Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cairn to Cairn C.D. Release, Crazy Wisdom, Dave Sharp C.D. Release

  November is over half way done and have already played all my scheduled shows. Wow, what a light month on the gigging front.  It has been a great month to catch up, reflect, and get a lot of extra practicing in.  Looking back I only played 3 shows this whole month, but they were really special and inspiring.
  The first show was a C.D. release party for Cairn to Cairn at the Ark in downtown Ann Arbor.  It was very cool to play at the Ark, since it was the first place I went to see a show after moving to Michigan from California, over 6 years ago.  What was even cooler is that I was now sharing the stage with the performer I went to see, Peter 'Madcat' Ruth.  The stage was actually very packed.  Cairn to Cairn is made up of Terry Farmer on guitar, Kelly McDermot on flute, and Rob Crozier on bass.  They went all out for this concert and invited as many people as they could pack onto the stage.  There were members of the Bijou Orchestra on violins, and cello, my old teacher Jon Hill on percussion, a drummer, guitar player, Madcat on harmonica, and myself on tabla.  I only played on one piece, so I was free to sit and watch the rest of the show. It was great to see Jon Hill again. He taught me marimba and snare drum solo at UM-Flint during my teaching certification days.  We got to hang out after and catch up on things.  The show went great, and there was a good crowd.  The sound was also really nice, the sound guy was Jim Gibbons. He has done sound for some great tabla players, so it was an honor to have him on the board.  My only wish was that I could have played more songs with them.
  The next show was nearly two weeks later at Crazy Wisdom Tearoom.  This time Meeta was there, but no one else from Sumkali could make it, so we again called on our ICMD friends. This time it was Vish Srivastava on vocals and harmonium, Mahesh Ganesan on kanjira, Meeta on the sitar and Atmaram on the harmonium.

   It was a great concert and we ended up with the biggest tips of the year.  I love the energy that has been happening at CW. The vibe is so good and the music is very uplifting.
  I am so excited to be involved in so much music that inspires, relaxes, heals, and energizes me.  I feel lucky. I was guided from an early age to play music that I love to play and now I see the wisdom in that.  Honestly, I did not count on the road being so busy, so difficult and so long, and as far as I can tell, there is no end in sight, but as I look around I am realizing that everyone around me is also forging ahead.  When I talk to friends, family members, or anyone else that I cross paths with day-to-day, the topics are always dealing with the journey of life.  How has the past been?, what does the future hold?, who else have you heard from?  Conversing about all of these inquiries give me so much reassurance and gratitude for what I get to do every day.  I am proud to talk about my life and all the wonderful things happening and it reminds me how lucky I am.
  So, anyway, enough gushing.  I have got to tell you about this great project I did with Dave Sharp.  Back in the summertime I went a couple blocks down from my house and recorded tabla on a track for Dave's upcoming album, "Secret Seven", (available soon on iTunes).  Dave called me sometime in October and said the C.D. was done and he was planning a C.D. release party and he would like me to play.  It was at a great club downtown called Live at P.J.'s on Saturday, Nov. 20th.  The band Dave put together was really incredible.  Two singers, sax, trumpet, keyboards, bass and three percussionists. I was on tabla for two of the tunes and for the rest I played conga, shaker, tambourine, and even cowbell!  It was fun.  Muruga Booker was also on percussion, which was great since we have been doing so much recording together lately.  I felt like the whole band was able to lock in right from the first rehearsal.  The crowd was great and it was a lot of fun getting to know everyone in the band.
  One thing that is so great about music is that the relationships you build while actually playing the music seem to last over years without losing a beat.  If a group of musicians lock in and create something great, then the feeling that they can do it again never goes away.  The next time I play with any of the musicians I played with on this night, even if it is years from now, chances are we would be able to pick up right where we left off, without missing a beat.  I guess you could say it happened with Dave.  I played a small kirtan gig with him over 2 years ago and then he just called me out of the blue for this recording.  Based on just an hour or two of playing together, (we didn't even really get a chance to talk that first night), Dave felt he could bring me into a studio and record on his album.  I don't know, perhaps this instant recognition and comaraderie is the prevalent in many professions, but I notice it in music over and over again.  It motivates me to keep practicing and to always be ready for whatever is around the corner.

  So that is it for November.  I don't see any other shows on the horizon until December, so I will take the time to rest, relax, and keep practicing!

Thanks for reading,

John

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humidity, 10,000 Villages, Judy Piazza, Ravi Shankar, Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, MSMS, Mata Mandir

  October was a very wet month this year, it seemed to be raining all the time.  The "Does the weather affect the drums that much?" conversation was an icebreaker at a couple of the gigs this month.  It does. When I first started studying tabla in California we were always keenly aware of the wind. If the wind blew in the desert, it meant that whatever little moisture was in the air was gone and all the drums dried up and got tight.  In Michigan it is the opposite, the air gets very humid and the drum heads all loosen and get thick.
   Either way, your instrument is in need of constant attention to stay in tune and sounding nice.  Musicians often refer to their instrument as a living entities, and I believe it stems from the fact that in order for the instrument to do what you want it to do, you must care for it every time you are in contact with it.  Each instrument has its own set of sound characteristics that can literally resonate our bodies in ways that feel absolutely fabulous.  When just one little thing changes, like a string coming just out of tune, or a loose component starts to rattle, the feeling can evaporate and we are left wondering why the same song that gave us joy yesterday is today giving us anxiety today.
   Even moving your instrument to a different room, or changing how you hold it will affect the sound.  When a musician starts talking to, naming, and adoring their instrument, it is not (always) dillusional, crazy, vein, or for entertainment....no....I like to think that it comes from a moment where that instrument resonated deeply and joyfuly with the musician, giving them something they could not get anywhere else.  Have you ever seen Willie Nelson's guitar?  Not exactly a practical choice for the rigors of touring, but an old friend that rings out a layer of sound unlike any other.  I wonder...does he have a name for it?
  

   I love going into new situations and different spaces to play music.  As a percussionist, I don't always get to bring the same instrument, but this month seemed to be all tabla gigs.  It has been great, since I have been so inspired by my Guruji's visit last month.  I have been practicing everyday for at least an hour and the tabla have been opening up to me.  I am not sure how else to put it...I guess I feel like I am getting more out of my tabla now than I ever have and it is driving me to practice more and more.  I have also been saying yes to a lot of tabla gigs just to have an opportunity to play them outside the practice realm.

  Meeta Banerjee and I have played music at 10,000 Villages every year since their opening, and this year they asked us back for an anniversary party.  The stores concept is great, they are a non-profit fair trade goods store. Everyone who works there is a voulenteer, so there are always new faces working when we play.  This year we were sitting directly across from the cash register, so the voulenteers got to see us head on.  In years past we have been on the same side and a bit removed from their view, so this was a nice change. It felt more like we were giving a concert.
  One lady saw me play the tabla and immediately went over to their drum display and picked up a baya.  She said she always wondered how you play them and now she wanted to try.  She set it on top of the countertop, took a good look at my hand to get the technique, and then tried to play. One problem...she had no ring under the drum.  As soon as she laid her hand on it,  it slid across the countertop, flipped over and slammed down on the glass.  She nervously laughed and said "sorry" and put the drum away.  Meeta and I just smiled and kept playing.
  The next day found Meeta and I at a lunchtime Indian wedding reception in the Bloomfield Hills area at some private country club.  It was the first wedding for Meeta and I, and we had no idea how it would go over.  We had a nice little stage and I brought a sound system. We got all set up and the sound was really great, so that relaxed us and got us excited to play.  We knew that it would be one of those events where we were just the back ground music, so we played nice and light.  When we finished our first piece the whole group, about 250 of them, gave a rousing applause.  It took us both off-guard. We did not think that people were even listening.  I would have loved to have a picture of our faces when the applause came, I am sure we looked surprised.
  So that changed the tone for the whole rest of the event.  Now people started coming up to us and requesting certain rags, and some were walking by guessing the rag we were playing and telling us stories about when they used to play.  It felt very comfortable and friendly.  I had a moment when I almost lost the beat when I saw a large gentlemen lose his pants right down to his ankles as he got to the end of the buffet line with both hands full of food.  It was hilarious in a funny-home-video way.   I could not get Meeta to look over without attracting too much attention, so it was a moment for me, the guy, and the server that was also standing right there.  If the server and I would have caught each others eyes after it happened, I think the bubble would have burst, and I would have lost it completely. As it happened, we finished the song, the guy pulled himself together and the afternoon went on normaly.  Meeta and I finished up, got a bite to eat, and headed home.  It was a nice show to play.

