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Suba Sankaran’s Autorickshaw – circa 2004

June 20, 2009
Autorickshaw

Autorickshaw

One of the guilty pleasures of journalism is that it involves a lot of unfinished business. Interviews are brutally abridged. Quotes that make the story sing are sometimes shredded into meaningless blurbs. Sources stand you up once a story has been scheduled. Editors give you a hiding. Stories get spiked. Editors piss on your story. If they don’t, designers do. And when all seems to go well, photographers do. As you might imagine, there is a surfeit of piss in the industry and a lot of it seeks you out sooner or later.

Still, the writer’s hubris is unshakeable. And the story, however delayed, eventually finds its way into the world – blurted over a late night swill of lager, or wasted in pillow talk to an indifferent paramour. Late, but never untold.

In 2004, while still a journalist with a passion for music, I interviewed Suba Sankaran of Autorickshaw for India Abroad. It was to be one of my last music stories before I quit professional journalism and began a (regrettable) career as a corporate hack, and then, three and a half years later, dumped that too to go solo. Satisfyingly.

Autorickshaw is a reasonably well-known Indo-Canadian Carnatic Jazz outfit. That’s a lot of hyphenated identities there, and (since I was employed with an Indian-American paper) I was primarily interested in the story of the singer Suba Sankaran, daughter of mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran. Raised in Canada, she had trained in Carnatic and adapted her lovely, trained voice to jazz.

Autorickshaw at that time was just one album old (the eponymous Autorickshaw – 2003), and the lineup was Sankaran, tabla player Ed Hanley, bassist Rich Brown and percussionist Patrick Graham. Since, they have cut two more albums – Four Higher (2004) and So the Journey Goes (2007). Four Higher, incidentally, is a play on the words ‘For Hire’ seen at the back of autorickshaws in India.

I have with me Autorickshaw and a demo CD that Sankaran had sent me, and I still play both whenever I am allowed. Sankaran’s voice is not heavy on body (the way Susheela Raman’s is) but she handles her scales with panache and her phrasing is quite interesting. Some Carnatic purists I know, however, have been parsimonious with praise for it, but I like it nonetheless.

As for the domain of jazz, I’m not sure where exactly Autorickshaw the band fits in. Or how their journey has placed them on the global canvas. Yes, they have a whole lot of gigs lined up, and that’s always nice for any band.

I observed, with some disappointment, that Sankaran’s vocals have not matured with the music as much as I would have expected them to. I thought the title track of So the Journey Goes was rather tedious. But for memory’s sake, I shall treasure the early Autorickshaw I knew.

Thumbing through my archives the other night, I came across an interview that never made it to print, or the web. The responses are unabridged, and I have retained Suba’s spellings for Carnatic (Karnatak) and mridangam (mrdangam) among other idiosyncrasies. The second part of the interview is more about Suba the artist, and some questions may seem pedestrian. But hey, I’m no arty-farticulate music critic!

To read this you must swallow a glass of time and rewind to 2004, and then imagine Autorickshaw slipping jumpily into first gear after the initial hand-start and working a courageous but wavering trajectory into the snarl of the morning rush hour. Always a tenderly beautiful sight.

Excerpts:

What’s the history behind the name Autorickshaw?

We thought this would be a great name for the band as it implies a combination of tradition and innovation.

Also as a point of interest, the title of our new CD “Four Higher” is a play on the words “For Hire” seen on the back of autorickshaws.

How did you guys meet? When did you start playing together?

autorickshaw formed as a response to a successful collaboration between Suba Sankaran and Ed Hanley, composing music for dancer/choreographer Natasha Bahkt. At our first meeting, we both realized that we wanted to start a band together. This was the genesis of autorickshaw.

How do you meld your musical backgrounds?

All of the members of autorickshaw have had some training in south and north Indian classical music. We are deeply rooted in these traditions while also drawing from other world music, jazz and contemporary influences.

Our goal is to create music that speaks to both our musical training and our musical influences. We wish to integrate the South Asian tradition with jazz and other popular music forms, representing an innovative and refreshing new standard that is also accessible.

We see our music growing with our experiences and ongoing musical training.  We will always strive for making relevant music that represents the ever-changing world we live in today.

If you would attempt to stick a label on your music, what genre would it be?

As we embrace so many different musical traditions and influences, we find it futile to try and classify what we do. ‘World music’ or ‘Indo-jazz fusion’ is often how autorickshaw is categorized, though we have toured folk, jazz and world music festivals across Canada. We aim to defy categorization!

What kind of reception does your music get in Canada?

Our music gets a range of responses. A good number of people enjoy autorickshaw for different reasons and on many different levels, be it pure entertainment, strictly musical, fusion, spirituality, etc. Some people enjoy the attempt at fusing several musical cultures while others criticize it.

Questions for Suba:

Tell us about your initiation to music. Have you always wanted to be a singer?

