Label: Akshara Music.
It was in 2008, that composer, vocalist and percussionist Bala Skandan founded Akshara in New York. Seven years later, and Akshara’s Mohana Blues won the Best World Traditional Song award at the 13th Annual Independent Music Awards in 2015. This made all Akshara’s hard work worthwhile, and spurred them on to even greater heights.
Now, two years later, the New York based ensemble return with their eagerly awaited debut album In Time. Fittingly, In Time features Mohana Blues which introduced the Akshara to many within the musical community. It epitomises what Akshara’s music is about, as this multitalented ensemble fuse jazz with Western classical music, and Indian sensibilities and instrumentation. The result is Akshara’s innovative, mathematically elegant, genre-melting musical fusion which features on In Time which was recently released by Akshara Music. It’s the album that Akshara have been working towards over the last few years.
For those yet to discover Akshara, the eight piece ensemble is based in New York, and is led by composer, vocalist and percussionist Bala Skandan, vocalist and percussionist. He was initiated into the Carnatic percussion art of Mridangam, and started to play the violin at the age of six. Since then, Bala Skandan has come a long way.
Nowadays, he’s regarded as one of finest exponents of the Mridangam, and has accompanied the great and good of Carnatic music. Bala Skandan is a talented composer, whose compositions embrace Hindustani and Carnatic music. He’s also a respected educator in Carnatic music, and has taught students the Mridangam, kanjira, solkattu, and violin. Still Bala Skandan has managed to find time to lead Akshara, which he founded in 2008, and features some New York’s most talented musicians.
This included the first of two violinists to join Akshara, Trina Basu-Ramamurthy. She is a talented player and improviser who has been influenced by everything from folk and jazz to European and Indian classical music. Trina Basu-Ramamurthy is also a composer, educator and performer who was worked with everyone from Mos Def, Gil Scott Heron, Susan McKeown and Urban Bush Women. However, soon, Trina Basu-Ramamurthy was joined in Akshara by another violinist who would later become her husband.
Little did Arun Ramamurthy realise when he joined Akshara, that he would meet his life partner. When he joined Akshara, he was one of the rising stars of World Music and Indian classical music. Arun Ramamurthy had trained in Carnatic music, and was taught by some of the most distinguished teachers. Nowadays, Arun Ramamurthy is a versatile and talented violinist who performs Carnatic & Hindustani music, and is involved in a variety of other projects, including Akshara.
Next to join Akshara was Nitin Mitta, whose regarded as one of the greatest tabla players of his generation. He trained under some of the top tabla players, and nowadays, is one of the finest exponents of the Farukhabad gharana playing style. Nitin Mitta is a technical player, but plays with freedom fluidity and clarity, whilst incorporating subtleties and melodic nuances into the music.
This becomes apparent as this dynamic soloist takes to the stage, or when he accompanies top Hindustani classical and Carnatic musicians. Nitin Mitta has also collaborated with Grammy nominated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and Carnatic guitarist R Prasanna on the 2011 album Tirtha, which is an innovative fusion of contemporary jazz and North and South Indian traditional ragas that showcased this talented musician.
Soon, Bala Skandan had recruited two talented cellists to join Akshara. He explains why: “I love cello, which is why I have two cello player. Cello is not an instrument usually associated with Carnatic music. I feel that cello and viola really add a lot of depth.” Especially if the players of the quality of the cellists Bala Skandan brought onboard.
Cellist Amali Premawardhana is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, and when she joined Akshara, was a member of a classical orchestral, chamber musician and Suzuki cello instructor. Still Amali Premawardhana found time to play with the Brooklyn Massive and co-lead her own ensemble, Karavika. Despite her hectic schedule, Amali Premawardhana agreed to join Akshara, where she would play alongside Dave Eggar.
