An east-west symphony
ROOM WITH A POINT OF VIEW
By ANDREW KAY
I first heard the sounds of Indian classical music while studying Jazz performance at Humber College.
As an aspiring musician looking for influences to shape my creative expression, I came across the album Call of the Valley and it immediately grabbed my attention. The album takes the listener on a day in the life of a Kashmiri shepherd, using ragas set to different times of the day played by some of the great maestros – Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri, Shiv Kumar Sharma on santoor, Brij Bhushan Kabra on slide guitar, and Manikrao Popatkar on tabla. I was immediately transported to the mountains in India and could feel that there was some special power in this music that I had to go discover for myself in person.
I wasn’t alone in this discovery of raga music, as both my brother Jonathan Kay and friend Justin Gray were alongside me. The seeds were planted. Literally the day after our exams that year we were on a plane to India, a trip that would change the course of my life. Our journey was filled with all the wonders of India, including the Taj Mahal, the Himalayan mountains, the food, colours, many languages and even new-found family. However, the connection that settled most deeply was with the musician who would one day become my guru. Vocalist Pandit Shantanu Bhattacharyya had agreed to teach us the basics of Hindustani raga music over the course of nine lessons, that each spanned three to five hours! I entered each lesson like a sponge, eagerly looking to absorb as much as I could, and left the lesson in awe of the depth and power that was contained in even the most basic notes and phrases. It was only years later that I realized that in these primary lessons I was being exposed to just the tip of an enormous iceberg. I returned to Toronto filled with inspiration that carried me through the final years of my jazz performance degree, but those powerful experiences never left me and the minute I graduated I was back on a plane to Kolkata to dive deeper into this world of ragas.
I spent the majority of the next ten years living in an apartment with my brother next to our guru, spending countless hours everyday learning by ear and singing in the traditional guru-shishya parampara, and then spending countless more hours figuring out the various techniques and unique methods to apply the music onto my saxophone. My brother Jonathan also plays the saxophone, so we were able to support and foster each other’s ideas and efforts. We also discovered the tradition of musical families and specifically brothers who would perform and carry on the musical lineage together.
Once we started to perform around the country we were given the name The Saxophone Brothers. We performed in some of the most prestigious festivals and stages in the country and were acclaimed for our effort in rendering the ragas on a foreign instrument. We still to-date perform around the world, being two of the very few people in the world recognized for performing raga music on the saxophone. The rewards from learning this music were much greater than I expected, as what comes hand-in-hand with this tradition is a deep personal connection to nature through a beautiful sadhana (spiritual practice/path). The structure of the music reflects the complex world around us and works as a bridge between ourselves and the universe; a way to express ourselves and bring the beauty of the world in focus. Contrary to the Western music system, which is heavily based in theory and written music, Hindustani music is taught only through direct listening and repetition with your ears and voice. This teaches us how to listen deeply and in turn how to reflect and relate to what’s around us.
Western music shines in its harmony – both with the structure of chords as well as with the act of creating, playing and performing together in groups. As my life in Kolkata became more settled, I also found myself performing and collaborating with some of the pioneering musicians of Western music in India. So despite diving so deep into the culture of raga music, I could not forget my roots in Western music. I needed to find a way to unite these two contrasting worlds. My brother and I started to explore the realms where Indian ragas’ deep spirituality meets Western music’s creative collective expression, specifically through the music of John Coltrane and our own original compositions and projects. Throughout our time living together in India we made many trips back to Toronto to cultivate our projects of Monsoon, Monsoon Trio, Kayos Theory, and running the Toronto Indo-Jazz Festival, as well as sharing my experience through lessons and workshops, and most importantly spending time with my family.
Recently, my life has brought me back to Toronto, to settle with my wife and daughter, searching for ways to share this unique experience of living deeply inside two rich traditions from opposite sides of the world. As a teacher and performer I strive to share the richest aspects of both streams of music to help build a bridge between the East and West. I teach private and group lessons in Toronto as well as online and am currently organizing classes more focused towards students who are learning western instruments, but interested in cultivating a knowledge of Hindustani music, as well as a universal appreciation of all music.
• Andrew Kay will be performing at the Grant’s Desi Achievers Awards Gala 2018 on October 13 with Grant’s Desi Achiever tabla virtuoso Ravi Naimpally. To learn more about studying with Andrew Kay, visit www.andrew-kay.ca or contact him directly via connect@ andrew-kay.ca or 647-527-5353.