Saxophone Desi Style: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kadri Gopalnath

The saxophone in the opening credits to this Tamil Film (“Duet”) is by Kadri Gopalnath; it’s unlike any other commercial film opening credits music you’ve ever heard. Gopalnath has been in the news quite a bit over the past few weeks, following his collaboration with Indian American jazz-maestro Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has a new album out called Apti. I haven’t “Itunesed” Mahanthappa’s album yet (any reviews? the excerpts played on Rudresh’s NPR interview sound great), though I will be, but it prompted me to check out the Indian musician he’s talking about. (Incidentally, Kadri Gopalnath has several albums for sale on Itunes as well, at the bargain price of $3.99 each.)

Here is a quote from the New Yorker piece on Mahanthappa that describes what Gopalnath is doing on Sax:

While Mahanthappa was at Berklee, his older brother teasingly gave him an album called “Saxophone Indian Style,” by Kadri Gopalnath. As far as Mahanthappa knew, “Indian saxophonist” was an oxymoron, but the album amazed him. Gopalnath, who was born in 1950, in Karnataka, plays a Western instrument in a non-Western context—the Carnatic music of Southern India (distinct from the Hindustani musical tradition of Northern India). Gopalnath, who generally plays in a yogalike seated position, has perfected something that jazz saxophonists have been attempting for decades: moving beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice. Jazz players, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, had gone about it by varying intonation, blowing multiphonics (two or more notes at the same time), or squawking in the upper register, where pitches are imprecisely defined. Gopalnath does none of that. Using alternate fingerings and innovative embouchure techniques, he maintains faultless intonation while sliding in and out of the chromatic scale. (link)

I don’t play any wind instruments, and I have no idea technically what “innovative embouchure techniques” might be describing, but it sure sounds hard.

Also check out: Mahanthappa interviewed on NPR.

61 thoughts on “Saxophone Desi Style: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kadri Gopalnath

  1. Huh? How did my nic show up as “Rasika”? Sincere apologies to the one and only, the original Rasika, great scholar of Carnatic music…


  2. I heard of Mahanthappa on NPR too… very interesting, and reminds me of a bebop style of jazz. I got carried away a little and did a two parter on my blog. The second one has snippets from the interview, and links to full songs.. (link here)

  3. The “English Notes” are a series of simple compositions (perhaps for practice?) by Muthuswami Dikshitar.

    Muthuswami Dikshitar’s lyrics set to Western melodies are known as Nottuswaras sahitya or in short, Nottuswaras. His contemporary, Thyagaraja, also did something similar in pieces like Varalila Ganalola (original tune “In an English Garden”) and Sera Sera Samaraika.

    The Indian-American Kanniks Kannikeswaran has done work on the Nottuswaras and even released a CD. based on the Nottuswaras during the Music Season in Chennai last December.

  4. notwithstanding the obvious ideological potential such a historical detail would offer, if you wanted to slantedly Eurocentrize and thus belitte the origins of Carnatic music

    that if one person served in the military, carnatic is european in origin? just like english is actually an indian origin language because i know the word bazaar is of indian origin? gotcha.

  5. The actual origins of the introduction of the violin to India are fairly murky – several theories have been proposed above, and all of them appear to have some merit.

    For a fascinating analysis of the influence of Western instruments and technology on south Indian music, be sure to read “Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern” by Amanda Weidman. The book is generally about the evolution of Carnatic music, and this is one of the covered topics. It’s exhaustively and impressively researched, and I learned a lot from it (and this is from someone who grew up in Chennai, learned Carnatic music, and was steeped in the culture all my life).

  6. Shakti(greatest ever) member L Shankar’s Raga Abheri is really something that I enjoyed very much. Wonderful post and comments.

  7. I have listened extensively to Mr. Gopalnath (whose music I love and respect) and carnatic music, as well as a ton of jazz over the years. I can’t help but feeling that Rudresh’s project is extremely surface level. I have listened to the album (among many others by him), concerts and his interviews on this project as well and read all the articles before forming my opinion here.

