It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.
Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few.
In 1999, L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion was released on the Detour label; it featured Balinese Kecak chant, Japanese koto, Chinese erhu, Spanish guitar, Australian didgeridoo, tabla, percussion, keyboards, and bass. Each of the cultures represented retained its distinctive language, yet conversed harmoniously with South Indian music. It was an enticing and original global fusion that got a lot of airplay on my KPFK radio show. The Global Fusion project’s live concerts have had many incarnations over the years featuring varying musicians from different parts of the globe.
So when Corky Siegel called me to propose a concert of Dr. L. Subramaniam in which he was also taking part, I did not hesitate. Siegel is a virtuoso harmonica player who has performed with his Chamber Blues ensemble at the Skirball. I had not heard the two musicians play together, but was confident of their respective talents and capabilities. In the mastery of their instruments and openness for exploration, they have plenty in common.
Siegel and Subramaniam were introduced through their mutual friend Jim Bessman, writer for Billboard magazine. Mani (as Subramaniam is affectionately called by his friends) was eager for Corky to perform with him at a concert in Chicago. Corky was hesitant, not being sure of how the two musical idioms could work together, but Mani would not take no for an answer and showed up at his door in Chicago with a piece (“Lullaby”) he had composed for Siegel. Corky not only performed at the concert but went on to tour with Mani in India, the U.S., and Qatar. Siegel says both the challenge and the reward are to bring the blues to Indian music while keeping it exciting and avoiding getting lost in technicalities.
“Once,” says Corky, “Mani gave me a piece of music that was beyond my grasp. He said to me, ‘Corky, I didn’t hire you to play every note, I hired you because you make people happy.’ That’s how I understand what we are all doing in the band. It is very important to have technical correctness but not to let that be a burden. The bottom line is how are we making people feel? And how do we feel? My understanding is that Indian music and instruments have been specifically designed for going to the heart of feelings and to heal.”
Dr. L. Subramaniam could not agree more. In the CD liner notes of Global Fusion he writes: “The philosophy of ‘Global fusion’ is ‘promoting peace and harmony through music.’ The essence of ‘Global fusion’ is blending and combining without losing anything. We are all different in our wonderful ways, we are still human and just as all our music is different, the base is the same.”
If you love great music and musicianship, then you won’t want to miss the rare opportunity to experience Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion at the Skirball on Friday, February 22, 8:00 p.m., featuring master blues harmonica player Corky Siegel, violinist Ambi Subramaniam, keyboardist Vasanth Vaseegaran, guitarist Mark Sgagna, bassist Jerry Watts, and drummer Russell Miller.