FUSING INDIAN CULTURE WITH WESTERN SOUNDS
For many musicians, drawing on their cultural background provides a wealth of material for creative inspiration. As a first-generation Indian American, saxophonist Anjan Shah of Locals 10-208 (Chicago, IL) and 40-543 (Baltimore, MD) understands this very well. However, it wasn’t an under- standing that came to him until much later in his life.
“Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, we were one of only 13 Indian families in the city,” says Shah, whose parents emigrated from Mumbai early in that decade following a love marriage—that opposed an expected arranged marriage—which ostracized them from their families. “My dad got an engineering job with General Motors and they settled in the Indian community in Detroit, which was very tight.”
Like many children of immigrants, Shah says he spent much of his childhood trying to fit in. “I was constantly made aware of how different I was from not only the white kids, but also the Black kids,” he recalls. “Try- ing to be accepted meant avoiding exploring my own culture.”
His father had hoped that Shah might learn to play traditional Indian instruments such as the tabla—hand drums—or the bansuri, a side-blown flute typically made from bamboo. “Wanting to assimilate with kids my own age though, I shied away from trying them or even listening to much Indian music,” he says with evident regret.
Luckily for Shah, Indian music wasn’t the only thing his father listened to in the house. “Dad didn’t really understand Western music, but he knew what he liked, and he loved Sinatra. I heard saxophonist Stan Getz on one of those records, and it pulled on my ear. So I decided I wanted to play the sax.”
Shah’s parents readily acquiesced. “They always said that they came to this country so that their kids would have the opportunities they themselves never did. That meant they weren’t tethered to the traditional Indian way of bringing us up,” says Shah. His father also had some regrets of his own. “He wanted to be a classical Indian dancer as a child, but his parents prevented him from doing that and made him go into engineering. His entire life, he was a proponent of the arts.”
When Shah said he wanted to learn the saxophone, his dad immediately responded, “Well then, let’s find you a great teacher.” The teacher they found, Larry Teal, is widely con- sidered to be the father of American orchestral saxophone. “He’s the guy who wrote the book on classical saxophone— literally, The Art of Saxophone Playing,” Shah laughs. “Dad drove me to lessons every week for three years.”
Enmeshed in Western Music
Choosing the path of a classical saxophonist brought Shah to Michigan State University to study for a bachelor’s degree in applied saxophone. “When I went into music school in the 1980s, there were no Indian students and no Indian culture,” he says. It was the same at the University of Illinois, where he started his master’s degree.
“It was all about orchestral music, the Harvard Dictionary of Music, and Grout’s History of Western Music,” Shah says, explaining there was a stigma back then around jazz in an academic setting, to say nothing of world music. “Few schools were offering programs on Eastern music. Mostly you just got exploratory classes.”
Prior to completing his master’s studies, Shah won a posi- tion with the US Army Field Band as a tenor saxophonist and featured soloist, performing and conducting clinics throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. After the Army, he worked with a wide range of well-known musical names, including Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole, Linda Ronstadt of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), Wynonna Judd, and the Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey orchestras.
In between performing, Shah established a parallel career in music marketing. “I liked the idea of connecting people through performing,” he says. “Marketing is also about connecting.”
Notably, this was also back in his days of touring with the critically acclaimed Capitol Quartet, of which he was a founding member. But, Shah’s wife grew tired of him being on the road with his saxophone quartet colleagues as much as 200 days a year. “She thought I should go back to school, so I got an MBA at Loyola University Maryland with a specialization in marketing,” says Shah.
His first marketing gig was with IKEA as director of mar- keting for their digital division in North America. He has also worked in the marketing department of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and led marketing teams for Music & Arts stores. He has also been a marketing consultant for Yamaha Corporation of America, where he’s also a Yamaha artist.
All these illustrious credits, of course, largely revolve around Western music. It would take the loss of his father to remind Shah that he had yet to explore his own Indian heritage.
New Old Project
Shah’s father passed away just before the COVID-19 pan- demic. “Near the end of his life, serious health problems meant he couldn’t live the quality of life that he wanted. I was brought up to understand that death, in Hinduism, marks our passage to the next stage,” says Shah. “Dad knew he was dying, and he was getting ready for his next jour- ney.” Three days after his death, the virus shut everything down—including funeral homes and temples.
“It was two years until we could properly celebrate his pass- ing in a temple,” says Shah. “In these ceremonies, typically involving a singer, tabla, or harmonium, transcendental music becomes the focus. I listened for 45 minutes—and I had something of an out-of-body experience. I felt the presence of my father. He had tried so hard to get me to develop an appreciation for this music, but I had resisted and pushed away from it. His ceremony became the im- petus to start exploring it.”