   The next day I was at a house in the Bloomfield Hills area, (again) playing tabla for a small kirtan with Judy Piazza.  She was in town for a little while and asked me a few days before if I would play with her. I was excited to not just because we have made great music in the past, but she was also playing with her newly developed instrument, the 'Dulcitar'. It was beautiful, and sounded great.  It is a bit hard to explain, but it sits flat on the ground and there are the regular dulcimer strings in the middle on the inside there are some strings with moveable frets and on the outside are the drone strings, very similar to the sitar's sympathetic strings, only these you can play easily.  I wish I had a picture to share with you, but I am sure Judy will have one online soon, if she doesn't already.
   Anyway the most important part of any instrument is the sound, and the Dulcitar sounded great. Lot's of great layers that made two musicians sound like 3 or 4.  It was a fun night. The room we were in had big windows that was letting in the soft evening light.  We sat down, set up, and started to play.  As we played, the sun went down and the room got darker and darker.  When Judy asked everyone if they wanted to turn on some lights, they said 'no', so we ended up singing and playing in near darknes.  It was very different, but also very nice.  Turning off the lights seems to turn the silence up and hence, give the music a great space to exist without distraction.  It was a nice change from the norm.

  Two days later I was at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor for an event presented by the University Musical Society, (UMS).  My group Sumkali was invited to put on a lecture/demonstration in anticipation of the upcoming Ravi and Anoushka Shankar performance that was to happen on Thursday at Hill Auditorium.  It was really exciting to work with the UMS team. They are very professional and have an incredible history.  I was interviewed by Annarbor.com for the event, and we got a 'thank you' in the program for the Shankar show. Not to mention some great seats.  We all got to Kerrytown early and it allowed us to really dial in the sound.  It was a fun night, though not as well attended as we would have liked.  We took questions from the audience and played. The two hour event went by fast.  It was well recieved, and I felt honored to be a part of it.  Here are the pics:

UMS Presents Sumkali

  Two days later I was with Ann Arbor Kirtan at Friends Meeting House in Ann Arbor.  It was nice. The kirtan experience seems to be growing on me. In the beginning I saw it as merely an opportunity to play tabla for two solid hours. Now I have been really getting into the meditative aspect of it.  I try to close my eyes as much as possible, and keep my head clear.  I think I have been able to do this because the other members of the group have really grown comfortable with the music.  It has allowed me to go into my own space.  When I first started with the group, (which is made up mostly of non-professional musicians), I kindly told them that it will take about 50 kirtan events before we all start feeling comfortable with the music, and I think that has played out to be mostly true.  Now we can go through a whole night without much bobble or miscue and it is allowing everyone to enjoy the experience much more.  It is really nice.
  No teacher, lesson, or instrument can give to a musician what time with the music can give. That is all it takes, (I guess you could say 'quality' time, just to be thorough about it).  Just play, and enjoy what you play and every question will be answered through the music.  To get good at music, you simply have to play.  If you focus on playing what you love, then eventually you will love everything you play.  This philosophy is what keeps me coming back to my instrument time and time again with excitement and desire. It does not matter where I am playing or who I am playing for, it just feels great to play.  I feel blessed to have been able to do it this long, and I hope I can continue to play well into the future.
  After the Kirtan I had a full week before the next performance.  It was Saturday the 24th at Crazy Wisdom Tearoom in Ann Arbor.  We were slated to have the full Sumkali group, but Meeta had to cancel at the last minute, so we called upon a couple of the ICMD members at U of M to come in and fill the void. Mahesh joined us on the kanjira and Prakash was on the mrigdangam.  With 4 percussionists it was bound to be a bold night of music making.  We were fresh off the excitement of the UMS gig and we had some demo C.D.'s available thanks to the hard work of our bansuri player Scott Brady.  He has been recording most of our shows and he mixed, mastered, and compiled over an hour of music to put on a C.D. So with actual merchandise to sling, it gave me an extra incentive to be the charming host.  I think we sold something like 14 C.D.'s, which is great for a small venue like that.  What is even better though, is that I felt like we put on a great show. Everyone was having a good time and the music was sounding great. I may be biased, but I fell like you can never have enough percussionists, provided they are listening well to each other.  In this setting, Prakash and Mahesh did a great job of blending in and playing great, so the energy was high, and the crowd let us know.  I am getting more and more excited about the Crazy Wisdom 'experience' each month. It seems to be getting better and better as the months go on.
   The following day I was back over in Troy, MI. at the Sommerset Inn for the Michigan State Medical Society's first ever International Cultures night.  I was slated to play with Meeta Banerjee.  There were lots of different performances from different parts of the world. We were the Bengali contingent, so we played a couple of Bengali folk pieces. It was a nice little show and continued on the same vibe that the entire month seemed to have, which was solid, good, and fun.
  The next Friday was an interesting gig, which was, once again, over on the Southeast side in Rochester, MI. at the Red Lotus Yoga Studio.  I was playing a girbani kirtan with Mata Mandir, who has been recording and doing kirtan for many years. I got the gig from Trevor Eller, who is an Ann Arbor local yoga teacher and musician. He was also playing with us.  Since there was no rehearsal, or talk about logistics of the show, I over packed for the show. I brought my tabla, a rug, and my audio suitcase with mics and short stands.  It seemed like overkill, but I just wanted to be safe.  When I showed up to the gig I heard that Mata's van had broken down the day before up in Canada and all his equipment was in it.  They had secured a sound system to use, but it lacked a lot of essentials, so guess who got to come to the rescue!  I couldn't believe that I had to use absolutely everything that I brought.  As it turned out we got the sound dialed in just in time to start the kirtan.  It was an interesting night.  It was not the kirtan like I was used to in Ann Arbor. There were more sing-a-long chants, as opposed to call-and-response, and the audience clapped when the songs were over.  It was a fun show, and I liked the mellow state of mind that Mata brought to the whole thing.  He was really great to play with, and I hope to play with him again then next time he comes to town.
  So that is it for October.  It was a great month of music making and I feel inspired to keep pushing forward. As the year starts to come to a close, I am feeling great full  for the experiences I have been able to have.  I have been working with Atmaram Chetainya on re-creating my website, and it is looking GREAT! Thanks At!  I have also been busy behind the scenes organizing my online world including my picasa photo account, my google calendar, my blog, and e-mail lists.  As I move forward in all of this great technology I hope to connect with more people, and continue to share my musical world with you. Thanks for reading and I hope to write again soon!

