Tarun Balani’s grandmother sadly died on his wedding day in New Delhi. Though a death during a celebration is regarded in Hindu culture as inauspicious, this event in 2016, together with moving into a new apartment and embarking on married life, proved inspirational. “It was a pivotal and challenging moment,” says Balani, drummer and composer of most of the pieces on this new album Dharma, released by BERTHOLD records in April 2019. “I am a Hindu by birth, though not at all religious. My wife is Christian. In India an inter-religious marriage is quite a big deal. Coping with life and death, celebration and mourning had a deep personal impact on me, leading to the title of the album. Dharma can be the search for normalcy, understanding the nature and beauty of life, which also encompasses impermanence.”
Accompanied by Sharik Hasan on piano, Tiziano Bianchi on trumpet, Alex Pinto on guitar and Joshua Crumbly on bass, Balani in his new album offers a remarkable, imaginative and cross-cultural body of music, inspired by his Indian roots, whilst emulating and developing the western jazz genre.
“My first initiation and experiences of music were at home,” recalls Balani. “My father studied Indian classical music. He would listen to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. My Mom was coming from the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Abba, putting on these records doing household chores.”
As a youngster in his New Delhi school, Balani discovered a fibre glass drum set. “It was love at first sight,” he remembers. “I said – I need to play this instrument. The power of the beat was so fascinating. To be able to play drums was liberating. From there on there’s been no looking back. I was consuming a lot of popular music and not listening to jazz at all in the 1990s. My association with Indian music started much later, when I went to music school.”
The album’s opening track is Brooklyn Bound. “It relates to my trips to New York,” says Balani. “My band members were in Brooklyn and I travelling there from uptown. I wrote the chord progression in the train. That’s my New York vibe, being in the thick of things. The finale of this track, sub-titled Impermanence, is meditative, a constant figure that simmers down once the improvisations have reached their peak.”
The composer describes Dharma, the track from which the album takes its name, as “intense, shuffling between two rigid rhythmic motifs and chord changes, eventually bolstering into an epic trumpet melody, which is a kind of release.”
Samsara is the most melancholic track on the album. It stands for the cycle of suffering in Bhuddism. “I wrote that piece mourning my Grandmum’s passing,“ explains Balani, “and contemplating the juxtaposition of celebration versus death, and life and spirituality. Dharma is the actualisation and realisation of the concept of impermanence. Samsara is the macro approach.”
Here We Go is a love song dedicated to the composer’s wife. “She sees my music as very intense. This track is almost a pop ballad, but played in a jazz setting as a piano trio. It’s saying, we’re in this together, we’re just going to go on.”
Malala’s Dream is an older composition inspired by Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban on a school bus in Pakistan. The composer recalls being shocked by the story. “I was thinking from her perspective. I was thinking, if I had to write a theme song for her, what would it sound like? That’s what led me to this song.”
Planet Hunter was written by Sharik Hasan, the pianist in the band. “I love this piece of music,” says Balani. “It talks about love or life in the future, or seeking more space for human habitation, and time travel as well.”
According to Balani, people don’t relate jazz and improvised music to India. “I hope that changes with this record,” he argues. “I’d like European audiences to open their eyes and ears to the music coming out of India,” He had moved to New York in 2005 out of frustration with not finding any relevant music teachers or schools in India. “I went to Drummer’s Collective in New York when I was 18. That was when I got initiated into jazz. In India there was a huge struggle then, and even now jazz is at a very nascent stage. There are a few jazz clubs and some festivals and it is developing. Indian audiences are really open and they also understand improvisation.”
Returning to India from New York after his studies, Balani set up The Global Music Institute in New Delhi, as his contribution to developing the jazz scene. “It started out quite small, in a basement, and it grew to two, then three floors, seven years back. Now we have full blown residential facilities, and a campus with state of the art facilities.”
Balani has played concerts worldwide including the Calcutta Jazz Festival, the Castel Nuovo Festival in Italy and the Jazz Gallery in New York. He and his fellow musicians offer audiences and listeners a body of music that blends into a unique, compelling sound.