Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week's podcast edition we return to our archive and find ourselves transfixed by the meditative and transcendental music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.
Surya Botofasina: That particular place of divinity, that basis, seemed to provide a palette in order for all that just wondrous magic, wondrous sound, wondrous being to come through and we're pretty lucky to have it shared.
BE: On this edition, we speak to musician Surya Botofasina about his quest to bring the music of Alice Coltrane's ashram from LA to LSO St. Luke's, back on the 18th of November 2017. On this day, the music drew inspiration from the spiritual community Alice founded in the early 1980s. There a multi-generational and multi-ethnic community developed and every Sunday an open service was held, inviting outsiders to join the group’s spiritual practice through song. Back in 2017 it was made available to a wider audience for the first time ever, through Luaka Bop's release of ‘World Spirituality Classics 1, the Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane’. Surya spoke to me: we start with how he met this incredible musician and spiritual leader for the first time.
SB: I always was aware of her because I never knew a day without her. Since I grew up, basically, the first house I lived in in Southern California was right next to their house and that was when I was – the first recollection of her truly was probably around three years old or earlier. Primarily, she was just always, she was always a presence, you know. There was never a search that I had to make to try to, you know, ascertain, if I felt dedicated to her because she always – I remember her from the beginning.
BE: Did she encourage you musically?
SB: She was incredibly encouraging musically and not only encouraging musically, but she also, you know, starting to practice some of the classical music from some of the great composers and she challenged me to learn a Frederic Chopin piece that I felt was way beyond my ability and facility.
SB: I talked to her more about life than I did music for a long time. More than anything she was a spiritual guide for us living on the ashram. It was never like a conversation that was just based on chord changes and in riffs, it was always a conversation that was based on spirituality and ascension and growth as a human being. And that's where she would have a lot of conversations with not only myself, but others who grew up there. But for me, it was always, it was always about life first.
BE: Were you surprised at the strong reaction when Luaka Bop released what had been just private cassette recordings?
SB: No, I'm not surprised, quite honestly. I mean her name and her presence and her being were always ahead of time, if you will. You know, she was always on the cutting edge of things, as exemplified by these recordings which have organ, Oberheim synth and strings and her voice – what an interesting quartet of instruments to mash up and make into, you know, into a wonderful sound. And so I was never, I'm never surprised by the reaction to her, to her work. Mainly because of, this is really easy for a lot of people to tap into.
BE: And it's more unusual to hear her sing. That's obviously something that we haven't heard before.
SB: That's another thing that’s interesting for a lot of people, is that her voice is incredibly distinct, even her speaking voice, if you’ve ever heard.
SB: Some of her interviews, or what were called satsangs, which are basically like sermons, if you will. On Sundays then what we had is that, her voice is so incredibly unique and her range that she sings with is not even as obvious, maybe to some, because her range sounds like a very rich alto, not in a lower tone, but she could sing high notes, incredibly high notes, ones that you know would be typically associated with a soprano voice. And her voice is truly a magical instrument just unlike any other instrument I've ever heard.
BE: Everything is unique about her, her harp playing, her piano playing is just mesmerising, intricate.
SB: Absolutely. And there's a reason for that in my eyes, it’s her connection with the divine. Her connection was truly just, simply the most humble person I've ever seen in my life. That particular place of divinity, that basis, seemed to provide the palate in order for all that just wondrous magic, wondrous sound, wondrous being to come through, and we're pretty lucky to have it shared in whatever fashion, especially with this recording and other ways that she, you know, that she did for us. Of course, I'm biased, but I do find it incredibly powerful.
BE: Did she speak to you at all about the reasons behind setting up the ashram in the first place?
SB: As with everything she was like, I was directed by God to do it. It ain’t really a whole lot to talk about it, if somebody says that ‘I was divinely inspired’. It was like, okay. And also for me, it wasn't even as much on my radar because I was, I was barely five or six years old when we moved into the ashram. So for me, it was just like, okay, here we are, this is where I live.
BE: Another way of asking that is, did she talk about her husband at all? I mean, they were only together for a short period of time, but his death obviously affected her and led to her spirituality blooming.
