The Carnatic blues of Ross Hammond and Jay Nair – Berkeleyside

Guitarist Ross Hammond and vocalist Jay Nair presents Songs of Universal Peace Sunday afternoon at Maybeck Recital Hall

Jay Nair, a mild-mannered civil servant who works as a systems analyst for the state of California, was walking through downtown Sacramento minding his own business a couple years back when his ear caught a sound that reminded him of home. Born and raised in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, he was passing by the popular brunch spot Weatherstone when he heard what he thought might be a sitar. Circling back to double check, Nair realized that the sound emanated from Ross Hammonds 12-string guitar.

I spent the next three minutes listening to him, and then it wasnt the sitar-like sliding notes that captivated me anymore but his music, says Nair, explaining the origins of their collaboration. Blending Hammonds rootsy approach to jazz, folk and blues with Nairs Carnatic vocals, they released the singular duo album Songs of Universal Peacein 2018. Theyve been performing together ever since, and make their Maybeck Recital Hall debut Sunday afternoon.

Listening to him play that morning some ragas came to me, Nair says. I went home and recorded them on my iPhone and shared them with him. Thats where everything started.

While hes never formally studied Indian classical music, Hammond has collaborated with several Indian and Indian-American percussionists over the years. He was more than open to seeing what might develop with Nair, inviting him stop by his weekly Luna Caf gig. He came and sat in and, dude, people were crying, Hammond says. When Jay sings and gets into his devotional music, its a really powerful spiritual thing. It hits me. After that I said we should probably start a project. You dont find guys singing Carnatic music like that all the time.

If Hammonds name sounds familiar its probably because he was a close confederate of Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola for several years. About a decade ago their duo project The Lovely Builders performed widely around the region. In 2016, his duo album with drummer/percussionist Sameer Gupta, Upward(Prescott Records), was hailed by KQED(in a piece I wrote) for its lush, buoyant and expansive sound.

That project was deeply informed by Hammond and Guptas shared experience as jazz musicians. With Nair, Hammond uses his finely honed chops as an improviser to respond and interact with the traditional modes.Ive listened to Indian music since my 20s, he says. Sameer and I play together from a jazz background. Were not doing anything traditional. Im not a raga guy. With Jay, hes singing ancient Sanskrit verses and puts his own melodies to them. Ill ask him What does that song mean? Lets all be beautiful. Fantastic!

Nair studied Carnatic vocals from the age of five to 18 (with a few years on violin too), and started performing at 10. After he went off to college to study engineering he got the chance to explore Hindustani classical tradition of North India. He didnt have much exposure to Western music before he moved to the US at the age of 30.

Over the years hed tried to collaborate with several non-Indian musicians but the attempts quickly foundered. Nair feels he wasnt really ready to meet other musicians on equal ground. With its very deep history of 3,000 years, a student of Indian music has a danger of believing that is what music is, and anything that breaks the rules is not music, he says. I had a phase where I thought that music means it has to be this and that. Maybe that contributed to those collaborations not flourishing. And non-Indian musicians can be a little intimidated with the vastness of Indian music. So those attempts didnt go anywhere.

Hammond has been a pivotal figure on the Sacramento music scene for the past two decades, patiently building festivals and concert series that showcase local players alongside artists from outside the area. By the time Nair encountered him that morning at Weatherstone in 2017 his musical perspective had evolved. Rather than obeying a set of rules, music served a larger purpose aimed at the enlightenment of the human mind, he says. I was open to learning from people who are different. Ross is a master of what hes doing, and I was looking to learn.

With the civil war in Syria raging and conflict dominating the news, Nair was already focusing on Shanti peace mantras in his spiritual practice as a Buddhist. Hed set a Sanskrit verse to a raga and bring the piece to Hammond. It is accompaniment, but almost two soloist working around the same melody at the same time, Hammond says.

Ive played with a lot of Indian musicians, and Jay is the guy Ive learned the most from in terms of how you approach structure, he says. He says dont worry about the tala and rhythmic cycle. Were two guys, listen to each other. You have this tonal center, this scale or mode. Dont go out of it. Simple stuff thats so powerful. What were doing is finding a bridge between a traditional American blues and roots music, and combining that with raga.

You may have noticed that Ukraine has been in the news lately. With Ukraines Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia and a proxy war grinding away near the eastern border, the young country with an ancient and extraordinary vocal tradition needs friends outside the region. No ensemble has done more to share Ukrainian culture abroad than DahkaBrahka, the avant-folk quartet that returns to Freight & Salvage on Oct. 8-9. Avant garde folk songs might sound like an oxymoron, but with DakhaBrakha theres no contradiction between roots music from the Ukrainian countryside and art music from Kievs experimental theater scene. Creating haunting polyphonic vocal harmonies while accompanying themselves on cellos, hurdy gurdy, piano, and sundry percussion implements, the multi-instrumentalistsOlena Tsybulska, Irnya Kovalenko and Nina Harenetsha founded the band in 2004 and were quickly joined by Marko Halanevych on vocals, tabla, didgeridoo, accordion, and trombone. Theyve acquired their international menagerie of instruments during their world travels, adding new sonic facets to the traditional songs theyve been immersed in since birth. The fact that the three women often perform in towering black fur hats and white wedding dresses cribbed from a production of Shakespeares Richard IIIadds to the musics decidedly otherworldly feel.

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The Carnatic blues of Ross Hammond and Jay Nair - Berkeleyside

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