John

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pandit Samar Saha in Michigan 2009

Hello,

I have been so excited to write about the recent visit by my guruji, Pandit Samar Saha. This year Guruji and I began organizing his U.S. tour way back in February. The first order of business was to organize the first annual Samar Saha Tabla Retreat. This was not quite as easy as I was expecting. Because of the rough economy 2 of the retreat centers that I had scoped out near Ann Arbor had both gone belly up, so I scoured the internet hoping to find just the right place. I did. It was called Wind Rise Retreat Center. It was an artist retreat on a beautiful plot of land up in Metamora, MI. Once that was in place, I sent out the flyer to every tabla contact I could find. We needed at least 10 participants as per the retreat center's requirements, so I was e-mailing, calling, e-mailing, and e-mailing some more to find everyone I could. It was a 4 day 3 night retreat and, to sum it up, it went like this: Arrive, eat, play tabla, eat, play tabla, sleep, wake up, play tabla, eat, play tabla, eat, play tabla, eat, play tabla, sleep....on and on like this for 4 days. We did squeeze in some time for some tabla repair, a few listening sessions, and even a little tennis.  The retreat center was run by a very sweet lady named Estella.  The whole time we were playing tabla Estella was in the kitchen preparing some very excellent homecooked, organic, locally grown meals.  We felt blessed indeed.  It was a really beautiful place, although we did not do much more than sit and play, (I added it up...around 35 hours sitting behind the drums).  The end of the retreat culminated in a student recital held at Britton Recital Hall at the U of M Music School in Ann Arbor. The whole experience for me was great. Here are the pictures:



  The recital that followed the retreat was really amazing for me.  I had been working closely with Dan Piccolo on getting the venue, his U of M alumni status really helped in getting the Britton recital hall. So with that pressure off me, it was all about making sure we had a good sound system, putting up posters, more e-mailing, and arranging for Sumkali to open the show, (along with the Srishti dancers).  I knew that we would be out of reach once the retreat started, so everything for the recital on Sunday had to be arranged before the retreat on Thursday.  So when Sunday came, I watched everything sort of pull itself together.  I was tired, sore, and my brain was pretty much maxed out from all the tabla compositions running through it.  I loved it.  When Sumkali started the first thing that struck me was how nice the sound in the room  was.  After a weekend full of full volume tabla playing, it was very nice to just 'touch' the drum and hear the sound ring out.  It settled me down and really felt theraputic.  When the dancers took the stage I felt like I had front row seats to the show.  I hardly even realized I was playing.  I really enjoyed watching my son Charley sit on him mom's lap wide eyed with his mouth open completely focused on the dancers.  I felt like I was looking at a person who was falling in love.  It was sweet.  Here are the pics:


  When Sumkali was done it was time for all the drummers to take the stage.  When I was backstage getting ready, Samar ji said, "The sound was good".
   I thanked him and said, "That was the calm before the storm, now comes the thunder!"  He laughed.  It is not too often that you have 8 tabla players on stage at once.  We had everyone mic'd and turned up, so I knew it was going to be a huge sound.
  Once it started, it seemed to go by very quickly.  Compositions seemed to fly by.  I think that part of that is because I was used to playing them over and over, as we did at the recital, and now it was 'one-and-done', no turning back.  I was so happy to be doing something that we all worked so hard to do. When the whole thing was over I found myself standing alone in the theater just listening to my breath and bidding farewell to an incredible experience. I can't wait to do it again!



  After the recital Pt. Saha flew out east to do a bunch of shows in New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere.  I pressed forward doing more e-mailing and poster hanging for the big upcoming show on September 19th.  There was also a few other things on the docket.  Pandit ji returned a week before the concert, so I got some 'hang' time with him before getting down to business again.  On Wednesday the 16th he was scheduled to do a tabla demonstration at Go Like the Wind Montessori School in Ann Arbor.  He played and talked about the tabla for 45 minutes to the 1st-9th graders.  It was so great to present my teacher to my students.  They were very excited by the idea that I have a teacher too.  I was also happy to bring my son Charley to the show.  When it was winding down, Charley sat on Guru ji's lap and played a little tabla for the middle school students.  He was happy, and so was I!
  From there we went to the U of M music school for a Master class arranged by Dan Piccolo.  It was a two hour intensive, in depth look into the world of tabla with an audience of future professional percussionists.  It was great to see Samarji doing what he does so well.  I should mention that Meeta Banerjee was with him the entire day and also helped out for both shows by playing sitar accompaniment, and driving him from place to place.  Thanks Meeta!


Three days later we were at Towsley Auditorium for the Ancient Rhythms concert that I arranged with Sreyashi Dey. This was one of the first major concerts I arranged that I actually did not play in. I made the decision a while back. I wanted to put all of my energy towards putting on a great event and not have to worry about performing in it as well. I was very happy with my decision. I was able to help get the sound just right, make sure the artists had everything they needed, do the M.C. duties, and even work the curtain. It felt great to watch it all unfold. The first half was the Srishti Dancers. They were beautiful, and the lighting was perfect. They really work hard! A full hour of dancing like that was intense. I didn't actually feel the intensity until I saw them come offstage pouring with sweat and breathing heavy. Those are some of the details that are missed when you are watching from the audience. It was an inspiring perfromance.
The second half was a tabla solo by Guruji. I was so excited to finally see him on a big stage doing what he does best. I just sat on the side of the stage and admired his work. As always, he played a lot of the compositions that we had learned over the coarse of his visit here, and then a few of his big 'hits'. I felt like I was in tabla heaven. Here are the pics:


After the concert I felt relieved that all the arranging had come to a successful end. Guruji was in Michigan for a few days afterwords so there was some more opportunity to take lessons and just hang out. On the last day he was here, Monday the 21st, I set up a relatively spontaneous meeting with Muruga Booker, (if you have never heard of him, just google :). Muruga owns a beautiful recording studio in Ann Arbor, and I thought it would be great to get them together to do some recording. What ensued was epic. I actually don't want to go into it too much, (because it will probably end up in the liner notes of the album that was recorded.) So I will leave it at that for now.
The next morning Samarji was off to the East coast again where he had many other concerts organized by other students and then he was back in Kolkatta by early October. We have already started talking about next year, and I can't wait. In the meantime I will be practicing!

Thanks for reading,

John

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nick Strange at Fishbones, Jazz Trio, Indian Music for CSAS, A.A. Kirtan, Radio Free Bacon, Crazy Wisdom