SB: She didn't talk about it a lot, but when she did, there was an incredible amount of devotion, dedication and reverence. The most I heard her talk about him was when she was speaking about when he wrote ‘A Love Supreme’, how he went through that process. He repeated the story in many different outlets, but how he went through the process of being in his studio and arriving, you know, with the music in hand, and she says as if he was, you know, Moses coming through with the two tablets that formed an appearance of reverence.
BE: Could you describe the ashram to us? I think it's in the Santa Monica Mountains and it's 48 acres, it must be very beautiful.
SB: Oh man, it's picturesque. It's really picturesque. I mean, quite honestly, one of the most peaceful places you'll ever find on Earth. It was interesting because closer you get to like the gate in the area, where it’s at, the more you realise, the more, you know – especially even me knowing, being incredibly familiar with the land – the more we would become disarmed and disassociated with some of the things that maybe we would associate with a metropolis, if you will. I mean, I live in New York City now, the complete opposite. In the ashram, if you can imagine, this 48 acres, for those who haven't been there, it was literally nestled in the middle of these mountains and it was in a cool, calm little valley and in this little valley there was a small stream that came from the nearby lake and in this stream you would see ducks, you would see fish, you would see other animals like crawfish, there'd be deer literally walking around the grounds. Sometimes you’d see raccoons, but they like to get into stuff late at night, terrify trash. That's cool. In this enclave of beauty, even though there would be such quiet, such peace., you can't hear any traffic, you can't hear any cars really, you can really only hear the wind blowing through the trees and other such sounds of nature. So that alone, just allowed for an incredible amount of calm.
BE: How do you take that and translate it in some form to a concert, such as we’ll hear in London.
SB: That's the hardest part, quite honestly. Because the feeling is really everything, you know. The best thing that we could do is just sing and chant from the heart. That’s the best thing you can do, that’s first and foremost. And then the second thing that we can do after that, is really try to pay homage to her arrangements, or to her, you know, some of the technical things as far as you know, there's a lot of the direct chord changes that we transcribe down from, you know, some of the stuff in the recording, to really try to make sure that we're there playing the same exact key, you know, everything. We do that and we just try to have, you know, the biggest thing we can do is invite, just like the ashram back in the days, is invite everybody who's present in that room at the same time to participate – to sing with us in whatever form or fashion makes them feel like they're dedicating their best selves to a little bit of the music. This is music that was, that wasn't just music, this was a prayer. It was it was a constant prayer, that if people want to do some things, especially in today's day and times, when we have a crazy person as a president in this country, I think prayer is needed.
BE: How has the response been from the audience at the previous performances? Have they joined in naturally?
SB: You know what, they warm up, you know, because when people are coming to see us there's still a little bit saying like, okay, I'm at a concert, I need to sit down, I need to clap at the end of every song. You know that kind of vibe. I also have to be fair in saying that we are presenting, you know, songs that are in a language, which is foreign to 99.9% of the people who are hearing it, so there's not exactly an initial like, oh yeah, let me jump in and start singing some Sanskrit right now, because the familiarity might not be as, you know, as instant, which I totally get. But you know, if people want to hang on to a word like Rama, or Krishna, like Nirvana, be my guest, you know, you are more than welcome! And so in that sense you know, I start to find people, they just warm up through the course of our playing and singing together, so by the time an hour, an hour and change has passed, you can find some people joining us – and if you can't sing you can always clap!
BE: Could you talk about how music was incorporated into the, into the community and into the services? It sounds like it was at the front, at the core.
SB: Well, I think, you know, there's, actually I agree with you and I kind of don't, because I think that we find sometimes in a, you know in some churches, if you will, something like Baptist churches, like the music is the Big Deal. You know sure there's, the format was very slim in a sense in that there was a, there'd be an opening, as far as, you know, a welcome, if you will. And then there would be a sermon of sorts, it's called satsang. Then she would speak to us and, you know, quote, the Bhagavad Gita and just, and be unscripted, but there was a clear line of topic. And then after that, you know, after her speaking to us for maybe about 30 minutes or so, somewhere, give or take, in that range, then the music would begin. And that’s where it was very synonymous with a lot of things that you would find, it was just the music was so unique. Now, and that's what I think is so interesting as well, because, you know, in other faiths, in other places, the music is always nice and lovely, but it also typically is not being played by one of the leading musicians of her time. So, that, there's, you know, her level of expertise and her level of just absolute profession with her craft was obviously, you know, there when she sat at the organ. Certainly a highlight without a doubt, not only a highlight, but it was the thing that you know, kind of dominated the afternoon. It was the thing that happened constantly throughout the week. So in that particular sense, the bhajans as we call them, were always present.
