issue 4 :: Summer, 1997

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Interview: Zussan Kali Fasteau

Any description that I try to write of Fasteauís music sounds trite and missing the point. I could mention the numerous instruments she plays, saxophone, flutes, cello, piano, her voice, percussion. I could mention that she is one of the few people who can bring non-Western ideas into jazz in a way that interests me (and this is perhaps close-mindedness and lack of exposure on my part). I could talk about her amazing self-released Prophecy CD. I could talk about her years of improvising and traveling, of her history with Roland Rafael Garett and the record they released on the legendary ESP label. I could talk about the concert I saw of hers three years ago in New York, and this I will do since I interviewed her afterwards. The show was listed as a celebration of the Summer Soltisce, and Fasteau led an 11-member ensemble, including a dancer with a remarkable sense of balance, through a glorious hour-long performance. We talked a little about the show and her approach to music. The interview starts with her asking me a question.
—Josh Ronsen

We had fifty people in there?
Yeah, that was a good turnout. What was the purpose of that [the Solstice show]?

The solstice is the time of year when the Sun is at its height, at its zenith—high energy—and New York with all its chaos... I picked a raga that I thought expressed this time of year pretty well.

What exactly is a raga?
Raga is a term that can describe a musical form that is in three parts. The first part is without rhythm, outlining the scale, the melody. The second part has rhythm, and the third part is more free, extending beyond the rhythm. And it also refers to the notes of the scale, but more than just the scale, but also the phrasing of this particular array of notes. That’s one of the few defining elements of the raga. There are very few restrictions.
So is there a different phrasing for each raga?
No, they’re all different. They all use different notes. In Western music, there is one major scale and two minor scales. In India, there are hundreds, in fact, thousands of minor scales, and maybe three hundred that are commonly used in designated ragas, certain selection of notes. So this scale is selected, and these notes, only these notes, are used for the first and second section of the piece. It’s a limiting factor, but it is also a defining factor. There are very few limits on improvisation in this form, but that’s the main one.
How did you choose the notes for this piece?
This particular raga is called veebas, in India. It’s also a common scale in Ethiopian music, folk music and traditional music, and it’s also found in the Middle East, and probably also Japan. These scales cross a lot of territory and a lot of people and they have different names in different parts of the world. They’re rarely used in the Western music. There’s a whole wealth of knowledge and incredible beauty to explore that is not even touched in Western music. As a result, it’s a challenge for some of these players, they’re all very good players, but most of them don’t have the experience in Indian music that I have, because I’ve lived there and I’ve listened to it for a long time and really got into it as much as I could. So, while the restrictions are fairly simple, in the use of the certain scale notes and the 5/4 rhythm, in Western music they usually only use even meter rather than odd meter time, it’s a challenge for many of these musicians to feel this type of tempo.
Do they enjoy it?
Yeah. I couldn’t decide whether to just go ahead and do it in 6/8 just so everyone could get it easily, but I decided to try the five and since the drummer’s got it, I figured it might take the horn players a little while, but if they practice it, they’ll get it. And in doing this, I really want to share the knowledge I have of Indian music with the jazz musicians I’m around because they have so much to give in terms of their energy and innovation, and they can use new material to work with, material that is new to them. Since I have that, I want to share. By giving them this piece to play on, I hope they can use it in their own things later on, they can use some of these ideas, have some new vocabulary.
Where do you place your music in the tradition of jazz?
Well, I really place in a number of traditions, I’ve straddled several categories: jazz, avant-garde jazz, world music and so-called new music. As far as jazz itself, you know, ”what is jazz?” There are so many arguments, the Knitting Factory called their thing ”What is Jazz?”, critics scrabbling about what is jazz, this is, this isn’t, and who knows? For me, the essence of jazz is the spirit of innovation and a certain energy, a certain freedom in energy that really is not in many other forms of music. There are other types of energy, but a certain open kind of energy that I would say is unique to jazz, or a special gift of jazz. When I’ve played in New Music ensembles, I’ve been singled out by critics as being really good or fantastic in comparison with the classically-trained musician. I mean, I’m classically trained, but against the notated, or paper-oriented musicians, my energy is much more expansive so it stands out in performance in a way that people would notice. You could say rock and roll has it, but [jazz] is more than pure, brutal energy. It has a certain warmth that is very important, I feel. What I try to communicate is more than brute strength or endurance—it’s good to have those things—but the humanizing factor, the warmth, the compassion, which I’m trying to communicate in terms of feeling is number one. The knowledge that you’re a channel for divine energy... This is very interesting for me conducting, ’cause I usually play in trios, at most quartet, where I don’t have to conduct, mostly I just feature myself or whatever, but here I really wanted to feature the members of the orchestra. As I said, I know I presented them with a challenge. I thought it came out really well considering we had one rehearsal.