Immediately after the ceremony, Shah purchased a bansuri flute. “Nowadays, there are YouTube videos for everything. I was able to apply my pedagogical approach to learning basic technique, and I also took lessons on how to play it from a musical standpoint.” Shah says this was when his Western music education began to come together with the other part of him that was always there, but which he had never acknowledged. The result was a desire to produce a long-form piece combining both musical worlds.
Through friends, Shah was put in contact with composer Drew Zaremba of Local 20-623 (Denver, CO). “Drew had studied Eastern instruments abroad, and I loved hearing about how his creative process worked. I knew it was exact- ly what I was looking for, since I lacked the compositional skill set to write something extended like this,” says Shah.
The result of their collaboration, Rhapsody in Raag Jog, is a 22-minute original work that is rhapsodic in form and features the bansuri flute, tenor saxophone, guitar, tabla, bass, and orchestral strings. Shah says the composition brings together four major ideas: improvisation; a fusion of Western classical and jazz with Eastern Hindustani music; diversity and inclusion; and Shah’s personal jour- ney toward reconciling his own musical cultures through giving expression to his Indian ancestry.
On a larger scale, Shah envisions a community impact from programming the new work. “I hope it will allow orchestras to connect with vibrant and thriving Indian communities in their own cities,” he says. “Symphony or- chestras are so often focused on maintaining their typical audience base, and a person who looks like me hasn’t been given the opportunity to explore what they do. Growing up, there were never orchestra programs that spoke to my culture.”
Many Indian parents, he says, pushed their kids into being doctors and engineers, rather than artists—all the stereo- types of being Indian. “I hope this new piece can provide a tangible programming option for orchestras seeking to engage a community that is seldom exposed to orchestral music,” says Shah.
Of course, projects like these don’t happen in a bubble. They need help to come to life. For Shah, significant assistance came from the AFM. Rhapsody in Raag Jog is slated to be recorded live in May in Chicago as an all-union endeavor with a pickup group of AFM musicians.
Shah has long understood the kinds of opportunities he wanted are only available through union membership. “I’m on the sub list with both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, for example. If it hadn’t been for the AFM, I wouldn’t have been able to get these gigs,” he says.
Shah especially appreciates the valuable help he got from Local 10-208 officers who smoothed the way to make Rhapsody in Raag Jog a reality. “Richard Daniels on the executive board and [local president] Terry Jares were both invaluable resources in helping me pull the pieces together for the May recording, while Dean Rolando in electronic media assisted with finding the right contract vehicle,” he explains.
Shah says they ultimately made use of a PBS contract, which allows him, as the employer, to pay a fair rate to all the musicians associated with the project and pay into their pension, while giving him the ability to use video and audio from the session as a critical marketing tool. “This project is completely self-funded—in fact, I had to negotiate with my wife, who wanted a new kitchen,” he laughs. “Local 10-208 helped me to stay within my budget and still meet the needs of the musicians working with me.”
For Shah, this kind of assistance from the AFM only scratches the surface of what’s possible. “I believe there’s boundless opportunity for the union to increase its reach,” he says. As an example, in his marketing capacity, Shah works with smaller retail music stores that have teaching studios. “Individuals providing music lessons typically receive wages as independent contractors. Thus, the retailer is not responsible for paying payroll taxes.”
Unfortunately, he says, the IRS has begun increasing its focus on these retailers, and many have been ordered to pay back taxes on income connected with music lessons. Forming a unionized roster of lesson teachers, he says, could potentially protect retailers from being overwhelmed by financial losses, while simultaneously increasing union membership. “The teachers could come under the union umbrella, and also educate their students on the value of union protection,” he suggests.
Shah believes attracting musicians from peripheral branches of music into union membership is just one way to broaden the union’s reach. Other approaches include exploring how to take advantage of the many new ways music is created and consumed. “It’s a changing land- scape,” he says. “The AFM also needs to change, adapt, and—importantly—increase its engagement with younger musicians in order to stay relevant, so that they understand the value in becoming union members.”
In a very real sense, sharing the importance of an evolving union can be seen as echoing Shah’s own path. “It has been a journey,” he agrees. “As an adult, I have been rediscov- ering—and now sharing—all these aspects of my culture that I denied myself because I was just trying to fit in.”
Article reprinted with permission from the American Federation of Musicians
To listen to the music track Rhapsody, click here;