What’s the difference between good and bad crossover music? How do you tell good from bad when the whole point is to break the rules of an established tradition?
I prefer saying what grabs my ears and gains my respect, rather than making simple value judgments. I will say, however, that there must be a kind of humility and respect from the artist—a recognition that the tradition is bigger and richer than they will ever understand, and that it takes care and hard work to understand and perform it. Otherwise, the artist is just throwing sounds around to be “exotic” or “worldly.” In this day and age, when you can buy instruments from almost anywhere at the local music shop, or download samples of anything, there’s a great temptation to use the exotic as a decorative frill. You hear a lot of that in Hip-Hop music, and that’s cool because larger audiences get exposed to new sounds, but that’s not really crossover music, because you’re not really entering into a true synthesis.
And yet you play several different instruments. How can you do that and still strive for this kind of depth and integrity?
The integrity partly comes from using the instrument in a manner in which people of that tradition would feel good about hearing it. Even when I’m playing sitar in another context, a knowledgeable person could tell that I know the techniques and expressive potential of the sitar. Similarly, when I started playing the Mexican requinto, I went down to Veracruz, took lessons, and listened to many different groups and players because I’m really inspired by Jarocho music. Now I use a fretless version of that instrument to play my own music, but I know that Mexican musicians appreciate what I do with it because I’ve played down there, too.
There also has to be a sense not only of where the instrument is coming from, but where you are taking it. I think your requinto playing works because you have a sense of certain affinities between this instrument and the other traditions you have studied.
Yes, my fretless requinto can sound like a folk oud or an Afghani robab sometimes. Nevertheless, I realize that I have to maintain a strong commitment of daily practice to a single instrument if I am going to play Indian classical music, and that instrument for me is the sitar. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel right about the many classical concerts I perform both in India and the West. Yet I’m still pulled to play these other instruments as well. Maybe it’s an inner voice, maybe it’s the voice of God, or the music itself is calling me.
I really respect those musicians who can devote themselves to a single instrument. But these other instruments are a part of who I am, and I wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t play them. My Venezuelan brother and long time collaborator Pedro Eustache plays what I call “world winds.” He is a virtuoso on flute, but maintains very high standards on bansuri, saxophone, Armenian duduk, Bulgarian kaval, and many other wind instruments, including modifying and designing new ones. I’ve certainly been inspired by his profound faith, musicality, and his tenacity to take up the difficult challenge of being a multi-directional artist.
You are well focused on being a “world string” player, particularly when you create customized instruments that enable you to combine the techniques from different traditions. But mastering your own instrument is not the only issue when playing crossover music. What kind of skills do you need to be a musical traffic cop in a multicultural jam session?
The essential thing for me is to find out what you can hear and understand clearly in other musicians’ playing, and that comes through listening and relationships. If you hang out together, share food, your faith, and your ideas of what life and reality are really about, your space for music making becomes open through trust. This also takes a preparation of the heart, which to me means letting go of your own ego and being ready for an inter-personal dialogue. Humility is the key to that, so I think that submitting to a guru, and having friends who tell you the truth even when it hurts, are very important for musical growth. Ultimately for me music at its absolute best is an expression of God’s creative power; it is shakti or the Holy Spirit working through us.
Particularly with Indian and new music, though, we must beware of over-projecting music as sacred and transcendent, of turning the spiritual essence of music into a trendy marketing scheme, which would result in us being musical Pharisees and sanctimonious charlatans in our art.
Once you’ve developed a real solid connection, then you can start analyzing music using your technical skills. But analysis has got to come afterwards, or you may project your ideas and biases on the music. There are, however, specific skills that help with this kind of analysis. I taught at Cal Arts for five years, and two of the classes I created (Polyrhythmic Melodicism and Raga Jazz Ensemble) dealt with skills I refer to as world music synthesis. I believe we need a whole new curriculum to teach the skills needed for global music making. This is something I have been working with deeply as an educator. You still need to have a guru in some particular tradition, whether it be flamenco or Hindustani, to really go deep. But these skills enable us to work with other musicians in other traditions, teaching us to break down and hear things, to analyze and incorporate elements from other cultures.
|Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.|