Full interview with Paul Z. Livingstone by Bob Woodard – Santa Barbara News-Press Sep 1st 2006


Bob Woodward:  I was very glad to hear that you’ll be concertizing at Center Stage in Santa Barbara… Can you explain what that performance will entail? Will this be a fairly traditional North Indian concert?


Yes, absolutely… it will be a classical concert of North Indian music... straight ahead ragas & talas.  I always emphasize though that this music is a creative music, which involves a great deal of improvisation, interaction & risk taking.  That is what keeps these time honored ragas (traditional Indian melodic forms) fresh, exciting and dynamic.  Gregg Johnson, an amazing tabla player will be joining me.  We’ve played together for many years and have a great repore.


 Bob Woodward:  I know you’ve studied with Amiya Dasgupta, Rajeev Taranath and Ravi Shankar. Was Cal Arts, in particular, a critical laboratory in your development?


Cal Arts is certainly a one of a kind place & it changed my life.  I would deem to say that it has one of the best world music programs in the world, because of its amazing faculty of course.  Of course the whole music program is very progressive and intensive in many disciplines with extraordinary faculty which I can’t fully get into here.  The place is part school & part laboratory (you’re right really), I guess after 7 years studying there and 5 years now as a faculty member I’m safe to say that.  It’s still a place where to a certain extent you can create your own education as well as have this surreal experience of constant experimentation around a high degree of artistry.  Of course the traditional arts are very strong also in various disciplines, too much to talk about though.  I would say though that Cal Arts has given me the most diverse educational experience I could have had anywhere period, it still does in fact.  No regrets.


Amiya of course was a pioneer in teaching Indian Music in the west and was basically brought by Raviji in ‘68 or so and ended up teaching at Cal Arts from 1970-96.  When Amiya passed away the sarod stalwart Rajeev Taranath came to take over the Indian Music department at Cal Arts for 10 years who I ended up learning from and who affected my playing a great deal!  Of course the great tabla maestro Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri also teaches at Cal Arts and now since Rajeevji’s retirement, the great sarod artist and son of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Aashish Khan is now in that position.  I created a class which I teach at Cal Arts called Raga Jazz Ensemble.  We performed at the REDCAT Theater in the new Disney Hall complex in downtown LA this past spring, the students love it and participate creatively to a high degree. 


When Amiya passed away, I met Panditji (Ravi Shankar) who then invited me to learn from him saying, “Now you are part of our family.”  You can imagine how that blew my mind and it shows how close he was with Amiya.  So for the past 10 years now I have also been learning from Raviji, (as recently as last month) and have visited him in Delhi at the Ravi Shankar Center & his home here in Encinitas.  Whenever I sit with this man, I thank God that I am so blessed to be his presence.  He is an ocean of music and even at 86 he is so sharp and exacting with his teaching, nothing gets by him! 


Bob Woodward:  Your bio (and quite an amazing and wide-ranging bio it is) notes that you’ve done session work, and been involved with pop acts like Alanis Morissette and Ozomatli. Is that a challenge for you to get in the right headspace in those settings, or have you always had an ear for rock and pop?


I played rock n roll guitar, blues & folk since I was a kid so it was natural really to come back to.  Alanis was great to work with very down to earth and just had me do my thing.  When I heard the track ‘Knees of my Bees” I was really happy, the sitar is featured from the beginning to the end including a fat rock sitar solo in the middle!  The Ozo guys are all old friends, in fact I went to Cal Arts with Jiro & Azrdru who are also featured on my Salaam Suite cd.  I composed an intro piece and played on the first self titled Ozomatli cd and also played on the more recent Street Signs, for which they got their 2nd Grammy Award.  They deserved it.  It’s inspiring to know that basically 10 guys can go 10 years in a such a creative band and go though all the crap of the music business and different labels tossing them around and persevere to get where they are now.   I have nothing but love and appreciation for their music, spirit and support of the community efforts everywhere.   


Bob Woodward:  Ozomatli is an especially interesting band, which strives to integrate genres of music that might not normally coexist. Does that idea also relate to much of what you’ve done on your musical path, and does that instinct go back to your earliest musical projects?


I’ve love to blend musical styles in creative ways & Ozo’s music has definitely influenced me as a composer/songwriter especially with the Salaam Suite record.  Knowing them and working with them all these years I suppose you could say has created a cross-pollination of influence.  Putting together diverse musical styles & making it work with multiple languages in songs, yea… I think it can create in the mind of the listener a metaphor for unity which is what we need in this world!  All of this while retaining an accessible sound and yet stretching the pop comfort zone.  I think this actually educates people through new sounds, the instruments & rhythms from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East… all the while uplifting the mind and the spirit, that’s glangin’ (really cool) as I say.


