Noted flautist Rajeev Raja combines different streams of music to create his own Indo-jazz band
A contested history of flamenco music traces its roots to Indian shores. It says migrants from Rajasthan travelled across Central Asia, through the Middle East and finally settled in modern-day Spain over a thousand years ago, creating, along the way, a musical idiom that culled influences from its travels. The title track of flautist Rajeev Raja’s debut album Cosmic Chant brings this journey full circle. It opens with soft flamenco guitar work, builds strength with drums and bass, breaks into a full-fledged Carnatic vocal section and closes with a conversation between the tabla and flute. Flamenco now has an Indian home.
Stories of such sojourns are central to Cosmic Chant. Above all, it narrates the journey of frontman Rajeev Raja himself, from a harmonica-toting boy born to Malayali parents and brought up in Bangalore, to playing with early jazz-rock city bands, onto accompanying the best in Mumbai’s 90s music scene, to finally creating his own Indo-jazz outfit: the Rajeev Raja Combine. In Kochi for a concert at JTPac, Rajeev says it all began with a stroke of luck. He was once jamming with a college classmate who handed him a two-rupee bamboo flute and suggested he try his hand at it. “I was amazed that I could play it. It’s almost as if the flute found me,” he says.
From these beginnings, Rajeev worked the competition and festival circuits with college bands, winning several accolades until he moved to Mumbai to work at an ad agency. Within a year there, he was absorbed into an Indian fusion band named Surya, which had Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, Salim, of Salim-Sulaiman fame, on keyboards, Sridhar Parthasarathy on mridangam with Faisal Qureshi on tabla and Taufiq Qureshi on percussion. “I would sit there in awe, listening to these amazing musicians, barely believing that I was playing with them. Bombay changed my life,” he says.
While Rajeev’s foray into Indian classical music began here, as a flautist he was exploring far different worlds. Largely self-taught, except for two years under an Indian classical flautist, Rajeev says his wide musical tastes have educated him. He counts among his idols, rock music flautist Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, jazz flautist Hubert Laws, Western classical flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and India’s own Hariprasad Chaurasia. All these streams blend into the sound that Rajeev says defines the Rajeev Raja Combine. “I’ve had this sound in my head for 30 years; it’s only now that I’ve begun to realise it with this band.”
Alongside his music, for 25 years, Rajeev maintained a flourishing career in advertising. “At every job, I would tell my interviewers that my music meant as much to me as work, that rehearsals and concerts would all be a part of my life, without compromising my career responsibilities.” Juggling the two also meant that the principles of one fed into the other, for teamwork, collaboration and building off team members’ ideas were as integral to music as to advertising. In 2012 though, Rajeev quit as national creative director of DDB Mudra and plunged full-time into music.
All of these myriad influences come together in Cosmic Chant. The Combine comprises Hitesh Dhutiya on guitars, JD on bass, Chandana Bala on Carnatic Vocals, Vaibhav Wavikar on drums and Vinayak Netke on tabla. “The sound we were seeking was not one that paid lip-service to fusion with disparate elements hanging loose, but one which created an organic whole of the sum of our influences, right from the compositional stage onward.” Through eight tracks, that range from the rock music genre (‘Grunge’) and ballads (‘Nightingale Song’), to funk-rock (‘Friday Night Funk’) and smooth jazz (‘Mulligan’s Mood’), all laced with Indian Carnatic vocals and tabla, Rajeev’s dream has been realised. The compositions span from his earliest ever, named ‘Peace’, now dedicated to his wife, to more recent collaborations with Hitesh. 'Mulligan’s Mood' for instance was written in 1982, while Rajeev studied for his college final exams and happened to listen to Jerry Mulligan on the saxophone, when this tune popped into his mind
Cosmic Chant was released last October and has since done well for itself on online platforms, earning the Combine several gigs across the country. In the meantime Rajeev is busy with BrandMusiq, a company he’s floated that specialises in sonic branding, which creates a consolidated sound for brands, replete with a ‘mogo’ (musical logo) that can be adapted for any medium from television to radio. “This keeps me in touch with the marketing space besides providing an income, for the music doesn’t pay, just yet.” But that doesn’t matter for Rajeev admits that his music will always be niche. “We’re committed to creating an indie sound that’s artistically meaningful, with a depth of musical experience. Bollywood will continue to get the crowds and the money; but we’re in this for the long haul.”