PERCUSSIONIST ON CULTURAL CONFLUENCE, ARTISTIC
DARKNESS, AND DECONSTRUCTING EGO [NEEL AGRAWAL]
On Thursday, July 16, EMW was honored to host Neel Agrawal, a multi-percussionist from Los Angeles, as the feature at Subcontinental Drift, a monthly open mic series that showcases South Asian talent. In collaboration with our very own Boston artists, Neel explored and transcended the boundaries of culture, ideology, tradition, genre, place, and meter. Forging new territory, Neel integrates an array of influences from around the world into his musical voice. For more on Neel’s music, please visit: www.neelagrawal.com
the theme of your show tonight was “Borderlands.” What does that mean to you?
I chose the theme because I live in Los Angeles, which is arguably one of the world’s largest borderland cities. It’s a dynamic place with so many types of cultures and because of the unique geography and demography, this is an appropriate metaphor for what I’m experiencing aesthetically, spiritually, and intellectually.
The concept of Borderlands is not necessarily to be taken literally. Boston is a major borderland town in its own right. Everyone can access that frontier spirit in their own world, because we live in such a postmodern society. There are so many different narratives. That is the concept of my show: to express my approach, which is to break down boundaries of ideology, culture, music, race — ego is huge, that is one of my biggest areas of focus when I study music, to address my own ego. It is the only way for me to truly perceive things as they are, unfiltered. I encourage artists to explore the uncomfortable areas where borders exist, perceive the barriers, and dismantle them.
Could you talk a little more about that — how music facilitates the breaking down of the ego?
Sure. Well, music is a humbling experience. Especially when you study and perform with great artists, you see that you can access what’s being channeled, and everyone’s channeling something. Ego, the way that I would define it, is something that we build up internally that constructs barriers between our minds, ourselves, others, and the rest of the world. I’m trying to break that down so that I can genuinely understand what I’m seeing, what I’m playing, in order to truly access that knowledge. Eventually, that inward revolution reflects outwardly, in our music, projects, and relationships.
so you have said that music is a spiritual process. what is your journey as a musician, and how spirituality has tied in with your development?
I’ve been playing music since I was a kid, beginning with violin and then percussion. I really loved percussion from the beginning: drum set, snare drum, melodic percussion like xylophone, a lot of different percussion instruments growing up.
Spiritually, I feel in a lot of ways I’m accessing the same [pause] channel as when I was in sixth grade. The artistic experience transcends age, you know? Whether you’re 15, 20, 30, 40, 70, whatever. So I’ve always had that spiritual experience with music. The way I think about spirituality here is when you transcend the mundane, time — that’s why I’m on a lifelong path of breaking the rhythmic cycle. That spirituality allows me to decolonize the meter.
I want the audience, on one hand, to be engaged in the music, and on the other hand, come away with a sense of empowerment from acquiring a greater knowledge. Not just what notes I’m playing, what is it? What is that bigger picture? I was trying to communicate that today.
During one of your pieces you explained to us a seven beat cycle in traditional Indian music and how you were trying to transcend that — that seems like a huge theme in your work.
Studying cycles, and particularly the phrases comprising the cycles, equips us with an understanding of proportion. At a basic level, seven beats (rupak taala) is three plus two plus two. The proportionality of phrasing within and throughout those metrics is critical to understanding rhythmic relationships.
However, as an artist, I do not always feel that expression should be based on fixed parameters. Because of my disposition and study, I am committed to eliminating irrelevant constructs. I can tell you that we are people, you are who you are. My approach is that I’m not a Hindu, or a Marxist, or a postmodernist, that’s not who I am: I’m Neel. No need to be seduced by mere labels and build up those barriers, because once we do it’s difficult to communicate between people or artists.
RHYTHM SEEMS TO BE SO CENTRAL TO THE PERCUSSIONIST. Could you talk about some of your rhythms?
I consider it almost like a swing, what I do. Of course, it’s not defined so metrically, but it swings. When something’s swinging, it doesn’t have to swing like jazz swing, it can swing in its own way. Swinging just means ‘moving’ to me, but that tension is so important. I don’t like things to be so linear in my music, I like that swing, that in between area. That’s my own voice. The in between area is where the groove is established. It’s not like you’re just on the beat, you have to play it musically and internally.
any particular inspirations in the music world? anyone whose music always resonated with you?
Yeah, in my own space, someone I really look up to is Trilok Gurtu, a multi-percussionist like myself. He’s from India, grew up there, but he’s a world musician, living in Europe for a long time. He’s really a pathbreaker. Someone who defies genre. This east-west collaboration with music — obviously it’s been going on, you could say that, but it’s also somewhat of a contemporary phenomenon. For me, Trilok Gurtu does Indian music, he does jazz, he does his thing, really — lots of textures, I love his textures.
