The sound of dissent

A sense of liberation is woven into the very fabric of jazz, as is evident in the role it has played in social movements of the past. Today, the discourse around racial inequality in America is louder than ever, and the genre, often pollinated with black popular music, still expresses strains of anger and frustration, hope and pride of an entire people in the face of repression.

An aerial view of the George Floyd protests in Seattle on Blackout Tuesday
Photograph Credit: Shutterstock

The sound of a thousand protesters chanting the chorus of American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’,  from his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, echoed through Washington, D.C.’s 16th Street neighbourhood in the early hours of 6th June, 2020. The protests, which had begun a few days earlier, were prompted by the killing of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Department officer in May. The mood was heavy, but the spirit tenacious. Floyd’s death was far from an isolated incident; for the African-American community in the U.S., police brutality is a phenomenon grappled with on the regular. The deaths of other victims of racism and violence like that of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor only a few months before and of Eric Garner — his death is widely believed to have kick-started the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 — were atrocious antecedents to what would go on to become one of the world’s biggest movements against racial injustice.

Sparking off a wave of protests in America and the U.K., both already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, these incidents prompted a call to action in response to the vexing social issues and abuse of human rights that plague black communities. Not only did on-ground protesters lend their support to the movement, but record labels, radio stations, jazz outfits and festivals also joined in. The music industry responded to the tragic deaths by releasing statements that spoke of their solidarity with the movement. Where music had always been a salve for the masses in troubled times, it had now become central to the movement in ways that had not been harnessed before. People across cultures and continents upheld the cause online as part of the Blackout Tuesday discourse on 2nd June. Audiences the world over were open to receiving an education in the contribution of black artistes — a legacy sadly overlooked and often appropriated.

American rapper, songwriter and producer Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘Alright’ came to define a powerful moment in the Black Lives Matter movement

The roots of jazz

Hip-hop, rap, funk and other popular, more accessible, genres driven by the black community have been a part of the protest landscape for years now. Think Marvin Gaye’s soulful ‘What’s Going On’ and James Brown’s funk-fuelled ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ One could say that the music by these very artistes was informed by the ragtime-tinged work songs of lament sung by their forefathers — songs that spoke of the African-American experience of tackling systemic racism and slavery that has prevailed for over four centuries.

Jazz and the blues, predecessors of contemporary black music, have also been a catalyst for social and political change. Arising out of the social struggles of the marginalised throughout their history, these genres have never fallen short of serving as a powerful tool of expression. It is widely accepted that the music was born in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emerging out of the prevalent percussive tradition of African slaves brought to America in the 18th century and European harmonic accompaniments like the violin. Originally a blend of the ragged rhythms of rag-time, blues, and other West African music traditions, the sound evolved as it spread to other American cities like Chicago and New York. What started as a movement on the fringes of American society, soon became one of the most influential musical traditions of the 20th century.

Lamar’s ‘Alright’, widely regarded as a protest anthem since its release in 2015, taps into the continually evolving nature of jazz. Sonically, the song is an outright mix of rap, hip-hop and funk. Yet, those in the know will recognise jazz undercurrents — horn sections and skittering drums — in its soundscape. Lamar, the son of a jazz musician, worked with some of the most reputed contemporary jazz musicians like saxophonist Kamasi Washington, bassist Thundercat and pianist Robert Glasper to give shape to this landmark album.

Singer-songwriter Nina Simone’s anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was a crucial song of protest created during the American civil rights movement

Music that moves

Every movement in America had a song, and jazz became the music of resistance with its roots deeply entrenched in a centuries-old fight for equality. Racially charged songs such as Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ immediately spring to mind as popular music that spoke to a political moment. Holiday was already a reputed voice when she was introduced to the eponymous song and poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 to protest the lynching of African Americans. Her recording of this chilling anti-lynching song is considered to be the earliest protest song to have found its way into New York’s jazz clubs. Jazz also served as a marker of the impoverished living conditions of the community. In 1929, Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the jazz standard ‘Black and Blue’ by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf was already breaking ground. Although not exactly a protest song, it painfully details the lived experience of being black and oppressed in 1920s America.

The American civil rights movement, spanning 1954 to 1968, saw the release of countless compositions by some of jazz’s greatest architects. One such was the politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ written by Charles Mingus in 1959 at the peak of the movement. The song’s lyrics were an explicit protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who prevented nine African-American students from being integrated into a racially segregated school in 1957. Although the double bassist and singer was forced to release the song without lyrics at first, he went on to record the uncensored version titled ‘Original Faubus Fables’ in 1960.

John Coltrane’s composition of ‘Alabama’ in 1963 was a direct response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan that had resulted in the death of four African-American girls. In the same vein, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964) responded to this very white supremacist terrorist bombing and the murder of American civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

But not all jazz protest anthems were written in response to Black genocide. Many, like ‘The Freedom Suite’ by Sonny Rollins, also spoke about empowerment and happiness in anticipation of the change that would come. Still others were simply a testimony to Black pride. Whether one considers jazz standards of musical greats of the past or Lamar’s music that imaginatively taps into the lived Black experience of the present, the music is particularly resonant in 2020 in both the tiniest and toniest neighbourhoods of America and beyond. Every one of these protest songs is relevant today for the unrivalled level of musicianship. And, rightfully so. That they are still pertinent for the very reason they were written though is sadly beyond belief.