September has flown by and October seems to be rushing in with cold wind and rain. Thinking back on this month fills me with warm thoughts and feelings. My Guruji, Pandit Samar Saha has been in the U.S. since the end of August and I have been very busy arranging lots of different events for him. I have decided to write about everything that happened with him in a separate blog entry, so this entry is only about the shows I did on my own. Look for that entry very soon!
So this month started off with a gig in St. Clair Shores with the Nick Strange group. It was at the end of a busy week of preparation for the new school year, so it was nice to get on the drumset and just play for a while. For this show we did not have our lead singer, so it was just Dan Orcut, Rob Crozier and myself. Dan sings most of the songs that Jessica usually does, so it was not a problem. Actually, it allowed us to jam a little more than usual and go outside of our regular structure, so it was a nice change. I always have fun playing with Rob and the night seemed to fly by. It was labor day weekend, so the plac
e was pretty empty, which didn't really bother me because honestly, the crowd at Fishbones is usually not too into the music anyway, no matter how good it sounds. It is actually kind of odd, when people do enjoy the music, they usually keep quiet, and then approach the band either between songs or on the set break to let us know that they like it. I have a theory that it has been established by the Fishbones culture that people do not cheer, dance, or show appreciation in any way for the live music. Somehow music is to be treated like background music, no matter what or how the band is playing. Anyway, it is just a theory, and it gets me through the night :)
A few days later, on a Thursday I think, I had a gig with Jesse Morgan, (keys), and Rob Crozier on bass. It was outside in an industrial complex
in Ypsilanti, MI. It was a 30 year celebration for a non-profit company called Synod Residential Services. We were simply background music for the workers and some of their clients. It was the first time that the three of us played together since recording the Rocket Style improve record, (find it here: http://www.crfmusic.org/). We actually did not rehearse at all, we just emailed some ideas for songs we could do and then showed up and did a bunch of jazz standards. Rob and Jesse both had their Realbook, so all I had to do was either play swing, latin, or funk. It really got our juices flowing and re-inspired us to play together more often. It is so great to find musicians that you sync with so well. I have found though, that those are also usually the musicians that are the busiest. We always talk about playing with each other, but have not found the spaces in our lives to make it happen. I really believe it will though. Perhaps I will be writing about another good show with them soon. Hope
so.
So about the middle of that same week I got a communication from the Center for South Asian Studies, (CSAS) at the U of M. They were looking for an Indian group to play just a half hour for a cocktail party at the Rackham building for graduate studies on central campus. It was a last minute booking; they needed us to play just two days later. So through the magic of texting I got Meeta, Prashanth and Atmaram to agree to it, (Scott and Dan both had other gigs booked). So on the day of the gig, actually right before I left to go to the gig itself, I got an e-mail from Meeta saying she was sick and could not make it. Meet
a never cancels, so I knew it had to be pretty bad. I called Prashanth and asked him if he knew anyone who could fill in for Meeta. The only person he could get a hold of was Prakash, a mrigdangam player, (the same one who played with me at a Crazy Wisdom gig a few we
eks back. Now, filling a sitarist slot with drummer is kind of like replacing a quarterback with a punter, their roles are very different. So, without warning, the evening became something totally different than I had expected. As odd as it seemed to be, it actually turned out just fine, and it was only a half hour long, so it seemed to be over as soon as we began. I did get something really great out of it, I got to hear Prashanth,
who is trained in South Indian music, play some pieces that he usually does with the mrigdangam. One in particular caught my ear and now we are learning it in Sumkali. So, out of the confusion came a little gem of a song that is very fun to play.
Exactly one week later I was playing with the Ann Arbor Kirtan. Like I mentioned earlier, I was right in the middle of a whole bunch of tabla related events with my guruji, so doing the kirtan was my first opportunity to play tabla out of the auspices of my teachers ear. It was nice to just close my eyes and not think about what I was playing, just play and enjoy the sound. I kept my eyes closed for the entire 2 hours. It is really amazing how different the experience is when you take away the visual. I learned at the Michigan Music Educators conference earlier this year that 70% of what you hear is affected by what you see, so I have been trying to close my eyes a lot more just to observe the difference. The kirtan is the perfect place to do it. I found that it made it a much more personal experience. I enjoyed it very much. The only time I opened my eyes is when my wife Jody made a surprise visit with my son Cha
rley. It made it harder to keep my eyes closed because I found myself wanting, as I do a lot these days, to stare at Charley.
The next day I was in a rehearsal for Radio Free Bacon (http://www.radiofreebacon.com/) It is a great local live radio show on Ann Arbor's 107.1 fm. They have interviews, stories, and of coarse live music, complete with a different musical guest each week. I was sitting is as the drummer for the house band. The musical guest was Rod and Annie Capps, a pair of local singer/songwriters that have been performing for many years. I think they just came out with their 6th album. The process includes the house band learning 3 or 4 of the guest artist songs and playing a delux version of them. The rehearsal was a lot of fun. I joked with the band that I had never been to a rehearsal that used so many metaphors to describe the music.
To summerise the experience, it was meaty, it floated, so when it came in for a landing, it set down gently, and when it came back in, it really came heavy and pushed it's way through to the chorus, where it opened up, and when it........you get the idea?
Anyway, it was all in preparation for going live on the air the next day. They do 6 shows a year, and this was the third one, it was on Sunday from 2:30-4. The setting was great. It was outside in the West Park Bandshell, right in downtown Ann Arbor. It was a beautiful day and there is a really professional sound crew that makes it sound sweet. We had to be very alert and ready to start playing on a seconds notice. Our theme for the show was 'Movies'. It was great, there were all sorts of local actors and talents on the show talking about the recent insurgence of movie making that has been going on all over Michigan. We just sat and watched, and as soon as they finished an interview we played.
We did the songs with Rod and Annie, and then we also had to do what was called 'incidental' music, which was just background music for live commercial announcements and a few little bits. The whole experience was great and I really liked playing with Rod and Annie.
The last gig of the month was at the Crazy Wisdom Tearoom with Sumkali. We got in a good rehearsal the day before and I was inspired by the entire month spent with my Guruji. We had a great crowd. Playing a regular gig at Crazy Wisdom has been so good for our group. It gives us just the motivation we need to keep pushing ourselves forward musically, but at the same time, it is informal enough that we feel a bit more free to experiment and have a good time. This time we actually played that South Indian piece that I heard Prashanth play at the CSAS gig earlier in the month and it was energizing. I hope we keep up the good pace.

Monday, August 17, 2009

August part 1: Kozora in Manchester, Kirtan at Sun Moon, Live on WCBN, Deep Blue, Ann Arbor Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, Unity Church

So I started off the month with a blast from the not-so-distant past. I played a set with Kozora at the Riverfolk Music and Arts Festival in Manchester Michigan. If you don't remember, Kozora is a group I played with for a couple of years and we did some very experimental and cutting edge music, including some shows with Pandit Samar Saha. We had not played in a little over a year, but the leader of the group, Ken Kozora, thought we would be a good fit for the festival, which he helps organize. We were one member short, Scott Brady could not make it, so it was just Ken, Dave Gilbert and myself. It was like a breath of fresh air for me to be on the drum set with them again. A lot of the compositions Ken writes has very heavy drumming and I had forgotten how much I liked playing them, especially in a festival setting.
We were on the pavilion stage, which was nicely tucked away in a back corner of the festival grounds. As soon as we started people gathered and it ended up being a very nice show to play. I also did a little talk and demo with the tabla which was something Ken asked me to do. I appreciated the time he gave me, considering he has more than enough music to fill the hour. He is a true music lover and is always willing to showcase interesting music beyond his own. Thanks Ken!
A couple of days later I was at the Sun Moon Yoga Studio in downtown Ann Arbor. I was asked by a guitar player named Trevor to sit in on a small Kirtan. We were joined by another guitar player named Chip, and Atmaram Plummer on the harmonium. It was nice to play in Sun Moon again. The acoustics are great and it is small enough that 20 or so people really feels like a good crowd. I had done a kirtan there before with Trevor, must have been about 4 or 5 years ago, (I wonder if I might have blogged about it?....). It was when I first started doing kirtan. This time I felt like a seasoned veteran.
The event was an all day benefit for Sun Moon. I heard they had suffered a flood and needed some repair. I was more than happy to help out and do some kirtan with a different crowd. It was very low key, no P.A. system, no microphones, just singing and playing. I had a great time and it seemed to go by very fast. It was a great way to spend a summer afternoon.
The following Wednesday I was at the WCBN studio at U of M playing live on the radio with Rob Crozier on electric bass, Michael G. Nastos on percussion and electronics, and Mark Kirschenmann on electrified trumpet. All I brought was my tabla and a little shaker. This was my first time without a drum set and I felt a little stripped down. Especially when the other performers all had signal processors, mics, and amps to give their sound many faces. It turned out to be a challenge to keep up with all the different soundscapes that were created within our hour long non-stop improvisation. Playing freely and improvising may sound easy and liberating, but it can actually be surprisingly difficult and complex. It is not something that is easily explained, but when it is good you know it, and when it is bad, well...you know that too. I think an important part of the creative process is being honest with yourself about what it is you are creating. Do you like it? Is it your best work? Are you fully present? ...these are the questions that you have to ask yourself, if you really want to take it seriously and do it well. I suppose that applies to just about any creative endeavor. Anyway, it was a great experience and I look forward to doing it again soon.
The following Friday I was up in Flint, MI. at the Genesee Valley Mall to play with Deep Blue.
This time I made double sure to bring my snare drum! (I had forgotten it last month). I can't
tell you how much better it went with that nice snare sound ringing out! I was happy. I guess it
can be the little things, like forgetting a drum, that really make you appreciate what you have
and what you do.
Exactly one week later was the monthly Ann Arbor Kirtan at the Friends Center. We had just
come off a really great rehearsal and I was looking forward to how the group responded. In the
rehearsal everything seemed to click for one of the chants. It was a moment where we started a
chant, then Atmaram, who was the leader for this particular chant, had to suddenly leave the
room. The group did not stop playing and we just vamped until he got back. Everyone just
settled in on the nice groove and when he finally did come back, it was sounding so nice that his
entrance into the verse just lifted the song to a level that I have never felt with the group. It
was like the group stepped into a new realm of music making. Sure, it was just a rehearsal, but
it never matters when you are making music. The more you can make it good, the more good
you can make it. (Does that make sense?) I was curious to see if that feeling translated into the
performance. I suppose it did, however it was sort of a unique night. Dennis Chernin, who is
one of the chant leaders, had just gotten back from a kirtan camp week and he was VERY tired.
I even had to nudge him awake on a few of the chants so he would keep his mouth in front of
the mic. The night went well, though it did not have the magic of the prior rehearsal. I guess
you can't expect your team to triumph when your quarterback is using the ball as a pillow ;)
The following night was the monthly Indian music night at Crazy Wisdom Tearoom in downtown
Ann Arbor. It was a unique night due to the fact that the usual musicians could not make it. Of
the original crew, only Scott Brady, Atmaram Plummer and myself could make the show, so I
called on the ICMD, (Indian Classical Music and Dance) group for some help, and boy did they
pull through. It turned out to be a great night in a few ways. First of all, Scott got to do some
solo playing, which he hardly ever gets to do, and I got to play a nice little piece with a great
singer/harmonium player named Vish. The real treat of the night though was a rag sung by a
girl named Kamia, (sp?) I have never seen the tearoom so riveted by a performance. Even the
baristas stopped what they were doing to listen to her sing. When she was done everyone
clapped and a few people even stood up. It was a great moment that I will not soon forget.
After the show we all went to Mongolian BBQ and talked about doing it again sometime. I
hope it is sooner than later.
The next morning I was still reeling from the night before as I pulled up to the Interfaith center
for a little musical offering at a church service with Craig Brann. We were supposed to play for
two services, one at 9 and one at 11. I showed up at 8:30 and no one was there! I waited until
8:55 and then made a phone call. As it turned out I went to the wrong place! So after a 10 minute
drive to the Unity Church, (which I made in 5 :), I rushed in and got set up just in time for the
ceremony to start. It went well in spite of my mix-up.

