Imagine John Cleese with a red dot on his forehead, wearing a lungi and sitting on stage, playing Indian classical music on an alto saxophone. Carnatic musician Kadri Goplanath looks so much like the comedic British actor (at least, I think so), that I half expect Terry Gilliam or Michael Palin to walk on stage behind him as his mridangam player, and the concert to end hilariously with a trifling flesh wound.
I first saw Mr. Gopalnath at a saxophone double bill in my home town of Bangalore, India. The local German cultural center, Max Mueller Bhavan, had brought across an octet of German jazz saxophonists for the first set, and Mr. Gopalnath and his accompanists played the second.
The octet featured Adolphe Sax’s entire family, from a soprano to my first sighting of a bass saxophone. Yeah, a slightly gimmicky concept, but at least all eight were brilliant musicians. Yet after the intermission, when Mr. Gopalnath took the stage and breathed just two notes into that sole alto, he blew the entire octet away.
Some Carnatic purists sniff at Mr. Gopalnath and his choice of instrument (even though the violin is all but native to the form), but I was awe-struck by his control over it, one he has apparently modified to handle the microtonal demands of Indian classical. Even if you don’t identify with the arcane art forms of Hindustani or Carnatic, the requisite lifetime of rigorous training is always apparent from a musician’s first notes of the alaap, the Indian classical music version of the amuse bouche. The mix of control and improvisation shown in those arch studies of the notes to come make me imagine what it would look like if a roller coaster was to somehow freestyle: rock solid, yet soaring.
Sadly, videos of Mr. Gopalnath’s later concerts online have so much reverb on the sax, they sound unbearably cleesy— sorry, cheesy. But the first few seconds of this track from the album Southern Brothers should give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
To my regret and even shame, Indian classical is an alien art form to me; yes, a person who has grown up in India. I lived in an urban social and cultural milieu often described by Indians as “Westernized” (except we spelled it with an “s”, and not the letter we call “zed”). The word was often used pejoratively, but we never thought of it that way. At 19, my hair went halfway down my back, and I wore jeans that were holes and white threads held together by denim. I persuaded my then-girlfriend to paint me a Judas Priest “Devil’s Tuning Fork” patch, and asked my grandmother to sew it into a ragged gap in those badlands trousers. On the streets of my South-Indian city I stood out like the Yeti in a Walmart cosmetics aisle, but fit right in when gathering with friends.
We were proud to be Westernized, and wore it like badge and costume. Rush and Dream Theater were passwords to inner circles (and Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death to inner-inner circles). Though ours was a city of seven million, when we went out, we’d know everybody in the places we frequented. We were a tiny percentage of Bangalore’s population, but this was our world.
It was only after moving to the US that I felt regret at not having seen what was in front of me. Instead of hunting down traditional concerts by world-class musicians in the old neighborhoods of south Bangalore, I’d be in the cantonment area listening to college bands play the thousandth shaky rendition of “Welcome to the Smoke-on-the-Water Jungle, Sweet Paranoid War-Pig Child of Mine”.
Instead of doing the LA-to-San Francisco journey from Bangalore to Chennai for its legendary annual Carnatic music festival, I spent my money on overpriced drinks at one of Bangalore’s many pubs, making sure to be cool enough to pick the ones that played classic rock, but never “Winds of Change” or “Hotel California”, the worn anthems of nights on the town in my city. Instead of tracking down a nadaswaram, an oboe-like instrument whose sound I loved (and played by Mr Gopalnath’s father), I dreamed of an unattainable imported electric guitar.
Don’t think I’m suggesting that one form of music is more authentic than another. Or that rock couldn’t be authentic just because it’s played in a South Indian city. I’m just saying the ground around me was so fertile, it was criminal I never found roots in it. Twenty years later, I think a lot about roots that might have been. My move to the cultural compass point known as the West made me confront and acknowledge my East in a way I never had to (or thought to) in India. As Westernized as I was, I am Indian in superficial and deep ways I never anticipated, from how happy spicy food makes me, to finding Americans bafflingly open with their lives yet closed with their doors.
As I miss certain cultural handholds, one of many things I question is my relationship to material goods, especially that warm pile of electronics in the living room. My doubts are not for the days I sit lost in wonder in front of it, listening to track after track, album after album. These days, those are so few and far between (I’ve always thought this tired phrase sounds like a Led Zeppelin song), that there are times the audio system weighs heavy on me, like a car that’s rarely driven, or the box of leftovers in the fridge I know I’m not going to eat, but will keep until cutely fuzzy so I can legitimately throw away.
Since I’m among friends, let me speak my truths about my audio hobby/passion/lifestyle/call-it-what-you-will:
1) Sometimes I sit down to listen to music, not because I want to, but because I want my expensive, complex audio system to have been put to use that day.
2) While I tell myself I have acknowledged the politics of acquisition, the times I most want to upgrade, are the times I feel the lowest about myself.
3)… well, 2.5) I sometimes dream of an audiophile Walden: my only audio set-up being a little music player and two bookshelf speakers, actually set up on on a bookshelf, and nothing more.
I apologize that these truths lead to a well-worn groove: the reflection that my search for high fidelity is about so much more than fidelity to master tapes, or live performances. But sometimes it needs to be said aloud. Every passion has at least the pretense that it connects to something bigger than itself. Motorcycles and freedom. Grilling and the history of humankind. Knitting and… I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I ever it take up.
Why else is a system never finished? Why else is there price-level upon price-level of cable, if not for the fact that if a man’s reach is doomed to forever exceed his grasp, he’ll simply shrug, say, “To hell with heaven”, and buy speaker cable from the electrical aisle of Home Depot?
But a funny thing happens to me on the way to bed, on those days I stop to listen to a track or two simply out of a sense of duty. Because I have no expectations, and I’m not there to test anything, I simply pick music close at hand, and don’t overthink a thing. Those moments become the lightest and most authentic of my day—up there with the swooping descent of Glendora Mountain Road on my bicycle, or the mandrake-scream of my chilli-loaded chicken wings.
So be it then, that Kadri Gopalnath is my entry point to Carnatic music, just as it might be for someone who isn’t from India. A familiar instrument and sound, played in an utterly unfamiliar way, even before the first note… when did you last see a saxophonist essay from the floor? I don’t feel a raga in my gut, the way a blues scale talks to my viscera. With a mother who loves The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, and a father who can croon word-perfect any Sinatra or Dino you throw at him, and friends who listen to pop and rock and EDM and metal and hip-hop, I can’t erase the fact that the soundtrack of my life was from the musical Westernized.
Thousands of choices led me to that moment of authenticity in front of the audio system, whether as immediate as speaker placement, or as storied as the lifetime that made me own and appreciate a particular track. It’s so easy to forget that the power of that button press from the sofa is that whatever plays, plays for me. And I don’t mean “me” as against you or anyone else, but “me” as in the entire history of who I am. The narrative that brought me to this moment is only inauthentic when I choose to apply other contexts to it. The view from the sweet spot is always truthful, and the lesson for any grail chaser is that perfection is utterly irrelevant if you can’t hold imperfection in a compassionate embrace.
Welcome to the smoke-on-the-water jungle… ah, you know how it goes