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Musical Masala

Violinist blends jazz, South Indian styles.

Photo: Rupesh Kotecha

IN TUNE WITH TRADITION: Venkataraman trained with the same Indian violinist who taught her grandmother.

By Helen Anderson

The performance is unlike any jazz concert you've ever been to. It starts with the pulsing drone of what Aishu Venkataraman calls a "magic box"—a device slightly smaller than a toaster oven that replicates the sound of a South Indian string instrument called a tampura. Venkataraman, '14, stands at center stage in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, flanked by instruments including a set of Indian drums, a piano, a bass guitar and a standard rock drum kit. She puts a violin to her chin and wanders up and down a Carnatic scale, distinct from any Western major or minor scale. Then, the rest of her band, Delhi Fresh, joins in and the music shifts into the familiar blues progression of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man."

Venkataraman's seemingly effortless blending of two disparate musical traditions is the product of 17 years of training and careful planning, leavened with just the right amount of improvisation and spontaneity. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., she began taking violin lessons in the classical Suzuki style at the age of 2 ½. Soon though, as Venkataraman tells it, she "refused to be confined to the notes on the page." So her parents arranged for her to study with T.N. Krishnan, a celebrated Indian violinist who had taught Venkataraman's grandmother to play, and who came to Southern California for several months each year to live with his son.

If her virtuosity on the violin was inherited from her grandmother, Venkataraman's love of jazz came from her dad, a drummer well-versed in both Indian and jazz styles. In middle school, she played in the jazz band and attended Berklee College of Music's prestigious five-week summer program. During an audition to return for an encore summer, Venkataraman played "Watermelon Man," the only jazz piece she knew at the time. When she finished, there were still a few minutes left on the clock. She remembered her dad's advice: "What you know and what you're good at is Indian music, so show them that. Don't be scared to just plop yourself on the floor and play."

Venkataraman did, and it worked. Though she was just about to enter high school, Berklee encouraged her to get her GED and enroll as a full-time student. The idea didn't go over well with her parents, but they worked out a compromise: Venkataraman would finish high school, but spend every summer at Berklee. By the time she completed her freshman year at Stanford, she had racked up enough units to earn a bachelor's degree in jazz performance from Berklee.

It was during those summers that Venkataraman's vision for a jazz/Indian fusion band began to take shape. Combining the two traditions was problematic though, since they are based on fundamentally different musical theories. Western music gets its foundation from chords. The chords follow different progressions, and the notes of the melody can be located in these underlying chords. In South Indian music, however, there are no chords. Instead, each piece of music is based on a Carnatic scale. With the help of her Berklee professors, Venkataraman was able to work out a solution. With "Watermelon Man," for example, she tried to find an Indian scale that would work with any one of the chords the piano plays.

Delhi Fresh
Courtesy Aishu Venkataraman
FRESH TAKE ON JAZZ STANDARDS: Venkataraman, center, with bandmates and guest artists.

The piece also incorporates intricate mathematical patterns called korvais. A feature of Carnatic music, korvais are improvisational, but not in precisely the same sense as jazz. Patterns are passed down from teacher to student, and are easily identifiable among Indian musicians. Through mind-bogglingly complex spur-of-the-moment calculations, the musician figures out how best to fit them into the beat cycle of the song. Because Delhi Fresh works together as a band, this kind of improvisation is somewhat daunting. But it's a challenge that excites Venkataraman. "We want to get to that point where we have an arsenal of like 50 of these, where we know each other and the patterns so well that if one person starts playing one, within a beat we can catch up and know where everyone is."

These days, when she isn't studying for a biology exam, leading campus tours or working with kidney patients in the lab, Venkataraman takes violin lessons from an Indian vocalist in Chennai via Skype. She'll sit cross-legged on the floor of her dorm room with the scroll of her instrument braced on her foot (the posture of the traditional Indian violinist), and her laptop open on a chair in front of her. Her 84-year-old teacher, who does not play the violin, sings melodies to her, and she plays them back to him. These lessons, she says, are an important exercise in tonal quality. "I've been told, in a lot of different styles of music, that an instrument is trying to emulate the sound of a voice." Moreover, knowing the lyrics to a piece of music (Venkataraman speaks Tamil) influences the way she interprets and plays it. During annual trips to India, she's been impressed that even the drummers she meets emphasize the meaning of the music. "They'd be like, 'Oh, section two of this song—do you remember the words to that?' And I'd just be like, 'Are you joking? I play the violin.' "

Venkataraman acknowledges that playing South Indian music in its most traditional form perhaps "isn't the best way to target Western audiences or to reel people in." But blending it with other popular musical styles allows for a subtler initiation. "I'm really proud of my culture, and I just want to introduce more people to that."

Helen Anderson, '14, is a Stanford intern.

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