music in the middle and all of us looking at the middle together.”

Banks came on board two years ago. “Damon has been a blessing — he’s playing electric bass, which was an intentional thing to bring in pedals,” Ramamurthy says. “It was my original take on Carnatic music. It was inspired by the energy and spirit of jazz. The three people are doing different things and are aware of each other, in an open circuit. Expect music that is heartfelt, soulful, spiritual and fun. The music makes sense to all of us more and more as we play it.”

Arun Ramamurthy Trio

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