Bob Woodward:  Would you say that your Arohi Ensemble best articulates the more eclectic side of your artistic ambitions? 


Arohi, my first cd is an acoustic mostly instrumental project of fairly sophisticated but accessible Indian Raga Jazz and creative world music influenced by Brazilian, Spanish, Mexican, Macedonian music.  The Arohi Ensmeble performs this music and a lot of music we haven’t recorded yet.  A lot of raga based pieces with contemporary forms & diverse rhythmic elements and features a crazy cadre of great players including my long time brother from Venezuela Pedro Eustache on world winds (flutes) & percussion stalwarts Leonice Shinneman & John Bergamo among others.  You can hear tracks at www.myspace.com/arohi & we’ll be adding some tracks from my lastest Indian classical cd Vinaya there too.


The Salaam Suite record released last October reaches out into more popular sounds, including reggae, Hip Hop, Latin, rock & funk, with a heavy dose of Arabic music.  It’s a irreverent, political, funny unityworld music record… but not for those who like their listening predictable.  You can hear tracks at www.myspace.com/salaamsuite.  Both of these cds are available at cdbaby.com and the new one will be soon too. 


Bob Woodward:  Many musicians who play Indian classical music, including Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar, have been devoted to traditional music and have also pursued experimental and multi-stylistic projects. Do you have a similar philosophy—balancing the importance of tradition and exploration?


Zakirji is one of those musicians who can put his tabla into any style and it feels like he’s always been doing it.  He’s always been a great inspiration from his classical tabla to his work with Shakti and some many artists.  His record Making Music has always been a favorite.  Anoushka’s new crossover cd Rise is great, I really like how she has put the elements together.  It’s really not easy, I feel that to use an element whether an instrument, a form, style or even a rhythm from a specific cultural tradition you have to know what you’re dealing with deeply.  If you only know something superficially and you want to use it in your music it comes across as a gimmick & its just a sound and the people who know will know.  But if you use it with knowledge & respect, then people who know will appreciate it because you are putting it in a good light and they know that what you’re doing is spreading their tradition in new ways to new audiences.


 Bob Woodward:  You are passing on musical education through the Sangeet School of World Music and Dance, which seems like a fairly unique project, especially in Los Angeles. How is that going?


Sangeet is a dream to do what I am talking about on a community level for any ordinary person to be able to learn and go deep into these art forms.  We have these opportunities at places like Cal Arts & UCLA and with local centers that are dedicated to one tradition or another.  Sangeet is unique in that we are trying to create a place for everyone, or as many as we can fit in anyway.  Honestly it’s been a struggle with triumphs and tragedies.  At times it’s been absolutely amazing what we’ve been able to pull off as far as world music events, workshops & classes.  But what we lack is a strong organized director and funding base… sound familiar?  Our strong side is that we have amazing performing artists involved from all over the world who are also great human beings.


Bob Woodward:  Particularly as a Lebanese-born musician, do you feel the need to--as you say on your website--“wage peace,” and bring about greater understanding between cultures in the current global atmosphere?


Absolutely!  This is what my work is about.  There will not be peace until peacemakers work as hard at peace as the war makers work at war.  That is why we say ‘wage peace’, because the work is activated into our life.


Bob Woodward:  Is music an ideal vehicle for communicating across borders and ethnicities?


Yes of course, but I believe everyone has something they must do!  If you believe in the sanctity of human life as a moral value then you can work and live to help educate others and tear down the walls of misunderstanding, prejudice, racism & injustice, which I believe in entrenched in every society on earth.  People need to understand also that without justice there cannot be peace, justice is the pre-requisite for peace.  I believe in non-violence & revolution in that order. 


Music does have a special magic I suppose, to put you in another zone.  It has the power to take you out of your hum drum/ego self.  For me the highest ideal of music is being able to let go & be fully prepared so that you become an instrument for God to shoot something through you & into the world.  I’ve really felt that, like I’m watching myself play & what’s happening on the stage has nothing to do with me. That is the ultimate feeling of peace, wonder & joy.  Music is service really, for people to get connected to the spirit & then they might forget about their religious, racial & national differences.  That’s why I follow Jesus, he went beyond all that.  I don’t call myself a Christian, that’s just a label.  If it works for you that’s fine, it works for Bush too.  I am more interested in love, which is what Christ told us to do.  If I can be a steward of love & somehow achieve this through music it will my dream come true.


Bob Woodward:  Have things come together in your musical life in a way you could have predicted or hoped for as a young musician, or has its evolution surprised you?


Honestly I guess not, and I’m often dissatisfied… but that is petty really.  When I think about it… I am truly grateful & thank God for all the amazing experiences, places I’ve seen & great teachers I’ve had! 


For more info: www.tanpura.com