Dave Eggar started playing the cello and piano at the age of three. By the age of seven, he had already performed on Broadway, and played with the Metropolitan Opera. Dave Eggar debuted at the Carnegie Hall as a fifteen year old, and later, studied and graduated from, Harvard University and the Julliard School’s Doctoral Program. Since then, this versatile, talented and award-winning musician has played alongside many top musicians, including The Who, Michael Brecker, Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Fall Out Boy, Dave Sanborn, Ray Lamontagne, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon and Bon Jovi. Just like the other members of Akshara Dave Eggar, has an impressive CV.
Gradually, Akshara’s lineup was taking shape, and Bala Skandan continued to recruit top musicians. This included Max ZT who is known as the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer, and was called a: “force of nature” by the New York Music Daily. No wonder, as Max ZT is an innovative player whose taken the hammered dulcimer in a new direction.
Max ZT started off playing Irish folk music, and later, studied the Mandinko technique with the Cissoko griot family in Senegal. After this, Max ZT spent time in Mumbai, India, studying under the Santoor maestro Padmavibhushan Pt Shivkumar Sharm. Since then, Max ZT has shared a stage with many top names, including Jon Bon Jovi, Jimmy Cliff, Karsh Kale, Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten, and has played an important part in Akshara’s sound and success.
Bansuri maestro Jay Gandhi is the final member of Akshara. Initially, he trained in vocal music, before turning his attention to the bansuri, which is a side blown flute. This resulted in Jay Gandhi studying under several master musicians. Still, Jay Gandhi had a thirst for musical knowledge and studied the gayaki ang vocal style and the tantrakari ang. Later, he studied under jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. For Jay Gandhi, this was all part of his musical eduction, as he became a Bansuri maestro, and later, a member Akshara.
These musicians became part of Akshara, which is regarded as a dynamic music ensemble which brings together world music traditions on the rhythmic and modal foundations of Indian classical music. The other ingredients of Akshara’s music is jazz and Western classical music. They’re all part of Akshara’s innovative, mathematically elegant and genre-melting musical fusion. It’s found favour amongst critics and musical aficionados over the last few years.
It’s no surprise, as Akshara is a pioneering group, who reinterpret ragas like Kamboji, Mohana, Gambira Natai and Shanmugapriya, which are arranged for Carnatic, Hindustani, and Western classical and folk instruments. Using this unique and disparate combination of musical instruments, the ragas take on new life and meaning. This isn’t easy though.
Bala Skandan explains that: “at its root, Carnatic music is very complex and mathematical. That makes it interesting rhythmically, even for seasoned Indian musicians.”
Each member of Akshara, who are drawn from two New York ensembles the Brooklyn Raga Massive and House of Waters, are certainly seasoned, talented and versatile musicians. They’ve a wealth experience which they brought with then to Akshara, when Bala Skandan was putting the band together.
This allowed Bala Skandan to put some of his new ideas into practise. These were things he had been thinking of during his stay in London. One of his ideas was to put together a new band that played Indian classical music. However, unlike other ensembles the new band would have permanent members. This was very different to many other ensembles, where the lineups were fluid, with members coming and going. Another of Bala Skandan’s idea was to only play shorter pieces, which he hoped would capture the audience’s imagination. Little did he know that this was a masterstroke.
Now Bala Skandan began recruiting musicians for his new band, Akshara. Many of the members of Akshara were from a classical music background, and were won over by Bala Skandan’s ideas of playing shorter-form pieces of Carnatic music. This he and the rest of Akshara hoped would make Carnatic music much more accessible, and introduce it to a much wider audience.
The new audience embraced and were won over by the much more accessible short arrangements of Carnatic music. Bala Skandan and the rest of Akshara had achieved what they set out to do. In doing so, Akshara introduced the principles and pleasures of Carnatic music to a new audience. For Bala Skandan this was satisfying:“Indian classical music has a lot of depth. It takes time to appreciate its different levels or layers. You need to peel the layers back and make it easier to engage with.”