This piece was originally published in the November 2020 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA.

High-octane man

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Ten-time Grammy Award-winner Arturo Sandoval is hailed as one of the most dynamic Latin jazz trumpeters of our time. We take a deep dive into the life and accomplishments of the celebrated American-Cuban musician ahead of his first performance in India at the NCPA, Mumbai.

Arturo Sandoval’s energy seems to know no bounds. It was only last month that he played two concerts in Zagreb, made a dash for his Bruges show and then landed on home ground in the US, where a slew of shows demanded his attention. His energy offstage is no different from the powerful, vibrant and vigorous rhythms he delivers on stage. If he isn’t on a plane to play his next benefit concert or simply in his studio composing, he’d still be immersed in music in some manner or the other. Browse through his Instagram account and you’d know. The jazz trumpet master who turns 70 this month is possibly more active on social media than most of us. In one among his newer posts, Sandoval entertains friends at his Miami home as he playfully tinkles on his BösendorferImperial grand piano, once owned by the legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

In addition to playing the trumpet, Sandoval plays the flugelhorn and is a well-known composer, pianist and recording artist. A protégé of the legendary jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval caught the attention of the jazz world at a young age and continues to do so as he unleashes his robust sound during captivating performances with his band. He has been awarded ten Grammy Awards and was nominated 19 times, in addition to receiving six Billboard Awards. Unsurprisingly, he was presented with an Emmy Award for his work on the underscore of ‘For Love or Country’(2000), an HBO film based on his life. He has since lent his compositions to several other films and was commissioned by the Kennedy Center Ballet to score the ballet ‘Pepito’s Story’.

A tough start

Sandoval was born in the small town of Artemisa in the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, in 1949, barely two years after Gillespie became the first musician to inject Latin strains into American jazz. Growing up in Cuba and surrounded by traditional Cuban music, Sandoval always knew he wanted to be a musician someday and yet it was practically impossible to get a hold of any instrument at the time. He was all of ten when his aunt gifted him a small horn. He found it challenging at first, but soon took to it after hours of practice. “The first trumpet teacher I went to in Cuba told me to play for him and since I had never played before, he immediately told me to throw the horn away and give up. That day, at ten years old, I walked home crying the whole way. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to let him discourage me, and I embarked on my journey as a trumpet player,” says Sandoval.

Most might know him for the accomplished jazz player that he is and quite specifically for the blisteringly high notes he hits with ease on the trumpet. But few really know that he’s just as respected in the world of classical music. He was enrolled in the Cuban National School of Arts and was classically trained since the age of 12. He would go on to become one of Cuba’s most recognizable trumpet players by the age of 20 who would eventually perform with many of the world-renowned symphony orchestras. As a composer, he has written two concertos for the trumpet and orchestra—works that illuminate not only his composition skills on the trumpet, but also every instrument in the orchestra.

A whole new world

So, how did he go on to become an acclaimed guardian of the jazz trumpet? He was only exposed to the new sounds of bebop-tinged jazz when an acquaintance played him a record of jazz masters Charlie Parker and Gillespie in what can be described as a pivotal moment for the young Sandoval. The music was quite unlike anything the teenager had ever heard. He was hooked to this new sound of American jazz, even as Cuba considered it unlawful to even listen to “imperialistic music” such as this. Sandoval was drafted into the military in 1971; serving in the Cuban military was something of an obligation for the youth in Cuba at the time. One can say that jazz stole Sandoval’s heart but it was also the very music that eventually landed him in jail for three months after a sergeant discovered him listening to an American jazz radio broadcast.

When Dizzy came to town

Years later, Sandoval met his idol Gillespie on a fateful day in 1977 when the American jazz master arrived on a cruise in Cuba. Sandoval offered to show him around town, not once revealing the musician in him. It was only later that night when Gillespie hit the stage that Sandoval’s vibrant colours were unravelled. It was an association that lasted for over a decade and a half until the passing of Gillespie in 1993. Sandoval’s album ‘Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You), which reinterprets ten Gillespie compositions, is nothing short of the heartfelt tribute the Cuban trumpeter intended for it to be.

“Meeting Dizzy changed my life, just as music did. It was with his help that I was able to get political asylum and move to the US with my family. He afforded me the greatest freedom as well as more personal and professional opportunities that I could have ever wished for,” says the trumpet maestro who defected from Cuba in 1990 while on tour with Gillespie. “I was very fortunate to meet and then play and tour with Dizzy. It’s a truly marvellous thing to meet your hero, and then form a relationship and a bond with him. He was my mentor, my friend, my teacher and is still an inspiration to me every day.” Eventually, Sandoval became a citizen of America and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013—making him the fourth jazz musician after Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald to have been bestowed with this honour.