That is all for this installment, I will write again about the exciting end of the month very soon!
thanks for reading.

John

Monday, August 10, 2009

Playin in the U.P., Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, Deep Blue and Nick Strange

Hello again,

I love the summertime.  Going outside without a coat, night time bike rides, playing music in the park, swimming, growing food in the backyard, fiddling in the garage, and one of my favorites...going to the U.P. (that's the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my hometown of Marquette is located, right on Lake Superior). Jody and I decided to take Charley for his first trip to the U.P.  
About a week before we left I got a call from my good friend Jared Smith.  He had just completed a solo album and he wanted to get together and play the songs at Harley's lounge in the Ramada Inn right downtown Marquette.  Of coarse I said yes and the day we got there I was up in my Dad's garage with Jared, Mike Waite, and Nora Waite, rehearsing for the show the next night.  It was so great to be in the place where 
I grew up playing music that was just created by an old friend.  It is a grounding feeling to have the past and present come together with such ease.  I know there are a lot of people out there who have a problem looking, let alone going to the places in their past.  
I know I am a fortunate soul to be in the place where I grew up and doing something new.  It is right in line with my undying desire to live in, and serve my community.  These days it is so easy to be in a far away land, but still stay connected to your home.  Communities of people are brought together through communication lines that I did not dream of even when in High School.  It is very easy for Jared, who is in L.A., to contact me in Ann Arbor, and Mike in the U.P. and set up a time to meet, change our minds at the last minute, change the time, let each other know if we are going to be late, all before we even talk to each other.  
The real sense of community is created, however, not through texts or e-mails, but when the actual meeting of the real people takes place
e.  I still believe this.  I had a computer teacher at CalArts, his name was Dave, and he told us that all this computer connectivity will not lead to the de-personalization of society, but rather to a re-personalization.  I see now what he means.  I have had some great relationships and interactions with people that I have never met face to face.  I do feel lucky, grounded, and thankful for the fact that most of what I do for a living involves actual interaction with not only the people, but also the space we are in.

On to the music....
So the show with Jared Mike and Nora went well.  I was so proud of Jared for all that he had accomplished.  Not only did we play and entire set of music where every part, every arrangement, every melody, harmony, and rhythm were all created from Jared's mind, but we were also treated to a full hour of compositions Jared had written. It was just a guitar and him on a mic.  The songs were all his. Some of them were songs that were performed by his former band Hello Stranger, some were old ones I used to hear him play sitting around the fire when we lived together in Val Verde, CA. and some were new to my ears.  All of them were songs he created and obviously loved.  The audience was full of good friends and family, with a few hotel guests mixed in.  It was a nice evening and I was very happy to be a part of it.  Not to mention it was a great way to begin our time in the U.P. 
7 days later we were on our way back from what had been a very relaxing, nourishing trip.  I was feeling excited for the rest of the summer. As a teacher, one of the great perks is to have the summer off.  The beginning of the summer was full 
of home projects, visiting friends and family, and unwinding from the school year. Now it was time to play music.  I couldn't think of a better way to start it off than with two straight hours of playing tabla for Ann Arbor Kirtan.  I haven't gone to a kirtan so relaxed in a long time.  It was a very nice experience, almost like I was on the sideline watching, not actually playing.  I really appreciate those times in life where there is not tension or stress.  If I can be playing music without those two things, I will be a very happy man.
The following week my new Indian group Sumkali played at Crazy Wisdom tearoom in Ann Arbor.  We were still reeling a bit from the Top of the Park experience the month before, and without the pressure of that performance on us, I feel like everyone in the group loosened up and just played.  We played for our usual 2 hours straight and, as usual, it seemed to go by fast. For me, loosing yourself in time is a good sign that you are creating something good, especially if you can do it with 5 other people and countless others watching. 
One interesting thing that happened at this show didn't have anything to do with the music. Meeta leaned over to me before we started and said, "That guy over there looks like the guy from Alias".  She mentioned it a couple of times, but never went over to ask him.  After the gig, she did some research on Twitter and as it turns out, it was Kevin Weisman who plays Marshall Flinkman on the show.  He was in town filming a new Rob Reiner film.  Cool!  Hope you enjoyed it Kevin!
The last day of the month was a Friday, and after a full month of very relaxing nice shows, I found myself double booked once again.  This time I was playing from 6-8p.m. with the Deep Blue Jazz group.  It was out in the courtyard of Genesee Valley Mall an hour north in Flint. From there I would have to high-tail it back to Ann Arbor to play from 9:30p.m.-1:30a.m. With the Nick Strange Group.  Most of my double booking this yea
r has involved one tabla gig and one drum set gig, but this was two drum set gigs, so the logistics were a bit more complex.  
I do have 2 complete drum sets, but not enough cases, so transportation was a bit of an issue.  Needless to say I also needed to enlist the help of my student Vinnie Russo to help set up my set at Gracies.  I used my smaller student set at the mall so I could get packed up and out of there quick.  As long as I did not run into traffic, or have any car troubles, I would just be able to pull this off.  
It had  been a long time since my last gig with Deep Blue. It was great to see Paul Allen again.  Scott Brady, had been working together a lot with the Indian Music, but I only see Paul for the Deep Blue Gigs.  I got to the mall and loaded everything into the courtyard. We were catching up on each others lives while we set up when I noticed...
.I did not pack a snare drum!  Yikes!  
So after a few failed attempts at calling some drummer friends I know in Flint I went to plan B, which was trying to fashion a snare drum out of my floor tom.  The only thing that makes a snare drum a snare drum is the wires, (or snares), that are strung across the bottom of the drum that snap against the bottom head when you hit the top.  So after digging through my gear for wire, I pulled out my wire brushes and taped them to the bottom head of my snare drum.  Scott and Paul huddled around the drum as I taped it up. When I tapped the top of the drum and a snare-type sound came out, everyone sort of sighed and felt a bit more relaxed.  I, on the other hand, was bummed that, after all the careful planning, I had left my snare drum in my studio and now I was playing with a really deep snare-ish drum and no floor tom. 
 