I believe that I have always wanted to be a musician. I took to the stage at a very early age, performing for the first time at the age of 4.

I did my formal music training at Claude Watson School for the Arts and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, then went on to receive my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Arts degrees, also in music.

What was it like to learn vocal music from your father?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada where my father began teaching me south Indian Karnatak vocal lessons and compositions. Learning vocal music and drumming from my father was great. He was encouraging and tried to make it fun and interesting to keep my attention when I was growing up. I admittedly did not always want to practice when I was growing up, and I strayed from Karnatak singing for a while when I became busy with other extra-curricular activities like western classical piano, percussion, choir, sports and school.

You were also trained in percussion – do you continue to play percussion instruments?

I do continue to play percussion instruments though not as frequently as I would like. I began on mrdangam and also learned kanjira that I gravitate to now especially because it is so portable. Also, the idea that such a small instrument can create a multitude of sounds is fascinating to me.

In earlier years (1990-2000), I accompanied dance classes on various percussion instruments and studied with percussion exponents like Russell Hartenberger, Sal Ferreras and Glen Velez.

You studied jazz at York University. You also have a strong grounding in Carnatic classical music. How do you balance the two styles?

I always like to look for connections between different musical cultures. With jazz and Karnatak music specifically, both styles of music have strong elements of improvisation. Also, Karnatak singers use sargam or solfege syllables (sa ri ga ma pa dha ni) while jazz vocalists use scat syllables (sound syllables used to imitate instruments). I try and combine both of these elements in my songwriting.

In terms of contrasts that I draw from, Indian music is rich in melody and rhythm while western music is especially advanced in harmony. I try and combine these musical elements to create something that speaks to both eastern and western sensibilities.

Have you played with any Indian musicians? What memorable experiences can you recount?

Since 1992, I have been sharing the stage with my father and every occasion is a memorable one (as well as an amazing learning experience). Even when not performing on stage, I would keep tala (rhythmic cycle with accompanying hand gestures), essentially sharing the stage with artists like Zakir Hussain, Harishankar, Anindo Chatterjee, G.J.R. Krishnan, T. Vishwanathan, K. Subramaniam  and N. Ramani to name a few.

My first experience on stage was probably my most memorable: My family was at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, USA for the Navaratri Festival. It was the late T. Vishwanathan’s idea to have the children (my sister and I, and his two relatives) open the festival with a musical offering. He and my father suggested Santhatham Paahimaam which uses the melody of the anthem God Save the Queen, only with different lyrics. The lyrics were in Sanskrit, by Composer Muttuswaami Dikshitar, which roughly translated to God save everyone! I remember thinking that the change in the lyrics was great in that it was so inclusive. We performed at the hall in front of almost 1000 people. This was my first taste of the stage and I don’t think I’ve ever turned back. My soul is most satisfied when I’m performing for people, communicating through music.

Which musicians do you admire?

I admire so many musicians, it’s difficult to narrow it down. My father is my guru and I admire him greatly. I admire the other members of autorickshaw and the creative forces they bring to the group. I admire pioneers in songwriting and world music like Peter Gabriel, and Canadians Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn. autorickshaw influences include world music ensembles and artists Montuno Police, Rabih-Abou Kahlil, Zakir Hussain and Shakti, Peter Gabriel, Trichy Sankaran, Trilok Gurtu, and U. Srinivas.

You play and sing a wide variety of musical styles with various groups – Trichy’s Trio, Voyces Past, the FreePlay Duo, Retrocity. Tell us a little about your role in each.

In Trichy’s Trio, I have a similar role as I do in autorickshaw: I sing, play piano and solkattu (vocal percussion). In Voyces Past, I sing anything from low alto to high soprano, singing sacred and secular music from the Renaissance period and Canadian contemporary music for women’s voices. In the Freeplay Duo, I mainly sing jazz standards, but also more mainstream pop, rock and RnB, as well as folk music. The FreePlay Duo often gets hired as a wedding band, so we do music specific to those occasions and often get called for Jewish weddings where I’m singing Horas! Retrocity is a 7-piece vocal group (no instruments) where we specialize in only mainstream 80s hits. It is very high energy and over-the-top! I sing the very high stuff that only synthesizers and first trumpets would be inclined to play! I sing with another ensemble called Hampton 4, a vocal jazz quartet, again, no instruments.

Is your family supportive of the musical direction you have chosen?

My family is very supportive of my musical direction. They do question the freelance aspect of the music business, wondering when I’ll want to “settle down” and get more “steady work”, but they see that I’m not a starving artist: I make a good living and I’m happy. I remind them that this is all that matters.

I think with many Indian families, it is difficult for parents to reconcile that their children may not become doctors, lawyers or engineers. Children may choose careers that are not as stable, predictable or as safe as the parents would like or want. I have always been able to follow my heart and make ends meet. I think in their heart of hearts, my parents understand and respect this even if it takes time for them to resolve those issues.

