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Letter from India: Jazz by the Bay of Bengal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2009 - When the Mississippi River empties into the Bay of Bengal, it means one of two things: 1.) cataclysmic environmental disaster beyond our wildest imaginings; or 2.) jazz, that music that captures the body and soul of America and has so much of its history rooted in the muddy banks that connect St. Louis and New Orleans, has found its way to the shores of a different land.

Given India's total obsession with Bollywood music, it was startling to see an article about a jazz concert prominently featured in the local paper of the southeastern city where I came to work two months ago. Visakhapatnam, better known as Vizag, is a city of 2 million people on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in the state of Andhra Pradesh. In recent years, it has grown rapidly, with many call centers and other new businesses. Beach resorts have sprung up, including the swanky Park Hotel, which, the article noted, had chosen to host the jazz concert that Sunday night.

"Named 'Jazz By The Bay'," the article went on, "the event will introduce for the first time in the city, Jazz duo Sonia Saigal and Harmeet Manseta. Sonia is one of the finest jazz singers in the country and she made her professional debut at the age of 16 .... Harmeet has been playing professionally for 10 years."

As an avid jazz fan and a former student of St. Louis jazz musicians like Carol Beth True and Stanley Coleman, I felt I had no choice but to attend the show.

Softly lit lanterns led from the marble-floored hotel lobby through the perfectly manicured lawns and finally to the small stage on the sandy beach. Most of the crowd looked to be European or American guests at the hotel on business trips. I settled in at a table and waited for the show to start.

When Sonia, the jazz singer, took the stage she murmured her introduction in a sultry, deep voice. Harmeet began to lay down chords on the keyboard, and soon they were in full swing, playing through various jazz standards that echo through the halls of jazz clubs the world over.

When I approached the jazz duo at intermission I found out that Sonia and Harmeet have never been to the United States and only rarely played with American jazz musicians. Over the past several years, they'd had steady gigs in Kolkata (Calcutta) and played in most of the five-star hotels across India.

"Any job is a good job," Harmeet told me once the hotel manager wandered out of sight, "but I still need to keep my day job as a programmer."

As night descended on the beach and the lamps illuminated the buzzing insects around the stage, I fell into a critical mood. Instead of playing purely as a duo, they were using the programmed drum and bass noises on the keyboard to fill out an imaginary trio behind the singer. Sonia's voice was a little too husky; the affected American accent was overdone. The keyboard decided of its own accord to introduce a techno beat during a swing song, and they stopped for technical difficulties.

But as they started the second half of the show with a funky version of 'Summertime,' I stopped to consider the monumental strangeness of the circumstances. I, a white male, was critiquing the quality and authenticity of jazz music, rooted in black culture, as played by musicians from India, who were singing songs written by a Jewish guy (George Gershwin), who was originally trying to approximate African-American spirituals.

Most absurd of all, I found a sense of reassurance in the absurdity of tracking the fusion of cultural identities that created that moment next to the Bay of Bengal.

The confluence of ideas, experiences and abilities that occurred in America led to a unique creation. American culture took these influences and made a music all its own, a style that captured the pain, sorrow, pleasure, happiness and every emotion contributing to those extremes. Jazz made itself in the image of America - diverse, complex, striving, inventing - and America embraced it as its national, and musical, ethos.

India, too, is a country that will take jazz and make it its own - in time. Maybe there was a simulated bass player and drummer rounding out the band; perhaps the singer's accent was a little too affected; it might be that nobody on stage knows about the American system of slavery perpetuated to make a profit "when the cotton is high." But the beauty and appeal of jazz does not come from a rigid orthodoxy or a simple historical pattern. Jazz has that creative, improvisational impulse that speaks to the universal.

This universal quality of jazz is rooted in its American heritage. Though descendants of black slaves invented jazz, it is a type of music that dreamed of overcoming adversity, stretching for liberty, finding a way toward greater freedom. India, the largest democracy in the world, faces many of the same challenges in realizing these democratic possibilities, especially in the face of its growing energy needs, global climate change, perpetual tension with a nuclear Pakistan, industrial development, high illiteracy rates and the constant struggle to improve human rights.

But on that Sunday night next to the lapping waves of the ocean and the well-known chords of jazz standards, these issues receded into the darkness over the water. The music still transported a sound and a listener from one continent to the next, and the sandy tides had a familiar, muddy look to them as they washed ashore.

Nick Wertsch will be sending in occasional letters from India. 

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