    The music is extremely compartmentalized and both sides are just playing their own thing at the same time. Sure, there is some interaction, but no deep understanding. What is the point of just playing two counterpoint melodies at the same time that don’t even really go together? Rudresh is an excellent jazz musician, no doubt and his music is a calculated one. But his foray into Carnatic music barely scratches the surface, and his imitation of the sounds on saxophone are just that — imitations of some of Kadri sir’s idiosyncrasies on the instrument. It is like a really bad, elementary, caricature version of Kadri’s music and his use of “microtones” the new yorker articles points out sound more like something coming from middle eastern music than carnatic or even hindustani music. There is no real understanding of what gamakam or raga is or how it could be combined with jazz. Also for some reason, many people get the impression that he has studied extensively under Kadri Gopalnath, which he has not, and it is evident in his playing.

    It is too bad that most people who don’t have a longer connection with these music traditions are led to believe that this is “it,” a great combination of carnatic and jazz, and that Mr. Mahanthappa here has laid the extra groundwork. There is so much more that should be done. I also think it is wrong that Rudresh should behave in such a way as though he understands ragas and tala cycles on a deeper level in his interviews, when his music shows that he does not. Does he actually think that his current knowledge of ragas is adequate? Maybe its unintentional, but he also gives the impression that he is one of the first ones who discovered this could be done, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a similar fundamental problem with the “miles from india” project, but i wont get into that here.

    I would encourage people to check out older groups like what has been done with Shakti, Trilok Gurtu etc and some newer ones like VidyA, with Prasant Radhakrishnan. I believe he actually did gurukulam with Kadri Gopalnath to learn saxophone and has combined it with jazz in that group. Articles here and here.Note that none of these groups make direct claims or are marketed in a way that oversells what they are doing musically. That music is a more of a true combination that looks more in the direction of beauty than an avant garde cacophonous approach that attempts to cram as much stuff in a little space as possible. To each his own, I guess.

    Music is music, and people should keep making it. Its just that we get lost in labels and people take advantage of popular trends, like the fascination with India and Indian music surging right now to gain popularity. The worst part is that people are eating this up because Rudresh happens to be brown. If you really absorb his ethos, music and personality, you will see that he is just like another american jazz musician checking out “fusion” with indian music. It is sad but true.

    I really applaud Rudresh’s efforts and his other projects and music, but I just strongly disagree with the way this music being presented. If he had just said “I was interested in Indian music, got a grant and decided to do an album and tour with Kadri to see what would happen” I wouldn’t have said or felt any of this. This is just an honest opinion from a lifetime serious music lover of indian classical and jazz, and I hope it is not construed in the wrong way. Thanks.

  8. 28 · jyotsana said

    Well some desi musicians, like this saxophonist, who had her own 4-piece jazz fusion band, take up other pursuits like this one Kadri Gopalnath is IIRC now married to his long time companion, Violin Kanyakumari – who is a v.aggressive Karnatik violinist. Kadri played for many years with a ramshackle instrument. In the early ’80s when he performed with John Handy and the then tiny tot U. Srinivas at Berlin, Handy is said to have given away a couple of saxophones away to Kadri. Playing slow and low on the flute/shehnai/nadasvaram is an awesome challenge and takes years. Kadri does play the low notes v.well, but he is more popular for his high notes. In the meanwhile let’s not forget the other guitar impressario from Madras, Ilayaraja. You can listen to quite a few clips composed by Ilayaraja and rendered by Prasanna on Prasanna’s website. The movie Duet was released to thin audiences in 1992. The music although chopped and shuffled on the soundtrack, drew decent crowds.

    Kadri Gopalnath is NOT married to Kanyakumari. I know him personally, and this is a strange rumor that surfaced, God knows why. He has been married for 30 plus years and has three children. Kadri plays on a vintage Boosey & Hawkes alto saxophone that is not in production anymore. It is the same instrument he started with, and the same one he still uses. He has many others, but almost never uses them in concerts. Amazing how random rumours get spread!