Who would have ever thought that the music of Nat King Cole would meet the sound of Pandit Ravi Shankar, or the tunes of the late Miles Davis would mesh with the musical stylings of renowned table maestro, Zakhir Hussein. Yet, on a chilly weekend in December at the bustling Rex Hotel on Queen Street West, Western Jazz met Indian classical music, the steady beat of the base and snare joining hands with the intricate improvisations of a sitar. The outcome was the beginning of the 5th annual Toronto Indo-Jazz festival.
The Rex Hotel is one of Toronto’s leading venues for jazz performances and live music, presenting close to 19 shows per week. The Indo-Jazz festival is not new to Toronto or to the Rex hotel, but the concept of Indo-Jazz music is still new to many Torontonians. What attracts many to the festival is the notion of Indian classical music being played with jazz instruments, but what attracted me was the anticipation of hearing two fading genres forge their powers together.
Despite the fact that it was my first time at the Rex Hotel, the bar seemed to exude a sense of familiarity and comfort. The bartenders were busy serving orders of ciders and dark beer and the waiters were hustling from table to table casually committing to conversations with chatty customers.
The gentle murmur around the room allowed for easy conversation and the room fell silent as a man on stage began to introduce the first performance of the night.
I noticed a passionate energy enveloping the bar. The audience curiously watched the band members dressed in traditional Indian garb, preparing their instruments on a low and intimate stage.
As I spoke to various audience members, I came to realize that this was new form of music that many had not heard before. However the Indo-Jazz movement dates back to the mid-1950s with pioneering musicians like the late John Mayer, L Shankar and John Mclaughlin who introduced this distinct flavour to world of music.
The band, Monsoon, opened for the festival and shrouded the bar with feeling. Western Jazz and Indian Classical music conglomerated to form a resounding musical venture that added an Indian beat to the rhythm of Jazz, giving a smooth texture and energetic flow to the music. What automatically surprised me was how beautifully the steady cyclical beat of Indian classical gelled with the rhythmic flow of Jazz.
The audience was silent as they observed the colourful exhibition of the performers and the original tone of the music. The occasional whisper in the bar was only to acknowledge the beauty of the mingling of the two genres and as I sat and observed, I realized that music is truly universal.
I had the opportunity to sit down with a member of Monsoon and one of the organizers of the Indo-Jazz Festival, Andrew Kay. Conversing with Kay, I came to discover Monsoon’s remarkable story. After being inspired by their first visit to India, the group decided to fuse their Jazz music with Indian classical music. They began to study under their guru Shantanu Bhattacharyya in Kolkata and today, boast a profound sense of understanding about the intricacies of the Indian classical genre. The Monsoon trio further established what is now called the Monsoon-Music Scholarship which donates money to underprivileged children in Bangladesh learning Indian Classical music through a charity run by their guru called “Aalor Pathe”.
Today the group lives in Kolkata as they perform around India and Canada. Kay describes that their music is quite well received and for that reason, continue to discover and create more within the Indo-Jazz genre.
As I left the Rex Hotel on that chilly December evening, I felt the warmth of India. I learned that music has the power to transport you to different parts of the world, and fusion music in particular has the power to create alternate realities that many have never conceived of. And in the age of fusion, where techno meets house, latin meets pop, and western jazz meets indian classical, these alternate realities have the potential to bring the world together, one song at a time.