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Q&A: Jazz musician Arun Luthra taps into the universal language of rhythm

Q&A: Jazz musician Arun Luthra taps into the universal language of rhythm

Arun Luthra

Jazz saxophonist Arun Luthra is the interdisciplinary artist in residence at the UW-Madison Division of the Arts this semester. 

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“A genius is the one most like himself,” jazz great Thelonious Monk once said. And while Arun Luthra is too modest to either call himself a genius or put himself in Monk’s league, the quote resonates with him.

Luthra’s music is an extension and a manifestation of who he is and where he comes from. The child of an Indian father and a British mother, and raised in the United States and Europe, Luthra’s music combines jazz saxophone with konnakol, the South Asian classical tradition of vocalized rhythms. But if the influences come from opposite sides of the globe, they blend together in Luthra’s music into a unified, cohesive whole.

Luthra is the fall 2021 interdisciplinary artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of the Arts. The program brings visiting artists to campus for a semester, where they teach a class intended for students of different disciplines, artists and not, as well as programming a series of live performances and lectures that the general public can enjoy.

Luthra performed at Jazz at Five earlier this month, and took to the stage with his Konnakol Jazz Project at the Wisconsin Union Theater's Play Circle Theater on Sept. 10. The semester will end with a December showcase at Art + Literature Laboratory featuring Luthra performing with jazz students and his interdisciplinary students, as well as end-of-semester projects that go beyond music.

Luthra talked with the Cap Times about how his music reflects his essence and how the universal language of rhythm can be a foundation for social change.

Did you grow up with both of these musical influences in your life?

My father’s family is from Punjab, the northwestern province of India, which was split apart by a partition in 1947. My father’s father emigrated to British East Africa for economic opportunities, and that’s where my father was born and raised.

And then my mother is English, and she is also a child of colonialism, and grew up in British colonial Africa. So my parents met in colonial Africa, and then eventually married in the United Kingdom. My siblings were born in the U.K., and then, quite a few years later, I was born in the U.S.

I have a very culturally inclined family, a very artistically inclined family. Both of my siblings are also professional artists. I was surrounded by records and books, and I was going to museums and concerts and all kinds of things. I had that in my life from the very earliest time.

And then my father was an amateur tabla player, who really loved Hindustani music, and he especially loved Sufi devotional songs. He listened to that all the time. From a very young age I fell in love with the sound of the vocalized rhythms of Indian classical music, which exists in both the Hindustani tradition, the North Indian classical tradition, and the Carnatic tradition, the South Indian tradition, which I perform. 

Konnakol goes back centuries, if I understand right. And it began as a way to vocally teach rhythm and then became a rhythmic art form in its own right.

Indian classical music is an oral tradition. So when as a disciple, you go to your guru to learn, you're going to learn everything, by memory, and by ear. And everything that can be played on an instrument can also be executed vocally. So if you're playing a melodic instrument, they would sing melodies, sing the names of the notes that they saw. Then after you can sing it, then you would play it on your instrument.

With percussion instruments, there are different ways... to strike the drum. You can hit it with the palm of your hand, with the tips of your fingers, with just one finger, with three fingers. The way that is translated into vocalizing is by giving each different stroke of the drum a syllable. Eventually these syllables became separate from actually being played on a drum and they became their own percussive art form.

How did you come up with the idea of marrying your saxophone with this konnakol?

It's not so much about coming up with the idea as that just being an organic, natural flowing of who I am. To me, it’s as essential a part of me as how tall I am, or what languages I speak. This is what I’m about. This is what I love. And this is what I want to express.

I grew up in a household where Punjabi is spoken and English and French, and where I was hearing Hindustani music and Sufi music, and I was hearing Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, and Neil Young and B.B. King. There was nothing remarkable or self conscious about that. That’s just the world I was in.

One of the goals of your class, titled “The Universal Language of Rhythm: Explorations through Konnakol and Black American Music,” is to find connections between the two, correct?

That's certainly part of it. It’s very important to me to be explicit that I fell in love with the music of B.B. King, of Louis Armstrong, of Ella Fitzgerald, of Billie Holiday, of Thelonious Monk, of Mary Lou Williams, all of these great masters. And that foundation is Black American music, right? Black culture. This is the tradition and the music that I fell in love with, to which I also bring my own cultural identity, and my own cultural experience.

And then the course is talking about just the idea of rhythm as a universal phenomenon. We're into the third week of the course now, and we're doing readings on how Hindu mythology might describe the nature of the universe compared to quantum physics. You can find incredible parallels, and rhythm is really a common thread. Rhythm is kind of the primal essence of the universe.

So when you say interdisciplinary, you don’t mean just different kinds of music. There’s value in learning about this for non-musicians as well.

Absolutely. The residency is very deliberately designed so that the course is open to everyone. It’s not a course for musicians. I'm a person that really enjoys exploring the connections between disparate ideas, I find that really exciting and fascinating. So I've always been into theoretical physics and mythology, political activism... those things have always interested me.

Having a focused activity, this course, to really bring those ideas together is incredible to me and it's really exciting. And opening up new ideas for myself, just hearing what the students have to say. Just the other day, a student was relating what we were talking about in terms of synchronous vibration to a speech pathology and how neurons fire in the brain. The parallels are incredible.

In the intro video for your residency, you mentioned relating some of the themes to political activism, anti-racism and colonialism. How does that play into what you’re talking about in the class?

An essential part of my identity is that I am a child of colonialism. If it weren’t for the British Empire, I wouldn’t exist. My parents would never have met. I think about what are the struggles that they went through in terms of being a multicultural couple, an interracial couple, and my father as a South Asian man (who moved) to the UK to live and make a life and then emigrated to the U.S. So these ideas have a direct impact on my life and the life and experiences of my ancestors. So, it's really important to me that we include that in the discussion. And then on a very practical level, music has been a part of political activism for as long as there's been political activism. That’s another element where rhythm is an integral part of the human experience.

I interviewed a dancer and choreographer who was an artist-in-residence a year ago, and we talked about how, during the Black Lives Matter protests, there would be dance parties in the middle of the protests. And a lot of people didn’t understand that, how people who were so angry and so determined to change the world could express such joy at the same time.

Black American music, Black culture, is something that transcends borders and in some ways has become the musical lingua franca of the planet. Listen to pop music anywhere. Japanese pop music, Nigerian pop music, Argentinian pop music. No matter where you go in the world, the roots of it are in blues and swing.

You think about the people who created this music in response to unimaginable oppression and suffering. The astounding resilience, the astounding strength it takes to turn that horror into something so beautiful that that the whole world wants it. It’s inexpressible. How miraculous that is.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.

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