Sultan of Strings: In Conversation with Ravi Iyer
In December 2013, at the last edition of the IndiEarth XChange, an unassumingly humble musician, holding a rather unusual looking instrument, took to the stage. This musician’s modesty cleverly cloaked the musical tricks he had up his sleeve – feats that demonstrated his remarkable technical proficiency on a custom-made double-necked guitar, showcasing a unique blend of traditional Hindustani and Carnatic Classical Indian raga structures, merging effortlessly with more contemporary textures of jazz and rock. The audience was floored.
That musician was Ravi Iyer, whose illustrious performance captivated the attention of international festival programmers. Have a listen to Ravi on IndiEarth here. After his performance at the XChange, Ravi was approached by them for performance opportunities on the international stage at their festivals, including the highly respected Ulsan Jazz Festival in South Korea in September 2014. “As an Indian musician I want to communicate to Korean audiences that the language of music has always been one with the various tones of each continent,” he told IndiEarth, “Hence with all our humility, we are here to spread music and peace”!
Now back in India after a recent tour across the US, IndiEarth caught up with this eclectic musician about his unique style and experiences representing India on the international stage.
IE: Well Ravi, you’re just back from touring the US! Tell us about your USA tour?
RI: It was a very fulfilling tour – I collaborated with American as well as Indian artistes in the US. I performed at a traditional Tamil festival in Fremont, San Francisco, and later at the Indian Embassy (New York) and The North Castle Public Library auditorium (Armonk, New York). All three were public events and it was a pleasure to share my music with Indian and American audiences. All three performances were well accepted since the compositions have a balance of traditional Indian and western genres. Looking forward to many more tours in the USA!
IE: Musically, how do you approach blending Indian Classical Carnatic/Hindustani raga structures with jazz elements?
RI: There’s a lot in common when it comes to Western jazz and Indian Classical music, where improvisation and freedom is the key. Hence, I interpret my renditions of the ragas by taking influences from each genre. Having learned the tabla as a child, I incorporate a lot of those ideas through my guitar playing. Collaborating with Indian and international jazz artistes lends a wider range to my compositions and a healthy exchange of various genres.
IE: Tell us more about your custom-designed guitar and how you use it.
RI: My custom-designed VRAVI guitar is an outcome of my requirement of two different tunings to be accessible while playing. Hence, I got this completely handcrafted from my only trusted luthier, Mr. Sunil Shinde, in Mumbai. This guitar has two identical necks, both six-string and similar tones as well, but the top neck is tuned to a regular Indian tuning in Sa Pa, and the lower neck is standard Western guitar tuning.
The strings are flat wound strings, and of different gauges. So I play my compositions based on Indian Classical ragas on the top neck and try my best to keep the traditional sound in mind, and the lower neck is used for Western chordal movements as well as Western scales and lines.
IE: What does it mean for you to share your style of music in a country like Korea? Could you tell us, what are you planning for your set list?
RI: Korea sure has many good jazz acts! I believe my music will bring in a refreshing sound and will complement the other acts. It will be a great honour, a validation of my work in blending Indian Classical with Western rock and jazz genres. My set list would comprise of a few existing compositions from my album “BENDS” that was recently nominated for the best fusion album of the year at the GIMA AWARDS 2013, and a few new unreleased compositions that will feature in my forthcoming album (which I have not yet started recording).
IE: What are your observations and personal experiences with India’s independent music scene, and what would you like to see evolve and change?
RI: India’s independent music scene is growing and prospering by the minute! I would only like to see it spread more with the masses and earn its dues and rewards for the constant selfless hard work put in by all our independent artistes. It would be nice to see independent music more on par with the popularity of commercial tunes. Performing at IndiEarth XChange was truly an honour and pleasure for me. To be amongst a diverse range of musicians from so many different genres – that was definitely exciting for us. It was a very well organized event, and it was great to be in the company of noted international delegates who also work within the genre of world fusion.
For more on Ravi Iyer, visit www.vraviiyer.com