The living legend

Sandoval has accomplished a lot more since those years of highs and lows. Every one of his stratospheric recordings and performances are always worth writing home about. Where one can barely imagine the meeting of both jazz and pop, Sandoval has achieved this rare amalgamation with aplomb—not once deflecting from the authenticity of jazz. Instead, he gave form to the idea of the commercially successful jazz musician. He has recorded with artists ranging from Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams to Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau. Sandoval has truly given the world much to relish and he still has the stamina and spirit to go on. But, when he says that his true legacy is what he leaves behind, he’s referring to the Arturo Sandoval Institute (ASI), his non-profit organization whichprovides instruments, master classes and music education tounderprivileged students in America. “I want to be a part of makingsure that our children and grandchildren have music in their lives, despite thefact that schools are cutting their music programs!”

Performing day after day can get tiring, he says, but no matter how old he gets it’s the audience’s energy that he gladly feeds off. When he takes to the stage at the NCPA this month, one can expect to hear the master trumpeter at his fiery best. “I’m looking forward to experiencing the country, its people, music and food and am very interested in the percussion of India,” he says. “I look forward to hearing some and maybe playing some while I visit your beautiful country.”

This piece on Arturo Sandoval was originally published in ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai (November 2019)

Let it rain!

While overcast skies sound like an instant holiday killjoy, the monsoon season is possibly the best time to get under the skin of the coastal state of Goa


This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of JetWings (inflight magazine of Jet Airways)


8 global design trends that will shape 2018

This article was first published on India Art n Design

Honest packaging, augmented reality and other trends that will disrupt the realm of design in 2018. Here’s what the world will look like this year…

Clean labels will tell us more about the product than ever

Products will be wrapped in honest packaging
Reflecting the demand for simple and recognizable ingredients is the clean labelling trend that enlightens consumers’ purchase decisions without confusing or tricking them. Mintel’s Global Packaging Trends 2018 report suggests that brands will use the “essentialist” design principle in the next generation of the clean label to provide calm and clarity to shoppers in an increasingly hectic retail environment.
Voice assistants will be everywhere
Smart homes have become the norm as voice assistants now control everything from heating, lighting and music; they can even order your groceries or call you a taxi. Sleek devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s soon-to-be-released HomePod speaker will be found in many more homes this year. And, it won’t be long before you find a voice assistant in your bathroom, too, as these very companies are striking up partnerships with third-parties to make your life simpler!
Graphic design is getting bolder
Illustrations won’t be going out of fashion any time soon, but we will start to see hand-drawn illustrations blended with graphic effects like double exposures, negative space or glitches. Even digitally drawn illustrations paired with photographs will make it to the mainstream in 2018.
It’s becoming easier than ever to give kitchens and bathrooms a new look
While all-white kitchens are still in, we will see a lot more jewel tones used strategically, on cabinets, accent walls and even kitchen appliances. Concrete in accents and as a finish is making a grand appearance this year, too. Bathroom makeovers can be effected at the drop of a hat, thanks to the easy application of stylish tile skins.
Well-being will be at the heart of the workplace
Going beyond placing a few potted plants around the office, this trend will take shape as offices actively integrate biophilic design throughout the workplace. The use of live and artificial plants, green walls, natural lighting, nature-inspired textures and prints fortifies this well-rooted trend that is shown to improve employee health, productivity and wellbeing.
The boundaries between playtime and education will blur
STREAM thinking (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Art and Math) is a buzzword in the toy industry. But this movement that promotes the use of toys that help children of all ages to use their imagination, critical thinking and skills is gaining more traction this year, thanks to new innovations and research. From robotic kits and colourful toys that engage all senses, this trend will see an upsurge in toys that combine fun and learning.
Architectural facades get a multi-textured look
The classic brick façade will remain popular in 2018, but the focus will now be on mixing different textures for a more tactile experience. Whether it’s about creating contrasting textures by playing around with gloss and matte levels of the same material, using light and dark shades of similar colours, or even mixing and matching complementary materials on to a single surface, the exterior surfaces of homes will now be as important as the interiors.
Augmented reality is going mainstream
Going by reports of the recently concluded CES 2018, augmented reality and immersive technology will be a mainstay in 2018 and beyond, with gesture and emotions as the new interface in lieu of screens and hardware. Whether it’s experiences in the retail space that allow consumers to ‘try before they buy’, dissemination of knowledge at the workplace through virtual simulation training, or virtual museum visits and the ability to learn from more than just a one-dimensional view of an artefact or photo, augmented reality will change the way we look at things.


The digital nomads

Ambika Vishwanath and Hoshner Reporter took a break from their jobs in 2015. The couple have since travelled the length and breadth of India, documenting their travels on The reDiscovery Project. 

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*This feature was first published in the June 2017 issue of Spiceroute, the inflight travel magazine of Spicejet Airlines.

Come one, come all

The Symphony Orchestra of India’s resident conductor, Evgeny Bushkov, is going to reinvent the concert experience to make Western classical music an exciting, accessible and welcoming experience for new listeners

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*This piece was first published in the June 2017 issue of ON Stage, the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) monthly magazine.