The ecstatic, fiery music of the gypsies has cast its spell for over a thousand years. From their roots among nomads from Western India to the Middle East, North Africa and across Europe, they have blended elements from some of the world’s most exciting musical styles to create what can only be called the world’s first fusion music.
Enter Oliver Rajamani, a 33-year-old singer, guitarist and percussionist born in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu.
By tapping in to his South Indian heritage--singing in Tamil and adding a mridangam to the mix, among other flourishes--Rajamani is redefining the genre of gypsy music, but he stays close to the source.
“My music has history. It has a past,” he told India-West last week from his home in Austin, Tex., where he is a fixture on the city’s music circuit.
Rajamani will play at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
On his debut album, Pakiam, a collection of original songs in Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and Spanish, Rajamani sings and plays everything from the sarod, oud and flamenco guitar to tabla, dumbek and other international percussion instruments. Songs range from an introspective raag (“Pakiam”) to the passionate, and very catchy “Unai Marenthal” (If I forgot you); he showcases his speedy finger work on drum solos on “Dom,” and on “Korathi” (Gypsy), sets Tamil lyrics and classical South Indian intonation to Latin phrasing in such an organic way that you’ll wonder why no one had done it before.
He laughs when a reporter dubs him a musical pioneer. “Pioneer? A lot of people tell me that. Well, I definitely see I am doing something special.”
“This is music found on the streets, hills, deserts and other common places played by common day people, mostly poor or nomadic, or persecuted due to religious beliefs or political beliefs,” Rajamani explains. “It is not a music to be found played in concert setting halls!”
At an early age, Rajamani got the opportunity to attend an American school in Tamil Nadu; while at home, he was constantly exposed to the South Indian music beloved by Pakiam, his grandmother. Some of the tribal, pre-Aryan culture of early Tamil Nadu made its way into the Rajamani lineage, and as the young musician grew, he found himself fascinated. “There is actually a lot of gypsy music down South,” he explained. “I could go on and on about that!”
He is especially devoted to “Naiyandi,” an ancient and vanishing folk music art form rarely heard outside of its region in Southern India; and his studies of gypsy music have taken him around the world, including a stint with tabla maestro Aloke Dutta.
In Austin--a city known for its vibrant music community--Rajamani attracts a diverse audience that includes a growing number of Indian Americans, and he’s been creating a groundswell of support thanks to his electrifying live performances and sales of the album on Amazon.com and other outlets from his Web site, www.oliverrajamani.com
The music has such a rapturous feel that it’s almost as if ti’s coming through him rather than from him. “It makes me feel really amazing to play this music,” he told India-West. “It’s like it takes you to another level of consciousness, where you can forget your worldly worries and you are not ‘inside’ this body. The music takes you to the basics of who you are, not as a human being, but as a soul.”
Oliver Rajamani will appear in concert Nov. 23 at the Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $12. The show begins at 7:30 p.m., and Rajamani will be preceded by Hy Brassyl, an ensemble headed by avant-garde violinist Colm O’Riain.
Call Cafe Du Nord at (415) 861-5016 for more information.
"Music is something very serious. It's something which rings from somewhere inside. No one knows where. It's from a mysterious place. And wherever that comes from is a place of pure beauty and pure joy." So says Austin-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Oliver Rajamani.
Rajamani was born and raised in southern India in a region called Tamil Nadu. As a young boy, at the urging of his grandmother, Rajamani won a scholarship to the Kodaikanal International School. There he learned English, studied alongside students from Europe, America, and Australia, and began to develop his knowledge and understanding of music.
Music has been a constant for Rajamani. "I grew up playing percussion," he recalled. "My uncle had a band, and I played in his band. I grew up with a lot of music around me, not just within my family, but in the community." At school he studied classical music, both Western and Indian, and played jazz and rock 'n' roll. While at home, the folk music of India was ever present.
The pressures of school and home extended beyond music to include the culture. Rajamani remembers the intense pressure and expectation to "be American" while at school, at odds with the pressure to "be Indian" while at home. "That was very hard switching back and forth… I'm still doing that today," he asserted. "Coming (to the United States), I had a very hard time.
"When I came here, I thought I had made myself American enough to be here. But then when I got here, people were more interested in who I was from my own culture."
This is an excerpt from the print edition of Dirty Linen #131 (August/September 2007).
The full article is in the magazine, available on newsstands, by subscription, and at the Dirty Linen webstore.
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