The group played a lot of bossa and latin songs so I did not have to rely on the weak snare sound. (Bossa and latin music uses the stick on the rim of the drum to get a click sound instead of hitting the drum itself).  The show went fine and I even took some drum solos.  I wondered if there were any drummers watching us play and wondering what the heck kind of set-up I was using.  One good thing about it...I did not have to pack up a snare and stand, so I saved about a minute of transition time.  So I bid adieu to Deep Blue and headed for Ann Arbor. It was smooth sailing the whole way. I parked my van, took a deep breath and gave thanks for everything working out, even with the hiccup.
I love the feeling of walking to a venue with nothing more than a stick bag. It feels great to know that the drums are all set up and all I have to do is sit down and play.  It is a small thing, but it totally changes the feel of the night.  I am able to focus better, relax, and even put energy into coming together with the other members of the group.  So I showed up with about 10 minutes to spare before showtime, but as I walked to the door I noticed Vinnie and Dan sitting outside, which was pretty unusual.  I asked what was up and they told me Rob, the bass player, had not shown up yet.  This was a bit more serious than a forgotten snare drum.  We could not get a hold of Rob, so Dan started calling other bass players, all of them turned out to be busy.  Just as it was time to come up with a plan b, Rob pulled up.  We had just a minute or two before we were supposed to start, so there was no time for explanation. Vinnie and I helped Rob get his stuff in and we were set up and ready to go right on time.  Dan was a bit frazzled, but it all melted away once the music started.  I was just happy to be playing on a full drum set!  The night went great and by the end I was ready to keep playing.  I had a lot of drums to take out of my car after the show, but I was thankful that it went well.

That is all for July, thanks for reading and I will write again soon!

John

Saturday, June 20, 2009

CW, WCBN, Nick Strange, 2 Kirtan, TOP

Hello and welcome to summer!

   I am now sitting in my kitchen on a beautiful summer day listening to the birds outside and getting ready to finish off a big deck building project I have been working on.  I am happy to say that I made it thorough another great year at Go Like The Wind, and now I am looking forward to a nice summer break from that environment.  
Over the past two weeks the effects of the 'bad economy' that I have been hearing about all over the news has hit home for me.  I was supposed to teach a hand drum camp at a school in Brighton, and also a teachers seminar about Indian rhythm at Madonna University. Both were cancelled due to low enrollment.  It sort of put a damper on the start of summer, but also made me very thankful that I still have my job at GLTW, especially in a time when music programs all over the country are getting cut.  
From an artists point of view, a downturn in the economy usually means an upturn in creativity.  You see all around you the word 'creative' being used.  You are being urged to be creative with your spending to get the most for your money, be creative with the idea of recreation time so it doesn't involve so much spending, be creative with the clothes you buy so you don't have to rely on a huge wardrobe.  It seems that when you take the money away, creativity becomes valued.  Common phrases like "the best money can buy" are replaced with "the best minds coming up with the best solutions".  I see commercials urging people to simply "think", and businesses talking about "social connections" rather than their usual 'innovation' and 'competition' talk.  
I get the sense that everyone is a little tired of all the talk of money.  When you replace the desire for money with a desire for real, tangible experience, then the artist becomes more valuable, and the message of the art gets more time and consideration from the observer, which in turn grows appreciation, and increases the value.  
All this talk comes from what I notice as I sit behind my drums.  In the late 90's and early 2000's money, power, competition, spending, and investment were what it was all about.  I would play lots of house and corporate events that seemed to be a celebration of wealth and excess.  Now I seem to have more shows that are about education, community, and helping people in need.  The one constant in all of these shows has been the music.  I learned early on that every time you sit down to play is just as important as any other time, no matter where you find yourself sitting.  I now have a renewed appreciation for that idea.  You can not make people pay attention to you, they have to want to. So when they are ready to pay attention, will you be doing your best work?
June was a good month for music in my life.  It started on the 5th with a show at Crazy Wisdom Tearoom with Sumkali.  It felt like a pre-Top of the Park gig more than a gig all it's own.  We had been rehearsing to perform with dancers, so a couple of the pieces that we usually improvise on were now tailored and structured. This is not a bad thing. I think the repetition helped us solidify some really good musical ideas, which made us tighter as a group. The following Wednesday I found myself at the WCBN studio for a live broadcast of some free improvised music with Rob Crozier on bass, Kelly McDermott on flute, Jason Burbo on guitar, a viola player (whose name I have forgotten), and Michael Nastos on percussion and electronics.  It was 2 hours of intense listening and free exploration.  The end result was broadcast out live.  One thing about working with microphones is that they create a second, very different reality of the sound you are hearing come out of the instrument in front of you, so you have to know, and sometimes guess what that other sound is and play to that reality.  For instance, while we were playing, Kelly was quietly whispering into her microphone.  None of us could hear it during the session, but when we listened back to the recording it was the dominant sound.  It is what my friend Jared calls the 'big illusion' of sound.  Once you understand and work with this other reality of sound, your musical possibilities grow exponentially.
Two days later I was onstage at Goodnite Gracies in Ann Arbor with Rob Crozier and Dan Orcut for another Nick Strange show.  Jessica, the lead singer, could not make it so Dan filled in and we expanded some of the songs out with instrumental jams.  It was a good night and is always fun to play with those guys.  Not to mention Dan, being a very handy guy, gave me a lot of great advice on building my deck!
Exactly one week later I was playing with the Kirtan again at the Friends Meeting House in AA.  This was one of the first Kirtans where I had the day off, had no double bookings, and felt very well rested.  It was nice to be at full strength for the kirtan. I felt like I could participate more, rather than just stay focused on making through the night.  When everyone in the group is relaxed and the sound is good, it is some of the most peaceful, quiet, and relaxing music making I have ever been a part of.  The group has not gotten to the point yet of giving totally into the music, (which, by the way is probably one of the hardest obstacles to overcome as a group of artists), but when we do, you could not ask for a better setting.  There are moments where the group does gel and some great energy is created, but it is not quite happening consistently. I feel good about what is happening though, and I look forward to playing more with them.
In fact, after a week of  hand drumming with some very happy 3-6 year olds for the Go Like The Wind Summer Camp, I was back behind the tabla with the Kirtan group again for a more informal kirtan at the Interfaith Center in Ann Arbor.  It was part of an ongoing music series they have once a month. We did some kirtan, talked about the instruments and the music, and then did more kirtan.  At the regular kirtan we never talk once it starts. It goes from chant to silence right into the next chant. I found that having a break and talking actually made it harder for me to sit for 2 hours straight.  When music is happening, especially when it is good, time seems to fly by, unless you are trying to focus on the length of time you are playing. Only then does it creep along.  At this show 15 minutes of talking was like doing an hour and a half of chanting and I got 'cold'  We ended with about 3 chants in a row, and by the end I had to stretch out before I could even stand up.  It is so fascinating to me how little changes in experience manifest themselves physically. The more I think about it, the more I am thankful to be a musician, surrounding myself with such good vibrations and energy all the time.  It makes me a happy guy.
Speaking of being happy, I was so happy the following Tuesday when it was time for Sumkali to finally take the stage at Top of the Park.  Ever since moving to Ann Arbor I have heard about and enjoyed many Top of the Park performances and I was so happy to finally be a part of it.  It is all done on an uncovered, outdoor stage and is free to the public.  It is always well attended and it is a great venue to play.  We were all watching the sky all day. It was cloudy and just north of Ann Arbor it had been raining constantly.  By the time we reached the time to play, the sun actually came out and the weather was perfect.  Everything went so wonderfully.  We only had a 35 minute set, so we had to be quick, efficient, and good.  The dancers looked great, the music went great, and aside from a slight problem with a buzz in the monitors at the beginning the show went as well as any of us could have hoped.  I am hoping to have some great pictures soon.  The crowd seemed really receptive and I heard nothing but good things.  I was proud of the group and I am looking forward to what is next.

