Segment 18 – Hindu Rap

Take some Indian mythology and put it to a beat, and you’ll get today’s topic – Hindu rap. Listen to the segment here:

(NB: The tracks are now included in the audio here, due to changed agreements between community broadcasters and the music industry. Yay!) The tracks were ‘Ganesh is Fresh‘ by MC Yogi and ‘Siva Siva‘ by Yogi B and Natchatra.

Rap is effectively words spoken rhythmically, and ostensibly has its roots in Africa. It is often linked with hip-hop however the latter is much broader than rap – developing in New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop became a generic lifestyle or culture, including graffiti, breakdancing, as well as the grooving beats of hip-hop music. Both hip-hop and the style of rap are gaining popularity in India, now being common features of Bollywood films.

MC Yogi is not Indian, however – he is a Californian yoga instructor, “a working class mystic,” who draws on a huge range of influences to engender a spiritual experience through his music. He reads the Bhagavad Gita daily, apparently, and his music is deemed to be “devotional music.” In his own words, “it’s a sonic trip, a journey toward the self, toward what yoga masters call the Supreme Soul.” Yoga (etymologically related to the English ‘yoke’) means more in Hinduism than it does in the West. A yoga is a discipline, a path to the divine – and the physical, stretches-and-exercises-type yoga that we know of draws on only one such path. Thus MC Yogi can say that his goal is “a full, authentic, transformative yoga experience … on the dance floor.”

Others are also trying to spread their messages using rap, such as Yogi B & Natchatra. They are Malaysians of Tamil descent, and are leading figures in the Tamil rap scene. They sing in multiple languages, including English, and their outfit is not overtly religious. The track we played, however, certainly is: it takes the form of a long prayer, effectively, singing the praises of a number of Hindu gods. The song focuses on a certain depiction of Shiva called Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (shown above). Through his dancing Shiva is attributed the power to both destroy and create the world. Quite an appropriate god to dance to, then?

Some Hindus disagree. While there is no worldwide, official institution of Hinduism, there are obviously people who are more conservative than others. On one site, Hindus were responding to tracks like these, saying rap was “more suited for a political statement” than praising the gods; one commenter even suggested that Hindu rap was a “desecration of the divine.” It is interesting that a style of music is accredited such symbolic power, the ability to make the sacred profane, to reduce the glory of the gods to such a degree; while others, like the artists, clearly see no issue here, and see their music styles as their own ways to glorify the divine and spread their message. It is impossible to make blanket statements about religions. As confusing as it is, attention must be paid to individual contexts, and the ways that individuals contest the meanings of the symbols they use on a daily basis.

We’re off to Japan again next week to chat about Zen and its influence on certain jazz artists. Namaste!

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Segment 8 – Hindu Jazz

What happens when you mix two already-complex cultural products together? My brain implodes. You can hear how that sounds here:

We played ‘Stopover Bombay‘ by Alice Coltrane, and ‘Peshkar for Hamza‘ by George Brooks.

I should admit first up that there is no music that calls itself Hindu jazz. But there is an incredibly fertile genre called Indian-jazz fusion, in which jazz artists explore classical Indian music, blending harmonies, scales and instrumentation from both. This borderland has been approached from both sides, but for now, we’re focusing on American jazz musicians who experiment with Indian styles. And a subset of those artists are inspired by Indian mythology and spiritual teachings.

As I very briefly explained on air, ‘Hinduism‘ didn’t exist before the British Raj. Instead, there was simply a huge panoply of philosophies, traditions, spiritualities, gurus, gods, worship practices, and so on, which varied widely across the subcontinent. This variety and diversity was named ‘Hinduism’ by the British rulers; so although we think of ‘it’ as one of the five great world religions, this was never really the case.

As I’ve said before on the blog, the 1960s was a time of discovery for a lot of people in the West – discovery of other religions and other ways of living. Eastern spirituality, of which what we now call ‘Hinduism’ was a part, was one major source of new inspiration for 60s artists. Jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane were among those attracted to these Eastern traditions. John Coltrane apparently had a spiritual awakening after a youth addled with drugs and alcohol. He drew on an eclectic range of religious sources in forming his own conceptions. During his career he steadily abandoned conventional harmonic structures, and some of his work is very hard on the ears (see ‘Om‘ for example). He saw a kind of mystical power in music; his own work “expresses a kind of transcendent religious ecstasy, sometimes incorporating prayers or chants.”

His wife Alice Coltrane was more consistently drawn to Hindu concepts. She eventually changed her name, in fact, to Turiyasangitananda. She was a devotee of a number of swamis and gurus throughout her life, including one Sathya Sai Baba. This guru claimed to be the reincarnation of an earlier guru, and preached a very inclusive and syncretic teaching. He said that no devotee had to give up their own religion – as all religions are simply different forms of the one teaching, from the one God. Although this monotheism is not present in early ‘Hinduism’, the idea that different traditions are just different paths to the one truth is very common. One of Sathya Sai Baba’s ashrams has statues of Hanuman (Indian monkey god), Krishna, Christ, Shirdi Sai Baba (his earlier incarnation), Shiva, Buddha, and Zarathustra (founder of Zoroastrianism).

George Brooks, a contemporary American saxophonist, similarly talks about his guru – a classical Hindustani singer named Pandit Pran Nath. Pran Nath was born a Hindu Brahman (the priestly caste) but ran away to study with a Muslim musician. Brooks says that he and his guru would do puja (ritual prayer and offering) to Hindu gods and to Allah. I hope you’re getting a sense of the wonderful flexibility of Indian beliefs and practices! Brooks feels that making music is itself a spiritual practice; you’re breathing life into a piece, “penetrating into the mysteries that surround us and trying to find the things that connect us together.” His music is truly Indian-jazz fusion, blending saxophones and guitars with tabla drumming and sitars. Check out this live track.

Plenty more to say, of course – the big jazz scene in Mumbai, among other places, begs attention – but we’ll have it leave it at that. Looking forward to sci-fi folk music next week…