Breaking boundaries, forging friendship

“In many ways, it tells the story of my life,” says vainika Nirmala Rajasekar of her new album, ‘Maithree, the Music of Friendship.’ The creation, she says, is a product of her many artistic interactions over the past 25 years, coupled with an unpredictable path that had her shuttling from Chennai to Minneapolis, Minnesota, ever since.

“As I set out to explore Minnesota’s vibrant culture space, my own understanding of Carnatic music and the veena deepened, leading me to find ways to collaborate meaningfully,” she explains.

Breaking boundaries, forging friendship

One of Nirmala’s many albums, ‘Maithree...’ is special in more ways than one. A tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi’s legendary rendition of ‘Maithreem Bhajata’ at the United Nations in 1966, the album marks Nirmala’s first collaboration with a multitude of artistes of different disciplines on a single platform.

New ensemble

“In 2016, I joined hands with Thanjavur Murugaboopathy (mridangam), Michelle Kinney (cellist and composer), Pat O Keefe (clarionet and saxophone artist, composer) and Tim O Keefe (world percussionist) to form a new ensemble: Maithree,” recalls Nirmala tracing the origin. The name stuck, giving way to a ten-track album that brings together the best of each musician.

With a unique clarionet-focused Mallari, compositions by Irish and Turkish composers, and a ragamalika composed in order to cater to the diversity in musical backgrounds, the album has allowed each musician to add his or her novel dimension.

“It has been an invaluable opportunity for me, to share and learn multiple rhythmic aspects in an attempt to create a unified message of peace and harmony,” says Murugaboopathi.

Breaking boundaries, forging friendship

“Out of the ten tracks, six are predominantly Carnatic, especially in terms of talam. Overall, the album is a reflection of a certain ‘Carnatic ethos’ that often manifests in the nature of improvisational techniques that the system is renowned for,” adds Nirmala, who calls it a ‘challenge unlike any other.’

“There is no kutcheri format to work with here — we are not only incorporating the Carnatic idiom. What we have in common are the 12 chromatic pitches, mutual respect for each other’s’ genres and grasp of our craft, and a willingness to make music through synergy,” says Nirmala.

For Pat, Michelle, and Tim, that common ground is what they play off of, evolving their approach from piece to piece to compliment the music that Nirmala has carefully crafted.

“I’m comfortable adapting my tone and approach on both clarionet and saxophone. The biggest challenge has been trying to emulate the Carnatic gamakam on my instruments, many of which are idiomatic to Nirmala’s veena but not at all so on the clarionet, for instance,” Pat chimes in.

For Pat’s brother and percussionist, Tim, the collaboration is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Breaking boundaries, forging friendship

“How I use my instrument depends on the composition: trying to blend with the more Western-sounding portions while also enhancing the ones that are unlike what I am used to. Being able to work with such gifted artistes from such varied musical backgrounds is the most special part of this all,” he says.

Cellist Michelle echoes the sentiment, emphasising that the album is the truest representation of each artiste’s music in its complete authenticity.

Breaking boundaries, forging friendship

“Somehow, the cultural details of our music remain without being compromised or watered down; instead, they are ‘re-framed,’” she explains.

This retaining of authenticity, though, isn’t by accident. It relates directly to what Nirmala says is their greater purpose.

“It’s simple. I feel that now more than ever we need the power of music to bring us together, to remember what we have in common while we celebrate what makes us different,” she says.

Set to release under the international label Innova Records on October 26, the album is just the beginning, according to Nirmala.

“It’s our way of spreading the message of love, the philosophy of respect and trust, and mutual appreciation in the only way we really know how — through our music.”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 12:39:59 AM |

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