Could you describe the textures in your own work?
For example, I use a lot of shakers and bells. It’s such a different feel. That’s what a percussionist does — people often don’t fully appreciate the role of a percussionist. So that’s why it was such an honor to be featured tonight. To educate the audience. Percussionists create that texture, that palette, and it makes everyone look great. You’re creating that foundation. There are so many subtle notes and feels you can do, it’s an infinite ocean. It’s like you’re painting almost. Different sticks and mallets, you get different sounds out of the drums and cymbals. Still, I’m just scratching the surface on everything, there’s so much more work to do.
As an artist, one of my main sources of inspiration is my darkness — artistic darkness, aesthetic darkness — it’s huge, you have to have that, that’s your ‘it’. Your sense of duende gives a profound qualitative meaning to your art. It derives so differently for various people, but you just know when there’s a duende player or duende artist. You just know it. I would define it as artistic darkness that is brought about [pause] through longing.
So a lot of artists are longing for something. Even if you’re longing for knowledge. You might lose somebody in your life. You may have overcome some major obstacles as a person. There’s just so much, and so that really comes through as an artist, you can feel their longing and pain.
How do you describe your duende, or your longing?
Yeah, sure. Well it’s very personal, because that’s your center of “where is all this coming from”. If I explain that, I’m revealing a lot …
That’s alright, I don’t mind. Culturally it often comes from being South Asian American and longing for an identity or homeland etched in my mind. And obviously there’s personal stuff, loss with family, I’ll just leave it at that. It’s hard, you know? But you have to honor those people. Life, and what we’re living right now, you have to honor that the best way you can. Honor those people who were a part of you and still are. That is the darkness. I’m trying to live honestly and therefore cannot hide who I am. That duende is part of my music, it shadows me in my endless walks through the streets and hills of Los Angeles, and is expressed through my poetry.
So today was a really big moment for me, it was a great opportunity to have my own show and play some of my own music. Again, I’m indebted to SubDrift and those great musicians that provided their immense talents – Bunty Singh, Saraswathi Jones, Aditya Nochur, Levi Ali, Pampi Thirdeyefell, and the entire SubDrift community. It’s great to be here.
Thank you for being here! I feel that, for many Asian American artists, there is that search for a homeland, and music is a way for us to create a home in music, and community through music.
Well that homeland is really in my heart. I don’t know that I’m trying to replicate what’s actually going on in India. India in a lot of ways is a lot more western than what is in the West, here. So the longing isn’t just one way. But we are creating some sort of identity, as a group, together. Obviously one aspect is that we’re all Asian American, but we’re also brought together by our music, and our ideas and thoughts, and what I love about Boston is that there’s such an activist spirit to this community. EMW is amazing, this space. It’s great to have space for the Asian-American community.
We create our own music, whatever our voice is, we don’t have to purposely say it’s South Asian music, but we’re trying to create our own music, together. We’re trying to do something different, and whether you label it as Indian, or Middle Eastern, or Brazilian, there are influences of all that, but — it’s us. As a group, it’s our own music.
You left us off with a poem as your second to last piece, and there were some phrases that really stood out to me. I’d love to hear more about the title of the poem, “Confluence,” and the experience behind it — and particular terms you used, like “shattered humanity,” and “suffering of our collective consciousness.”
Confluence was actually what I wanted to title this entire performance. “Sangam” is the word in India, but I didn’t want it to have any religious connotations, so I didn’t think it was appropriate to label this as confluence in a sense. Sangam is in Allahabad, located in Uttar Pradesh, India. I have family over there, and it’s where the Yamuna River, the Ganges River, and the invisible Saraswati River converge. To me, that imagery and symbolism was so ripe to say more personal things about my own experiences and identity.
Confluence, in the literal sense, is rivers coming together. Water coming together. We’re also talking about everything coming together. Ideology. Genres. Music. People. When something flows into something else, there are no defined borders, it’s just flowing in. That’s why I was thinking about confluence, because it’s more of a fluid border, between water, people, cultures, identities, everything — that’s what I’m trying to build here. I’m not just playing notes, I want people to know that there’s a deeper meaning behind this.
It just struck me, in Chinese there’s a character for ‘infinity’ that is literally three characters for ‘water’ put together.
Whoa! That is amazing. I would love to see that! Again, I don’t want there to be divisions between egos, between peoples, what’s the point? What are we trying to accomplish here? I have this group, you have that group, we have that group? So often, we’re trying to accomplish the same things! Why can’t we jam together?
Wild Tongues is a series of conversations hosted by EMW Bookstore in which we explore the intersections of art, politics and culture. Drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands, in which she writes that “wild tongues cannot be tamed,” this platform seeks to elevate and amplify the voices and visions of those artists, musicians, writers and poets of color who challenge existing paradigms and speak truth to power with their wild tongues.