Autorickshaw online

What’s the history behind the name Autorickshaw? Whose idea was it to name the band?

We thought this would be a great name for the band as it implies a combination of tradition and innovation.

Also as a point of interest, the title of our new CD “Four Higher” is a play on the words “For Hire” seen on the back of autorickshaws.

How did you guys meet? When did you start playing together?

autorickshaw formed as a response to a successful collaboration between Suba Sankaran and Ed Hanley, composing music for dancer/choreographer Natasha Bahkt. At our first meeting, we both realized that we wanted to start a band together. This was the genesis of autorickshaw.

Tell us a bit about how you meld your musical backgrounds together.

All of the members of autorickshaw have had some training in south and north Indian classical music. We are deeply rooted in these traditions while also drawing from other world music, jazz and contemporary influences.

Our goal is to create music that speaks to both our musical training and our musical influences. We wish to integrate the South Asian tradition with jazz and other popular music forms, representing an innovative and refreshing new standard that is also accessible.

We see our music growing with our experiences and ongoing musical training.  We will always strive for making relevant music that represents the ever-changing world we live in today.

If you would attempt to stick a label on your music, what genre would it be?

As we embrace so many different musical traditions and influences, we find it futile to try and classify what we do. ‘World music’ or ‘Indo-jazz fusion’ is often how autorickshaw is categorized, though we have toured folk, jazz and world music festivals across Canada. We aim to defy categorization!

When was your first performance? How many gigs have you done? Which ones have been the most memorable?

Our first performance was also our CD release (believe it or not!) on July 3rd, 2003 at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Canada. Since then, we have done over 70 performances and have toured across Canada. We have maintained a strong presence in our home city of Toronto in the province of Ontario. We have had several memorable gigs including the Harbourfront Centre; Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver Island Musicfest, Harrison Festival of the Arts – all in British Columbia; Dawson City Music Festival, Yukon Territory; Atlantic Jazz Festival, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Guelph and Kingston Jazz Festival, Ontario.

How has your first album been received?

Our first album has been well-received. Reviews from around the country have been favourable. Some quotes include:

“autorickshaw brings in all their musical influences from Indian classical and jazz music without succumbing to creating Asian fusion music or chill out music like their UK contemporaries. The music on this recording possesses an organic quality that emphasizes the musicians’ talents and passion for different types of music…autorickshaw might also be called virtuoso and certainly unique.”

-Cranky Crow World Music

“Vocalist Suba Sankaran and tabla player Ed Hanley are two artists in Toronto’s Indian classical music community who are skilled improvisers in many languages. autorickshaw’s debut is a stripped-down recording showcasing their considerable compositional and playing skills….Sankaran’s multi-tracked vocals producing rich harmonies, percussive effects and a sub-continental Joni Mitchell-influenced styling.”

-Exclaim! Magazine

Our second and latest album (released in June, 2004), is called Four Higher, a play on the words “For Hire” seen on the back of autorickshaws. Produced by the group’s artistic directors Suba Sankaran and Ed Hanley, Four Higher features funky, contemporary arrangements of south Indian classical compositions, Bollywood-tinged jazz standards, and fiery Indo-jazz originals.

What are your future projects?

Our future projects include performances collaborating with Voyces Past of which Suba is a member, as well as collaborations with multi-instrumentalist George Koller and master drummer Trichy Sankaran (Suba’s father). Both performances will be recorded and broadcast by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

Beyond this, autorickshaw will maintain their presence in the national music market and work to expand their touring to the United States, Europe and India.

autorickshaw will also continue composing music and presenting self-produced concerts. An all-Canadian concert is forthcoming, as is a new composition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal.

What kind of reception does your music get in Canada?

Our music gets a range of responses. A good number of people enjoy autorickshaw for different reasons and on many different levels, be it pure entertainment, strictly musical, fusion, spirituality, etc. Some people enjoy the attempt at fusing several musical cultures while others criticize it.

Have you toured outside of Canada?

We have not toured as autorickshaw outside of Canada though each member has performed and toured outside as individuals or as part of other musical groups.

Have the other members of the band visited India?

Everyone (Suba Sankaran, Ed Hanley and Debashis Sinha), with the exception of Rich Brown, has visited and studied in India.

Questions for Suba:

Tell us about your initiation to music. Have you always wanted to be a singer?

I believe that I have always wanted to be a musician. I took to the stage at a very early age, performing for the first time at the age of 4.

I did my formal music training at Claude Watson School for the Arts and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, then went on to receive my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Arts degrees, also in music.