That is all for now, please check back, there are some good things on the horizon.  Thanks for reading!

John

Thursday, May 14, 2009

2 Kirtan, 2 Nick Strange, Gratitude at UofM, GLTW, Tap Room, Alma, Sumkali at Castle and CW

   This picture was taken at the Interfaith Center in Ann Arbor on March 1st by Catherine Lilly.  I was warming up and checking the sound for a gig with the Kirtan group.  We were sharing an evening with a singer named Norma Gentile.  It was the third or fourth time I had performed in that venue and I enjoyed hearing the Kirtan in the new space.  
I have been going through some changes in the way I am hearing music that I am a part of.  It is a bit hard to explain but I feel like I am able to hear with more than my ears. I have been sensing how the vibrations coming out of my instrument are affecting the whole space.  I don't hear my instrument as if I was out in the audience listening, and it is different that close listening when I am playing by myself in a quiet room.  I think perhaps I am getting a sense of the resonance of certain frequencies and how they affect the space around me.  When I make the mistake of turning up or playing louder when I can't "hear" myself, then the risk of throwing the musical picture out of balance becomes great.  Of coarse the way to really fine tune this type of listening/feeling is by performing a lot, not to mention having like minded musicians around you. When the feeling is just right it feels so good that neither you, or no one around you, can deny the richness and quality of the 'experience' of the sound.  It has been a journey I have been on for a while now and I feel like I am beginning to see some light.  Hopefully, if the musical opportunities keep presenting themselves and I can fine tune this feeling.
So after all this contemplation about the greatest part of my journey, there is another reality I have had to come to grips with...double booking (aaaaaagh!)  Actually, about one hour after the picture above was taken, I was quietly and quickly packing my tabla to head into downtown and play a show at Gracies with the Nick Strange group.  I did not even get to see Norma Gentile perform.  It doesn't upset me or make me tense/nervous to have to do this for a number of reasons; I love to play, I have the ability and I want to use it, and I am the one booking myself, so I must come to grips with these realities weeks and months before they happen, but that doesn't mean it is easy. Traveling from one gig to the next without a breath in between takes discipline, calmness, and some help.  Luckily I have some great students, friends and band mates that are willing and able to help me out with the otherwise impossible logistics.  Without them this madness would not be possible.  Thank you!
The next day was a treat, or more like a homecoming.  I was at the U of M school of Art and Design playing with the Gratitude Steel Band. It was the third year in a row that we have played at the ceremony. It is a nice show to play, not just because we are a part of a very special day for the graduates, and not just because it is one of the first outdoor gigs of the year, no, it is really nice because we set up our stuff, and then we have a long time to catch up with each other.  It has turned into a great time to reflect on the past year, look to the future and appreciate the relationship we have forged together as a group.
The next week was jam packed with a lot of different stuff. I won't go into much detail because honestly, I have been putting off this blog for too long and I really want to get caught up!  So this is what it looked like:  

   Tuesday the Go Like The Wind Jazz Band played a fundraiser at Noodles and Company in Ann Arbor.  It was to raise money for the middle school adventure trip to Colorado.  For most of the band it was their first real gig, so it was great to see them put on their serious faces and play their best.  I was a proud teacher. 

Wednesday I went to the Tap Room Annex in Ypsilanti, MI to play a jazz open mic with the Skylounge band.  It was mellow, fun and very easy going.  It is always fun to play with those guys.

On Thursday I played tabla with the Emerson School 4th graders for their rendition of Piru Bole, which is a piece written by my CalArts mentor John Bergamo.  It was part of a whole evening of music from South Asia. Judy Barthwell put on the event, and she did a great job.  As a music teacher, it inspired me to do more with my students. As a student of music, it was equally as inspiring to see my teachers composition performed so enthusiastically by young musicians.

Friday was a double hit. First, Meeta and I went up to Alma College to do a lecture/demonstration of Indian Classical music for a music appreciation class. We were excited to do it, and the professor was great. The students were a little quiet and we wondered why.  We figured out that we were coming to them on one of the nicest days of the spring so far, on a Friday afternoon, right after they turned in a big paper and right before they found out about their last big assignment. So this was not the best time to get a lot of new information.  It had been a while since Meeta and I had done a presentation like this, so we were having fun with it, and for the most part, it went well.

From there it was back to Ann Arbor to get ready for the GLTW Spring music concert.  This was a first. In the past the music concert was paired with the promotion/graduation night so it limited the amount of music that could be featured. This year we played everything we knew, 25 pieces in all.  It was a great night to showcase the music program and it was much looser than in years past, which made it fun for the students.

The next Monday I left for a week in Colorado with the GLTW Middle School.  It was the yearly adventure trip.  I brought a guitar, but other than that, it was a nice break from the whole music scene. Here was the view:

So we got back on a Friday, and Saturday I had another gig with the Nick Strange Group, but at the last minute it was cancelled.  What I heard was that there was a lightning strike and the club had no power, so they could not open up for the night.  Although I was bummed not to play, it turned out to be a nice evening at home with the family.
I didn't play again until Friday the 22nd with the Kirtan group at Friends Center in Ann Arbor; our regular gig.  I was barely moving though...literally.  I had spent the day prior busting up concrete with a sledge hammer.  Sure it is the worst possible thing for a drummer to do to their hands, but I have gone full bore into a home improvement project, (building a deck), which required the cement to be gone quickly, so I had to do it.  I made it through the 2 hours of chanting alright, but I now have a whole new appreciation for healthy hands.
The following day was a little less sore, which was good because Sumkali had another gig at the infamous Bennett Castle.  It was a benefit gig for Sparsh, which is an organization that provides surgeries for children in India that can't afford it.  The castle is on the outskirts of Ann Arbor and was once the fortress for Henry Ford's right hand man, Harry Bennett.  It has secret tunnels, 2ft thick walls, and a beach house to escape to.  Needless to say Mr. Bennett was a wanted man by unwanted men.  Anyway, it is now a private residence and the owners have been nice enough to let people come in and use the space. We felt lucky as a group have a chance to play in such a cool environment.  We did the same gig last year with the Kozora group. This year the musicians were Meeta Banerjee on sitar, Scott Brady on flute, Dan Piccolo on tabla and percussion, Atmaram Plummer on tampura and myself on tabla.  We were missing Prashanth on the violin, but the music was still sounding great.  
The next week we were in full force at the Crazy Wisdom tearoom downtown Ann Arbor.  It has been such a pleasure to work with this group and we are all getting so pumped up for our show at the Top of the Park festival on June 30th.  The tearoom gigs feel like they are a buildup to it.  We have been getting great crowds and the spirit among the group has been high. We get so into it at CW, that we usually play the entire two hour show without taking a break. It is an energy that I have not felt in a while on such a consistent basis and it makes me very excited to see what happens next.
  Well that is what happened in the month of May.  I know it took me a while to get this post up, but rest assured, there will be more to come.  The summer promises to be a good one. Thanks for reading, and I will write again soon.

