UW-Madison Artist-in-Residence Arun Luthra: A Carnatic-Soul Fusion
Arun Luthra in front of the Hamel Music Center. Luthra has been teaching classes and performing his fusion of Konnakol and Black American music at campus and community concerts
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By Jonathan Gramling
Arun Luthra, the UW-Madison artist-in-residence for Fall 2021, has the music of the world within him, within his fiber. Luthra’s birth and upbringing is one of multiculturalism and internationalism and the multitude and diversity of experiences and cultures have each left their impression on Luthra’s musical life and style.
Luthra’s father is of Punjabi family that emigrated to British East Africa in the country now known as Kenya. His mother is of British heritage who spent her formative years in Kenya as well.
“I am of Punjabi-heritage on my father’s side,” Luthra said. “I am of English heritage on my mother’s side with some Scottish, German and other things thrown in there as well. My parents were born two weeks apart. They pretty much are the same age. And they grew up in the era of British colonialism pre-World War II. My mother spent a lot of time in colonial Africa herself in her formative years in Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and what was then called Rhodesia, which is now called Zimbabwe. Already,
they are very international, multicultural people. And then they met in Kenya. They eventually married in the UK when my dad emigrated to the UK to pursue his university studies. My siblings were born in the UK. And then quite a few years later when my siblings were teenagers, I came along when my whole family emigrated to the United States for my father to pursue his Ph.D. in Massachusetts at Clark University.”
While Luthra was born in the U.S., his family moved to Belgium when he was 2-3-years-old. And it was then that Luthra began his musical journey
“My first formal musical training began around the age of 8-9 on classical guitar,” Luthra recalled. “The reason for that is my siblings were teenagers when I was born. And I really looked up to them. I worshiped them. And my brother was really into the music of his generation like Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, the Allman Brothers, B.B. King and Simon & Garfunkel. And he played the guitar. So I was this little toddler walking around looking up at my big brother playing guitar and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I wanted to play the guitar and for my 8th or 9th birthday, that was my brother’s gift to me, a guitar. It’s one of those memorable moments of my life.”
Luthra’s parents made sure that their children were exposed to cultural traditions and musical styles beyond their own traditional base.
“I was always enamored of music, Indian music in particular,” Luthra said. “But I also fell in love with Black American music. We had Louis Armstrong records at home and B.B. King records. We also had opera and all kinds of things. I fell in love with music. And I particularly gravitated towards these Black American music traditions. I was really fascinated with the rhythmic aspect of Indian classical music from the youngest age. My father being an amateur tabla player, he could show me a few things. He would show me the different strokes on the tabla. He would explain to me how the rhythms are recited. They are called bol and padhant in the Hindustani tradition. I was exposed to that and the interest peaked at a very young age.”
Luthra started taking private lessons because the Belgian school system was very rigid in how one proceeds learning music. By the time he was a teenager and moved back to the U.S., Luthra had the technique down, and was about to learn the emotion and soul behind the music.
“That’s when I first started playing saxophone,” Luthra said. “I was also playing electric bass. Once you get to be a teenager, you want to play rock and roll. I decided to be the bass player in my high school rock bands. And then I was playing saxophone, clarinet, a little bit of percussion and drum set in our school bands. I picked up the saxophone, clarinet and a little bit of percussion in the United States. Music education was good in the public school systems I went to on the East Coast. I was very, very fortunate. My high school band director is a very accomplished multi-woodwind player who had a great teacher when he was growing up. I was just very fortunate that I had his influence to guide me. And I had good training from a young age. I started getting into music theory, composition and arranging in high school.”
After high school, Luthra was set on a conventional career course, especially within the Punjabi tradition. He went to the University of California-Berkley for one year to study to be a theoretical physicist. But there was a nagging feeling in his soul.
“There was always a part of me that knew I just had to be a musician,” Luthra said. “I really had no choice. I realized me not making music is like a plant with no sunlight. I was just going to wither away and die. I packed all of that in and just really started pursuing music as my life’s work.”
Luthra returned to the East Coast, took some private saxophone lessons and enrolled in The New School to pursue an undergraduate degree in jazz studies. And fortunately, he swung right into a music career while still enrolled at the school.
“Looking back, I realize that one of the reasons to go to a conservatory is not only to learn music, but also the relationships you form,” Luthra said. “I was working a lot after I graduated. And 90 percent of those gigs were through people whom I met during my undergraduate studies. That’s peers, mentors, and friends. I was actively performing while I was studying my undergrad and afterwards as well.”
Luthra served his musical apprenticeship playing with some heavy R&B performers.
“Some of my principle mentors are the saxophonist and composer Billy Harper, the drummer Charlie Persip, and the bassist Reggie Workman,” Luthra said. “Those three have really been key in terms of my development. And then there has just been playing in lots of bands. In terms of Black culture, as a horn player, I actually was a member of a Haitian band and toured with them for a few years and toured with them. I really learned about the Afro-Caribbean tradition. I played in R&B and funk bands. I’m working with great elder musicians. I studied with George Garzone. I was very fortunate to have some very significant and meaningful apprenticeships with great masters of Black American music in my development too.”
Next issue: Carnatic music and Arun Luthra’s Konnakol-Jazz fusion