You’ve done a lot of traveling, what important experiences have you had?
Before we get into that, as far as influences, John Coltrane would be singled out. His tone, his intensity, also his use of Indian music because a lot of the songs that he wrote through the ’60s, most of them are built on ragas, even though he didn’t use the ABC form, but if you listen to a lot of the things he did, and Alice, too, the scales that they used, they are exactly ragas. The correspond to ragas. ”Transition” is a raga. I traveled a lot. I was gone from this country for 13 years continuously. I lived in India for 2 years, Turkey for a year. In Africa for about 6 months, and the rest of the time in Europe, either in Paris or Amsterdam, or somewhere in Italy or Denmark.
Were you playing?
Yes, I played all the time, I’m always playing. Where ever I’d go I’d have a concert. Music is a passport, there’s a network where ever you go. You find where the musicians are and where it’s happening and get a gig... meet the people who know where you’re coming from. The bamboo flutes in particular opened a lot of doors in a lot of other countries. The bamboo flute is a divine instrument in many cultures. In India, Krishna plays the flute In Turkey, in the Sufi tradition, the ney symbolizes the yearning of the soul. In Japan, the shakuhachi is a spiritual instrument. In many countries you find that. I didn’t play bamboo flute tonight. I usually play flute. There are two flutes I use, the ney, which is the Arabic oblique flute, and the shakuhachi is the vertical notch flute. I’ve had a lot of influences in my travels, I’ve studied a lot, listened a lot. Some formal study, but for me, study is paying close attention when listening to other people play. You know, different people have different methods. Some people have to sit in a class and be told what to do, but I find music to be such an intuitive thing... you also have to practice the physical part, there’s no way of getting around that, but as far as knowledge or understanding of it, a lot of it is intuitive. Indian music is traditionally an orally transmitted tradition, so you need a teacher, to explain, to sing the ragas. You can read it written down, the notes, but it won’t be right. Any notation system is inexact, particularly with—the intervals are microtonal, but when you hear it, when it is sung for you against the drone, that particular note, say between D and E-flat, that E-flat will be different depending on what note follows, in the scale, depending on what scale you use, and different by what they call the suruki, the smallest audible difference between tones, so between D and E-flat there are like seven surukis, so there is a lot of space there. But when you hit that particular note for that particular raga, the vibration, like a piano tuner, the vibration of those two notes, of that note against the tonic, create a certain vibration, you feel it in your body, you know when you have the right one. It’s a feeling, it’s very viscual. That’s why music is such a divine science. In India, they’ve figured out how the different pitches resonate and heal, it’s a healing power. Everything in your body from the organs, the tissues that make up the organs, the cells that make up the tissues, the molecules, the atoms, everything has a different vibrational frequency. When you become ill, things are out of whack, out of harmony, out of phase, and that’s a form of illness. By tuning everything up to these pitches, you get good health. That’s why people feel good when it’s the right kind of music. And it’s not just emotional, it’s physical too. And I know personally music has kept me alive over the years in a very real way. When I stop playing, practicing, I get sick, my health gets run down, I get lackluster. You get out whack when you can’t tune up, it’s very important. Most people are aware, musicians become aware it’s a calling. In the old days, everyone played music, in previous societies, everyone sang, danced, everyone participated actively in the culture, so they all had the benefit of being actively involved, not just as passive listeners. It was healthy and normal. In this society, it has become abnormal to be an artist. You have to struggle and there are conflicts with the capitalist system. It’s become an unnatural thing to do, you have to have a lot of fortitude, but you know why you are doing it, you have to believe in it. I know I believe it because I owe my life to it. It’s strange.
 

Other Fasteau interviews appear in:
Cock Displacement #?
[Article, ”Yin and Yang of Music”] Wolly Bugger #3
Option #52, Sep/Oct 1993
Rhythm Music Magazine, Feb 1994

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