Did you grow up in India? What was it like to learn vocal music from your father?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada where my father began teaching me south Indian Karnatak vocal lessons and compositions. Learning vocal music and drumming from my father was great. He was encouraging and tried to make it fun and interesting to keep my attention when I was growing up. I admittedly did not always want to practice when I was growing up, and I strayed from Karnatak singing for a while when I became busy with other extra-curricular activities like western classical piano, percussion, choir, sports and school.

You were also trained in percussion – do you continue to play percussion instruments?

I do continue to play percussion instruments though not as frequently as I would like. I began on mrdangam and also learned kanjira that I gravitate to now especially because it is so portable. Also, the idea that such a small instrument can create a multitude of sounds is fascinating to me.

In earlier years (1990-2000), I accompanied dance classes on various percussion instruments and studied with percussion exponents like Russell Hartenberger, Sal Ferreras and Glen Velez.

You studied jazz at York University. You also have a strong grounding in Carnatic classical music. How do you balance the two styles?

I always like to look for connections between different musical cultures. With jazz and Karnatak music specifically, both styles of music have strong elements of improvisation. Also, Karnatak singers use sargam or solfege syllables (sa ri ga ma pa dha ni) while jazz vocalists use scat syllables (sound syllables used to imitate instruments). I try and combine both of these elements in my songwriting.

In terms of contrasts that I draw from, Indian music is rich in melody and rhythm while western music is especially advanced in harmony. I try and combine these musical elements to create something that speaks to both eastern and western sensibilities.

Have you played with any Indian musicians? What memorable experiences can you recount?

Since 1992, I have been sharing the stage with my father and every occasion is a memorable one (as well as an amazing learning experience). Even when not performing on stage, I would keep tala (rhythmic cycle with accompanying hand gestures), essentially sharing the stage with artists like Zakir Hussain, Harishankar, Anindo Chatterjee, G.J.R. Krishnan, T. Vishwanathan, K. Subramaniam  and N. Ramani to name a few.

My first experience on stage was probably my most memorable: My family was at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, USA for the Navaratri Festival. It was the late T. Vishwanathan’s idea to have the children (my sister and I, and his two relatives) open the festival with a musical offering. He and my father suggested Santhatham Paahimaam which uses the melody of the anthem God Save the Queen, only with different lyrics. The lyrics were in Sanskrit, by Composer Muttuswaami Dikshitar, which roughly translated to God save everyone! I remember thinking that the change in the lyrics was great in that it was so inclusive. We performed at the hall in front of almost 1000 people. This was my first taste of the stage and I don’t think I’ve ever turned back. My soul is most satisfied when I’m performing for people, communicating through music.

Which musicians do you admire?

I admire so many musicians, it’s difficult to narrow it down. My father is my guru and I admire him greatly. I admire the other members of autorickshaw and the creative forces they bring to the group. I admire pioneers in songwriting and world music like Peter Gabriel, and Canadians Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn. autorickshaw influences include world music ensembles and artists Montuno Police, Rabih-Abou Kahlil, Zakir Hussain and Shakti, Peter Gabriel, Trichy Sankaran, Trilok Gurtu, and U. Srinivas.

You play and sing a wide variety of musical styles with various groups – Trichy’s Trio, Voyces Past, the FreePlay Duo, Retrocity. Tell us a little about your role in each.

In Trichy’s Trio, I have a similar role as I do in autorickshaw: I sing, play piano and solkattu (vocal percussion). In Voyces Past, I sing anything from low alto to high soprano, singing sacred and secular music from the Renaissance period and Canadian contemporary music for women’s voices. In the Freeplay Duo, I mainly sing jazz standards, but also more mainstream pop, rock and RnB, as well as folk music. The FreePlay Duo often gets hired as a wedding band, so we do music specific to those occasions and often get called for Jewish weddings where I’m singing Horas! Retrocity is a 7-piece vocal group (no instruments) where we specialize in only mainstream 80s hits. It is very high energy and over-the-top! I sing the very high stuff that only synthesizers and first trumpets would be inclined to play! I sing with another ensemble called Hampton 4, a vocal jazz quartet, again, no instruments.

If you were not a singer, what would you be?

I only know my path as a singer, so it’s hard to see any other forks in the road. I also divide my time performing, directing choirs and private teaching, so I would probably focus my efforts in those other areas.

Outside of music, I really enjoy gardening and cooking, so perhaps a career along those lines would be a second choice.

Is your family supportive of the musical direction you have chosen?

My family is very supportive of my musical direction. They do question the freelance aspect of the music business, wondering when I’ll want to “settle down” and get more “steady work”, but they see that I’m not a starving artist: I make a good living and I’m happy. I remind them that this is all that matters.

I think with many Indian families, it is difficult for parents to reconcile that their children may not become doctors, lawyers or engineers. Children may choose careers that are not as stable, predictable or as safe as the parents would like or want. I have always been able to follow my heart and make ends meet. I think in their heart of hearts, my parents understand and respect this even if it takes time for them to resolve those issues.

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