OnRecord: The Tarun Balani Interview - Saavn

We exchanged a few emails with Tarun Balani in an attempt to get inside the head of one of South Asia’s most committed jazz artists. Read on for an inspiring, honest conversation with the Delhi-based composer and drummer.

Describe how you feel while you’re performing, whether in studio or on stage.

The beauty of improvised music is that you can never recreate a musical moment. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The only way you can truly engage with both other musicians and the audience, is by being vulnerable and truly being in the moment.

This is actually why I often can’t play older material, because I feel I cannot re-access that headspace or that emotion after I have experienced it. This is also the reason I really love playing improvised music. It’s almost like a Saadhna (practice) that you do everyday to prepare yourself to engage and be present in those moments of improvisation; hopefully, without ego, fear, and the desire to relive a musical moment.

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Image by Adrien Tillman | Cover image by Mohit Kapil

What is so interesting, liberating, and gratifying about jazz? What value does it bring to humankind?

For me, the essence of jazz can be expressed in two ways: one, it’s freedom; and two, it’s social music.

The fact that it is forever changing and impermanent is why I have grown to enjoy it more, with time and age. I really hope to contribute to jazz’s trajectory and path, and to shape the sound of what jazz is today.

It’s important to consider the historical, social and political idiosyncrasies of how this music originated, because it really opens up larger questions about the context of music and art in societies.

The cultural environment from which jazz originated can teach us to be empathic towards various cultures, traditions, and religions. I feel this empathy is much needed in the world today. Maybe jazz, in some ways, is the most relevant music, and we just don’t know it yet!

How might we grow cultural sensitivity and demand for jazz in India? How can we get everyone to start caring about it more? 

I feel at times in India, jazz or improvised music is misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s associated with a certain demographic, age and culture — older, more disposable income, and sadly referred to as “wine and cheese” party music.

So many articles I’ve read about jazz in India recently have had the words “all that jazz” somewhere in the title. This clearly states that there’s simply a lack awareness and understanding of the genre and what it represents.

When I was teenager, the state of affairs with regards to electronic music was somewhat similar, but look at how far the electronic music scene has come now. The same goes for rock and pop music.

I feel that promoters and labels must take the initiative to promote this music and bring it closer to people in a more engaging way — through festivals, concerts, performances and shows that go beyond the simplistic interpretation of the genre and its surrounding culture.

I strongly believe that music education will play a huge role in shaping young musicians to be able to understand, appreciate, engage and create spaces for different kinds of improvised music in India.

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Image by Mohit Kapil

You chose to become a jazz musician. How difficult has it been to pursue that calling in India, a country where jazz still has a long way to go before becoming widely accepted or appreciated? Would things have been easier if you’d been born elsewhere?

The unresolved dispute between the choices I’ve made, and the circumstances of my nationality, explain why my music sounds the way it does. I’ve drawn inspiration from the tension between these two conflicting realities. In fact, the underlying theme for my upcoming record Dharma is precisely this conflict.

Yes, if were born in another country, maybe I would have had more opportunities  — particularly to learn, and access education. Maybe I would have found a wider audience. But I would have faced different challenges — the challenges that come with an established music industry.

At times I do feel frustrated, disconnected and demotivated, but at the end of the day, I cannot change who I am and where I come from. I am very proud to be a jazz artist from India.

Through my work in music education with Global Music Institute, we are working towards establishing new opportunities and avenues for young students to learn jazz and improvised music, and immerse themselves in this art form. I believe that we first need to build awareness about the arts, and a “music scene” needs to be developed from the ground up.

I truly believe that there will be more musicians and composers from India who’ll be making a mark in the jazz and improvised world in the coming years.

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Image by Adrien Tillman

Did you choose jazz, or did jazz choose you? How and when did it happen?

I think jazz chose me! When I was 18, I’d enrolled in a fusion/funk drumming program at Drummer Collective School of Music in New York. Things didn’t go as I’d planned. During my first group lesson, the drum teacher discovered that I couldn’t read sheet music. He was very disrespectful and rude to me. I still remember his words: “People don’t read music in India or what?!” I was very young then, and of course very hurt and upset by his reaction.

In response to this experience, I enrolled in the jazz program, which was the only program open at that time. Initially, I wasn’t really into it, but my teacher, Peter Retzlaff, had a profound impact on me both, personally and musically. He’s a phenomenal jazz musician, drummer and educator from New York — I’m really grateful to him for his time, generosity and patience with me.

During my time in New York, I went to see the great drummer Roy Haynes with his band at The Village Vanguard. I still clearly remember, it was then that I decided that I wanted to be a drummer, composer, and lead my own band.

In your own compositions, you’re elevating the drummer (at least from my perspective) from being a supporting cast member to the leading actor, or even director, of a particular work. Is this how you view it? 

Not at all. When I am composing, I actually begin with composing on the piano! I often actually neglect thinking or writing for the drums. I am constantly trying to improve my ability to compose at the piano and play melodies on trumpet, to create a more engaging harmonic and melodic architecture.

One of the tracks on my upcoming album doesn’t even have drums on it! It’s a short piece, written by pianist Sharik Hasan for his band. I’ve arranged it for the album, featuring a piano and trumpet.

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Image by Adrien Tillman

Are you a drummer who’s pushing the craft and stature of the instrument forward, or are you a composer who happens to play the drums?

I think I am trying to push my artistry and craft both as a drummer and a composer. This is part of the impetus for my new collaboration with the innovative technology company, Sunhouse.

What have been the achievements you’ve been most proud of, musically and non-musically?

Presenting my music at The Jazz Gallery in New York late last year was definitely a career highlight. Coming from India and not being part of the New York music scene, the experience of that gig is something I am very proud of.

Setting up and establishing Global Music Institute in New Delhi is another of my proudest achievements. We have just begun our second year at the new residential campus in Greater Noida, and it’s been a very rewarding and fulfilling experience to be able to contribute to music education in India.

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Image by Mohit Kapil

What are you most looking forward to, and what should we look forward to most from Tarun Balani in the second half of 2018?

Well there are definitely some really exciting things coming. I’m really thrilled about the release of my third record “Dharma.” I’m also writing and producing a solo EP as Seasonal Affected Beats this summer.

Lastly, I’m collaborating with Sandunes, and we’re on tour in Europe and U.K in July and August. There are some things I cannot reveal yet but the second half of 2018 will definitely keep me on my toes, and I hope to share all this music very soon!

We hope this conversation piqued your interest in Tarun’s journey. You can listen to all of his music on Saavn. To stay in touch with him, visit his Web site, or follow him on Instagram.

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Jazz Interview