Now that Bala Skandan and his new band Akshara had introduced a new audience to Carnatic music, the bandleader started to introduce new pieces to their set. He had plenty of compositions to choose from, as there’s a huge canon of Carnatic music compositions available. These Carnatic music pieces are more flexible than Western classical works. This flexibility is something that Bala Skandan is keen to incorporate to new music, and does so in a way that they’re compatible and in harmony with Western musical practises. Bala Skandan says: “it’s important to not cram your music with your own thought processes. I love it when the band adds harmony, because that’s not part of my training. You want to create space for other people to explore.”
This they’ve been doing over the last few years, and have won Akshara many friends and in 2015, a prestigious award. Akshara’s Mohana Blues won the Best World Traditional Song award at the 13th Annual Independent Music Awards in 2015. Now two years later, the New York-based Akshara return with their eagerly awaited debut album In Time, which showcases the combined talents of the ensemble.
Akshara’s debut album In Time was recorded at Figure 8 Studios, in New York and was produced by bandleader Bala Skandan. In Time features their award-winning composition Mohana Blues, plus Mind The Gap, Opus In 5, ShaDJam and Urban Krithi. They’re part of a captivating and enchanting album that epitomises what Akshara’s music is about.
The multitalented eight piece ensemble fuse jazz with Western classical music, and Indian sensibilities and instrumentation. The result is Akshara’s innovative, mathematically elegant, genre-melting musical fusion.
In Time opens the albums, and finds Akshara toying with the listener. Mesmeric beats power the arrangement along before the arrangement pauses. These dramatic pauses give way to graceful, effervescent fragments of melody as Akshara showcase their considerable talents as soloists and as part of the ensemble. It’s a similar case on Akshara’s award-winning song Mohana Blues, which combines konnakol, which are spoken rhythmic patterns with a tabla and swaths of the lushest cascading strings. No wonder Mohana Blues was an award-wining song.
Opus Im 5 is a fifteen minute epic where Akshara stretch their legs on a track where each band member plays their part. This includes heartachingly beautiful cellos, urgent beats and Max ZT, who is known as the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer. Whether as a soloist or as part of the ensemble, Max ZT and the rest of Akshara play their part in a groundbreaking track. At one point, Akshara successfully combine Celtic strings with a Mridangam, to create an irresistible and genre-melting track. This is followed by the mesmeric and enchanting ShaDJam, where disparate musical genres and influences combine as Akshara jam on a track that ebbs and flows, revealing subtleties, surprises and nuances.
Closing In Time is Urban Krithi where initially, Max ZT caresses his dulcimer with the hammers. Soon, he’s playing is quick and fluid, as the dulcimer builds up a head of steam. It’s then joined by Nitin Mitta’s tabla and Jay Gandhi’s cascading bansuri flute, which soars above the rest of the arrangement. They’re joined sweeping and later, dark, broody strings as the arrangement continues to build and reveal the rest of secrets. By the time this fourteen minute opus, draws to a close it’s obvious that Akshara have kept the best until last.
After seven years together, the multitalented Akshara have recently released their much-anticipated debut album In Time. It features five lengthy tracks that are the perfect introduction to this pioneering musical group lead by Bala Skandan. Just like several members of Akshara, he’s a master musician, and is a talented, versatile and imaginative musician.
They came together to pioneer the short form versions of Carnatic music, which introduced the music to a much wider audience. However, there’s much more to their music than Carnatic music.
They came together to pioneer the short form versions of Carnatic music, which introduced the music to a much wider audience. However, there’s much more to their music than Carnatic music on In Time, which was recently released by Akshara Music.
Carnatic music is just one of the component parts to Akshara’s sound on In Time. This multitalented octet fuse jazz with Western classical music, and Indian sensibilities and instrumentation during the five captivating tracks. They’re part of the innovative, imaginative and mathematically elegant, genre-melting musical fusion that Akshara showcase on In Time which is an enchanting, multilayered debut album full of subtleties, surprises and nuances.