United We Jam
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Musical globalization may have hit a new peak with New Monsoon. The seven-piece band from the San Francisco Bay area features congas and timbales from the Latin-American sphere; tablas, a percussion instrument from India; didgeridoo, a wind instrument that originated with Australian aboriginals; African bongo drums; dobro and banjo from the bluegrass world (though the banjo traces its beginnings to Africa); and electric guitar, bass and drums from good old American rock ‘n’ roll. On “Downstream,” the band’s recent CD, its second, one can hear Appalachian bluegrass and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, and hints of Indian sounds.
More than anything, though, New Monsoon – which plays two Aspen gigs today, July 11, at 5 p.m. at Aspen Highlands as part of the Freestyle Fridays series, and later tonight at the Double Diamond – has the sound and feel of a jam band. On “Downstream,” their vibe is mellow, loose and inviting. The lyrics are eternally positive, often shamelessly so: “Keep the door open/Welcome the sun/Smile if it turns into cloud,” from “One of These Days,” is but one example. (OK, here’s another, from “Circle”: “Now is the time for fires to ignite/to talk about ideas, to cause peoples to unite.”)
Uniting is the idea behind New Monsoon – making a union of sounds, which can unite audiences, whether they are most comfortable with bluegrass, or Indian classical music or rock ‘n’ roll. “There’s this beautiful fabric of influences that we bring into the music,” said Rajiv Parikh, the band’s tabla player, who also plays bongos, cowbells and shakers, and sings. “Because of the wide range of styles, I can see our music being accessible to people in Australia and India and Africa. It’s music that bonds people together.”
It is true that New Monsoon’s sound is drawing an audience. The crowds, though, have been limited largely to the North American jam-band world, particularly in the jam-friendly regions of the West Coast, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southeast. New Monsoon, formed as a duo in 1997 and which eventually grew into its current septet alignment by the summer of 2001, has yet to make it to Australia, Cuba, India or Africa. But they are causing a sizable buzz in the jam world: They recently made their third consecutive appearance at California’s High Sierra Music Festival, a hot spot in jamming circles, and they are working their way into bigger rooms across the country.
New Monsoon, however, is aiming for an even wider presence. As much as they hope someday to play before crowds in Bombay, Havana and Lagos, they would like to be heard on American commercial radio. So, on “Downstream,” several songs are almost of standard radio length – just over four minutes – and the lengthy jams are spared, and saved for the concert stage. Most of the songs, though, do stretch to a radio unfriendly five-and-a-half minutes or more.
“We take great pride in arranging and composing specific songs, that can get played on the radio, and not have a 20-minute jam in every song,” said Parikh. “They can be categorized as a bluegrass song, or a rock song, or a worldbeat song. We want people to hear our writing ability and arranging ability on a studio album.
“We’re in the mind-set that we want to bring great rock music onto radio. There was a time when you could hear an eight-minute Allman Brothers tune on radio; they played that. The radio scene is void of that. There’s something missing, and we want to be part of bringing that consciousness back.”
Back in late 1998, Rajiv Parikh was playing in the San Francisco world-fusion progressive rock band Azigza. When he went to jam one night with four musicians – string player Bo Carper, electric guitarist Jeff Miller, bassist Heath Carlisle and drummer Marty Ylitalo – he immediately recognized something had been missing from his regular gig.
“I walked in, heard them play, and was blown away by what I heard. I was in from day one,” said Parikh, in his early 30s. “The other band was not the right kind of band; there wasn’t that chemistry I felt with the guys in New Monsoon. I liked the music better, the sound, the way the songs were written. It was more my style of music. And the more I found out about these guys, there was more of a bond we had. It’s a really special thing.”
It would get more special. Or at least bigger, and broader. In 2000, Brian Carey, who specializes in Latin percussion, joined the band. The septet was completed when the band coaxed Phil Ferlino, a pianist who shared Pennsylvania roots with several New Monsoon members, out to California. (Ferlino contributed to New Monsoon’s first CD, 2001’s “Hydrophonic,” before he became a band member, contributing his parts over the Internet.) The band played its first gig as a septet in the summer of 2001 at a club in Chico, Calif.; the next night they played at High Sierra.
Parikh says that fitting together such disparate instruments as tablas and banjo has been easy, crediting the brotherly feeling among the band members. “You’d think [it would be difficult] with seven members,” he said. “But it works well. We give space to each instrument and they fit well together. We’re creating a sound that’s not been popularized because people never thought of it, or thought it wouldn’t work. It provides a unique sound. It’s not every day you see a band with tablas and Latin percussion, a drummer who plays didgeridoo and a guy who plays banjo, dobro and acoustic guitar.”
Parikh himself is a perfect example of musical cultures crossing and re-crossing. Born in the city of Ahmedebad, to the northeast of Bombay, Parikh’s family moved to the San Francisco area when he was 2. He had almost no exposure to Indian classical music, but was a huge fan of classic rock, with a taste for Eric Clapton, Santana, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
When Parikh was 19, his parents went to a concert by Zakir Hussain and brought home a CD by the Indian tabla master. Parikh, not a musician at the time, was hooked.
“When I discovered it was him, and that he lived in the Bay area and he was giving seminars here, I had found my guru and he found me,” said Parikh, who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with a degree in marketing. “What a first teacher to have. One of those cosmic things that doesn’t happen to everyone. Zakir Hussain – he’s like [Rush drummer] Neal Peart in India.
“So I didn’t discover tablas and Indian classical music until later in life. I discovered it on my own, and because of that, I had a greater drive and passion to discover that music. It came from within.”
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