UW-Madison Artist-in-Residence Arun Luthra: A Carnatic-Soul Fusion

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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.

Part 2 of 2

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.

Even though Luthra’s father was Punjabi from Northern India — which has its own musical traditions, it was the musical traditions and styles of Southern India, home to Carnatic music and dance and konnakol.

“Konnakol is the art form of vocalized rhythms from South Indian classical music, which is Carnatic music,” Luthra said. “I vocalize rhythms and I play saxophone and I compose. The vocalized rhythms can be composed or can be improvised. After I really got serious about studying Indian classical rhythmic tradition — for a little while, I was studying the Hindustani tradition — I realized that konnakol is really where it is at if you want to vocalize rhythms.”

In order to learn konnakol’s heart and soul, one must travel to India.

“You have to pick up konnakol,” Luthra said. “So I started studying konnakol formally with teachers back around 2003. I had the opportunity to spend a month in Chennai, which is a city formerly known as Madras in Southeast India. It’s one of the capitols of Carnatic music. I was at the Brhaddhvani Institute. And this wonderful mridangam player called Ramakrishna was teaching me. From there, I kept going. I found other private teachers. I had

the chance to learn from Trichy Sankaran, who is one of the great mridangam maestros of our time. I took konnakol lessons with many Carnatic percussionists, whether it be online through Skype, or when I went to India I would go to see T.A.S. Mani at the Karnataka College of Percussion and hang out with my buddy B.C. Manjunath and learn from him in Bangalore. I was just off and running, just doing everything that I could to learn this tradition and absorb it. And now, my studies are with a great kanjira player whose name is Selvaganesh Vinayakram. He is the son of Vikku Vinayakram who is one of the founding members of John McLaughlin’s Shakti, and Selvaganesh now performs in the current lineup of Shakti, called Remember Shakti. He is my principle konnakol teacher.”

Luthra has been imbued with all of these musical traditions from Southern India to the R&B concerts on the U.S. East Coast. And it’s not that Luthra consciously blends them. They have fused together within his musical soul and out of it comes something very unique.

Luthra received affirmation of this after a concert as a part of his U.S. residency.

“I got an extraordinarily gratifying compliment from the sound engineer at the Collins Recital Hall in the Hamlin Music Center here after a concert I played in for the Conference on South Asia at the end of last month,” Luthra said. “His name is Lance and he’s been a professional engineer for a long time. And what he said to me was, ‘Arun, I’ve heard a lot of music in my life.’ He’s engineered countless concerts. ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before. But it’s not just novel. It has substance.’ I was so touched by that compliment because it’s not like I’m doing this interesting thing for the sake of being interesting. As I said, it’s just a natural expression of who I am.”

On some levels, the rhythms of Carnatic music are different from the melodies of most Western music. And so in order to learn konnakol. Luthra’s students have to let go of what they think they know in order to learn a new musical approach to the world.

“One of the points that was made when my residency course was designed — I was putting together a syllabus and talking with my residency sponsor Johannes Wallman — we really wanted to be explicit about the fact that no formal music training was required to take the course,” Luthra said. “And even that actually having Western formal music training could be a disadvantage because you are already trained to think about music in a certain way and approach it a certain way. The cultural paradigm and the tradition from which Carnatic music comes is totally different. You really want to come at it open minded and fresh. I’ve been absolutely knocked out and blown away with the students here at UW-Madison. They are embracing this music and the concepts of what we are talking about with open arms. The ones who already have formal music training have really set that aside or found ways to use that to their advantage, but at the same time, really embrace the Carnatic music oral tradition. I’ve been knocked out by that.”

On December 7th, Luthra’s class, ‘The Universal Language of Rhythm: Explorations through Konnakol and Black American Music’ will be revealing their final projects at the Arts + Literature Laboratory. They reveal their projects in the sense that it is almost a guarantee that no two students will come up with the same expression of Luthra’s fusion music.

“Part of that evening will include the student ensemble that I am directing during my residency called The Contemporary Jazz Ensemble,” Luthra said. “They will be performing. We’ll have a guest artist mrdangamist called Rohan Krishnamurthy who performed with me back on September 10th. In addition to that, the students in my course will be presenting their final projects. And I anticipate that it will be a truly extraordinary array of different kinds of work. There are so many approaches because the students in the course have such diverse academic, artistic, musical backgrounds. I have a student who is studying the brain sciences and speech pathology and the rhythm of neurons firing synchronously and asynchronously. Maybe there is some way to relate what we are talking about to that. I’m expecting a really fascinating evening of all sorts of diverse projects that will be an expression of what we talked about and studied together during the semester.”

The creative sky is the limit when fusing traditions that inspire a new way of feeling things. Arun Luthra is that inspiration.

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