John

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

3 @ the Tap Room, Last Skylounge, Recording with Dave Sharp, Nick Strange at Gracies and Firefly, 2 SumKali Shows, Kirtan

Hello again,

  It has been a great month in my musical world, and like the weather, things seem to be heating up.  April started off busy with 4 gigs in the first 4 days. An open mic, a Skylounge gig, a recording session and a Nick Strange show.
On Wednesday the 1st,  I went to the new Tap Room Annex in Ypsilanti to help get a new Wednesday night jazz open mic off to a good start.  It is a collaboration with the Community Records Foundation, headed up by Skylounge keyboardist Jesse Morgan, and A3 Radio.  All the donations collected are going to fund school music programs for schools that can not afford a music program. I agreed to play 3 of the 4 Wednesdays in April, each with its own theme. The first one was a straight up jazz open mic. The Skylounge band played host for the evening.  A jazz combo from EMU started the night off with a set of standards.  The Skylounge band went on second to play host to a number of musicians, and feature some of our own tunes.  It was fun.  People came with charts, acoustic guitars and just vocals, so the band had to be on their toes to adapt to the different settings.  
The next night was the last Skylounge band gig at EMU for the season.  It has been a very interesting series of shows to play. 
 The crowds have been very consistent and predictable, (in a good way), and the band has begun to evolve into a nice sounding ensemble.  We went through some lineup and musical changes over the months to tailor ourselves to exactly what they were looking for; a band they could dance to.
  I hope to be able to do it again next season, and I am pretty sure we are going to pursue other gigs in the meantime.  At the minimum we will be doing one Wednesday a month at the Annex.  Here's a group photo to mark the end of the experience: 
  The next day I took my tabla and went a few blocks down from my home to Big Sky Recording studio and recorded a track for Dave Sharp's new album.  I played with Dave like 3 years ago at a small kirtan gathering at Sun Moon Yoga Studio.  I haven't really seen or spoken to him since. Out of the blue I got a text message from him asking if I wanted to record tabla. I said yes of coarse and he sent me the track over e-mail so I could practice with it.  We finally met face to face about 10 minutes before I laid down my tabla track and then went our separate ways again.  It made me think of all the musical relationships I have had like this, where we have done more music making than speaking.  The personal connections seem just as solid and deep. It goes beyond a superficial 'business' transaction.  You have to feel comfortable enough with someone to share a meaningful musical experience.  I think this comfort can only come through the music making process.  I feel fortunate to have these kinds of relationships with many musicians, and I am always ready for the next one to come along.
  On Saturday the 4th I kicked of the first of 4 gigs with the Nick Strange Group at Goodnite Gracies.  Honestly, as I sit here I am having a bit of trouble remembering this show.  I guess that can happen when you play the same venue with the same group many times.  I do remember that it was with Rob Crozier on bass and he was just about to finish up his first semester at the U of M music school and he was very excited.  This excitement has definitely shown in his playing and it has been a joy to play with him.
  The following Wednesday I got an e-mail from Jesse Morgan asking if I would come back down to the Tap Room Annex in Ypsi to play drums for the Hip-Hop open mic jam.  It sounded too interesting to pass up.  It actually turned out to be a very memorable night.  It is part of the Wednesday night jazz series that Jesse has set up with a3radio.com and his foundation Community Records.  I was surprised at the amount of talented word-slingers that were on hand.  Jesse and I were the only 2 musicians and we just played deep grooves all night while the mic was passed from person to person.  I had so much fun just listening and playing along. I turned out to be a very memorable experience, and I hope to be asked back again.
  In the last 2 weeks of April I had 6 shows in just 4 days.  Once again, I could not have pulled it off without the help of my student Vinnie Russo, who has become very good at setting up my drumset just right so I can just walk in, sit down and start playing, which is just what I had to do on the 17th.  I had a show with my group Sumkali at Crazy Wisdom tearoom, which is a show that normally goes from 8:30-10:30. Since I had to start at Goodnite Gracies at 10, I was forced to cut out of the CW show early.  That was harder to do than I had expected.  First of all, I had to make sure the rhythm was covered for the Sumkali performance, which it was very ably by Dan Piccolo.  He has been playing a lot with us lately and so I had no worries that he could hold it down for the half of the show I could not be at.  I had also asked Shani Thirumali to come join us for a couple of numbers. She plays the Veena, which is the older ancestor of the Sitar.  It was a great start to the night and set the mood perfectly.  She hasn't performed in front of people too much, so she had some nerves, but as it often happens with able musicians, after the first few notes were out of the way she did great.  The hardest part of the night came when it was time for me to step out.  The crowd was full, the sound was great, and the atmosphere was really nice.  It was difficult to walk out of that and walk into a dark barroom not yet populated and quiet.  I took a few breaths and it turned out alright, and we actually had a few people from Crazy Wisdom come down to the club and check out the second show.  I was talking to them on the set break and they said that they had no idea that I also played the drumset.  I love these sort of surprises!
  The next day Sumkali, minus Dan, Atmaram, and Shanti had a gig at the Cromaine Public Library in Heartland, MI. It was set up by Scott Brady and it was during the day, which is always nice.  It was also nice to play in a very quiet setting.  Indian instruments are so quiet to begin with, that any outside noise can be a big distraction.  We were the first musical group that they have had at the library, so they were still working on their advertising and promotions, which is the nice way of saying there was hardly anyone there.  We all still had a great time though and we got some good recordings out of it.  The manager of the library loved it and said she would like to have us back once the music series is more established.
  The last Wednesday of the month I was back at the Tap Room Annex. This time it was the improvisation theme, so everything was improvised the whole night.  There were a lot of musicians on stage this time and all I can remember is what I would describe as a wall of sound all night.  Have you ever had a conversation with a loud talker?  How about a non-stop talker? How about both at the same time?  This is what seemed to happen on this night.  Improvisation amongst musicians is a lot like a conversation amongst strangers, you really have to be aware of not only what you are saying, but what others are saying.  And, as a musician playing in a group, you don't really stop the flow of sound, you have to know how to lay your sound out so others can be heard.  It is a subtle art that, when it is good, is one of my favorite musical experiences.  When it doesn't click though, you get a wall of sound that just pushes everything louder and crazier, and all parties seem to just man their own post as the ship sails through the high seas.  O.K., so are you getting the idea of how this night went?  When it was over I was tired, my ears were mad, and I just wanted to cut out as quick as I could.  Luckily, some of the other members felt the same thing happen so next time we can set sail with calmer waters in mind.
  The final two shows of the month fell on the same evening.  They were a familiar pair, Ann Arbor Kirtan and the Nick Strange group.  This time, however, the Nick strange group was at the Firefly jazz club on South Main St. in Ann Arbor.  They were celebrating the 6th C.D. release.  What made this night tricky is that the Nick Strange group started an hour earlier than usual, so the Kirtan overlapped it by a half hour.  I had to negotiate with the kirtan group to end 10 minutes early, which they agreed to with no problem, and then I had to convince Dan to start his set acoustic, which he did as well.  I did not like having to be the thorn in both groups for the evening, but when scheduling live music is as tough as it is in this town, you have to take what you can get.  Vinnie helped me out on the Firefly side, and a tabla student of mine, Simon Ha helped me on the kirtan side by taking my tabla home for me. I could not have pulled it off without them.
  So having a night like this always causes me to pause beforehand and take a few breaths.  I know that I have a big night of music in front of me, so pacing is very important.  It is lucky that doing kirtan lends itself to slowing down and calming the mind.  I wanted to be sure to be present in the moment all night and not think about what had to be done next and I think that mindset helped keep me calm. I arrived early and was happy to have my son Charley with me. He hung around for the set up and soundcheck and then wen home early with mom. We wanted him to come to a kirtan in the shirt they bought for him before he was too big to wear it. It made me happy to have him there, and it helped to keep me calm.  So usually the Kirtan ends with a 10 minute silent meditation, so what I did was sneak out as soon as I hit the last note. everyone had their eyes closed, so I heard that many people did not even see me leave.  I got in my car and took the 2 minute drive down to the Firefly.  I walked into the club and Dan motioned me to come on stage the moment he saw me.  I was a minute into the first song before I even got a chance to look around at this place I had never been.  It was a true test of my nerves.  No warm-up, no time for a breath, no time to even think, I was playing.  After the first song was over I was thinking to myself that the kirtan group had probably not even opened their eyes yet and already I am playing the second song of the night, which just happen to include a drum solo, AAAAAGH!  It was a roller coaster ride.  It made for an exciting night that I will not soon forget. I really enjoyed the club. It was a nice space and the best part was that it was a non-smoking room, which has been a rarity when playing with this group, (made up of all non-smokers).  A few kirtaners came down after the kirtan was over and watched a few sets, which was nice to see.  I had a really good time, although I hope I never have to pull off something like that again!
  So that is it for April.  Thanks for reading I will write again soon.

John

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