BE: Who are the musicians and singers you're bringing over with you?
SB: We've been kind of mirroring some stuff in the, you know, in the ashram. You know, so I mean we’d just be sitting at the organ, she'd be playing the organ and bass pedals on her feet, if you will. And then throughout the course of the room, there'd be various people holding and playing percussion and various sorts of drums and things like that in the room. So what we have to mirror that is I’m playing keyboards, I have two keyboards, I’ll play one that has more of an organ or piano sound, or feel. Then I have another keyboard to simulate some of her synth work and some of the some of the bass work. And then I'm bringing along a drummer, who, we never had really a drummer in the Mandeer, but I felt it was appropriate for us to have a drummer with this so we could really have some time and establish our – when I say time, I mean tempo –we have tried to establish that tempo and have that nice and steady for those who are participating with us to join in to.
SB: It really has been a journey. We have rehearsed music that was never really rehearsed. We have put together music and tried to transcribe music that never really had, you know, chord charts and stuff, if you will. So that's been an interesting path for us to take because we have found ourselves maybe on the first time like, okay, like where it went by so fast, were we a little bit nervous? And then the second time was like, okay, this feels like a little bit, feels good, feels familiar. And then the third time was like, alright, you know this, you have a good idea what's going on now as far as how to just, you know, keep things moving. And then now coming up in LA, I expect us to be even more comfortable because what it comes down to, and by the time we get to London out there, what it comes down to is us just putting our best selves out there and singing from the heart, and not being afraid to just step into that. Just based on chord changes and riffs it was always a conversation that was based in spirituality and ascension and growth as a human being.
BE: I suppose, maybe this is over the top, but I suppose it's like hearing probably one of the best concerts you've ever heard but being able to hear it again and again.
SB: That's not over the top at all. That's right on. And the best part about this concert as you describe it, is that it wasn't a concert, it was just simply just praises. Just, you know, really just dedicating a part of our hearts and our souls to really enjoying the best part about ourselves and putting that forth through song and devotion. And until I started studying music myself, how much she was playing at that organ and how much, I mean just the sheer level of just wondrous musicianship. It was never something that I analysed before, but as I started going through, in school, and started going and taking and learning such things as theory and whatnot, and then I started listening to what she was playing, and then the feeling behind it, I was blown away each time. Because, you know, when like, you go to a residency of a really great artist, and they were there for like three weeks, you’re like, wow, that was an awesome three weeks, you know, like, I got to listen to this person play and it was just beautiful and it was so inspiring. Well, you take that three weeks and you multiply that by about 30 years or somewhat, maybe give or take, and that's what we were fortunate enough to have. And that will forever have a profound impact. I think everyone's view of devotional music and certainly my view of just what playing music from the heart really looks like and sounds like.
BE: Do you think Alice Coltrane would have given the project her blessing?
SB: I think she already has, in a lot of ways. I really do. Nothing happens, you know, in coincidence with her. I think everything is intentional in some form or fashion. And I really think she would be proud of how hard we're trying to really pay, you know, this music – and not just the music, it’s not the notes – but to pay the spirit of the music, to really give it its due, to really access the most, you know, divine parts of our souls and do our best. She always was very, very encouraging. Anytime we try to do our best, from a place of humility and eradicating our ego out of the picture, anytime we did that, it was always supported. If anything was trying to be put forward for personal gain or accolades then it never – that's not the move, you know, because that’s not what she was about.
BE: Thanks to Surya for speaking to us. A moving deep and profound performance for all of those who were lucky enough to be there back in November 2017.
I’m Ben Eshmade thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Please subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.