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Babu: The (He)Art of the Improvisers

2007-09-21 08:23
Phew, sounds a bit arty? Maybe, but as hot new Mother City world music quartet Babu are proving, tuning into Indian classical music also means a whole lot more. Mary Faragher hooked up with Reza Khota (guitar), Kesivan Naidoo (drums), Ronan Skillen (tabla/percussion), and Shane Cooper (bass) recently to find out about their ear-catching name, the art of their improvisation and more.

How did the band start?
Reza: We were invited to play for the Indian High Commission on Indian Indepedendence Day. Michael, my housemate, suggested Kesivan and myself, and we sat together and decided to book Shane and Ronan.

What’s in a name?
Kesivan: A friend of mine used to call me Babu. It means a lot of different things in different sects of Indian culture: it could mean riffraff, or younger uncle, it’s also a word you might use to someone who’s senior to you. But Babu is also a character to us, we are the different personalities of the character Babu.
Shane: With our forces combined, we become him, like the Captain Planet.
Ronan: We refer to each other as Babu as well…
Kesivan: Which is quite confusing. But it’s a good name because it’s quite playful, and the music is quite serious, so it lightens it a bit.

Do you have to listen to Indian classical music to be able to play it?
Kesivan: I don’t think we’re playing Indian Classical Music, actually. In the picture we’re painting, we draw a major influence from that sound, but except for Ronan we’re all actually playing Western instruments. It’s the sound and the approach to the improvisation that comes from Indian classical music.

Hmm, is what you’re playing ‘fusion’ then?
Kesivan: Yes, and no. I think we are actually playing ‘world’ music. In effect, world music has an element of fusion because in fusion you kind of fuse different cultures together.
Reza: We’re not trying to contrive a fusion. I think a lot of fusion out there is very contrived. What we’re doing is more organic.
Kesivan: We draw from a lot of different approaches, but whatever we use, we try to stay true to its essence, to keep it pure.
Reza: We try not to compromise.
Kesivan: We consciously think about what the things are that we are combining and how to stay true to them.
Reza: We’re exploring the common concepts between different improvisational approaches. Jazz and Indian Classical music are two of the basic improvisational styles. So it’s more conceptual than just taking a style plus a style.
Shane: I think an outsider would classify it as fusion, but it didn’t start as “OK we’re gonna put these styles together and start a band.” It just happened.

Okay, so you’re using jazz to convey the spirit of Indian Classical music and make it more accessible to Western ears?
Reza: We are definitely trying to capture the spirit of the scales and beat cycles that we use.
Ronan: There have been people after gigs that have definitely commented strongly on them being able to listen to Indian music now, because they never were able to before.
Do you have to meditate to play Indian music?
Shane: I do personally I meditate 12 hours a day, I barely eat…
Reza: At a certain level of musical pursuit, of any style, you end up having to consider your body and your mind whether you’re playing classical, jazz or whatever. There’s a certain level that you take it to – you cannot do it without considering your whole body, your mind. It’s then meditation, yoga, Alexander technique…all of those things come into play.
Ronan: I think there’s a certain amount of meditation that comes with the music itself.
Shane: Particularly this kind of music, because it’s quite intense and quite difficult at times, so even just rehearsing it is hard work. You’ve got to get into a zone or into a focused state to be able to do it. And that’s another meditation form that happens naturally.
Kesivan: We have these sections – because of the nature of the music the solo sections can be almost over one tonality. And when you’re having a repetitive type of groove, or scale that’s formed, you automatically go into a kind of meditative zone. It’s like our version of meditation.
Reza: And we all get into this mood, together, we all close our eyes and see how we can evolve the story. That’s it.

Any plans for taking over the world?
Shane: Oh, ja, there was that promise, we made that promise didn’t we.
Kesivan: Wherever the music takes us. Our job for now is to perfect the music that we’ve created as far as we can, and hopefully the music allows us to see the world and to get other people around the world to listen to it.
Reza: This is something I would feel confident taking to the rest of the world.
Kesivan: The money will come, but that’s not the purpose. Hopefully the money will come because you have to sustain a thing in the real world. But the intention behind this music is actually, I don’t know if I can speak for everybody here, but it’s to reach a deeper place of yourself. Explore stuff in yourself, and invoke things in the audience that makes their lives better. Babu is there to make your life better.

- Mary Faragher

Rock bands ranging from The Beatles and The Byrds to Frank Zappa and The Stooges all tuned into it. Avant-garde classical composers have been getting off on it for decades. And it totally changed heavyweight jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s life. What are we talking about? Indian classical music, of course: an improvisational approach to making music that challenges Western pop’s cul-de-sac of choreographed chords.

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