Chatting to Amit Heri on Music

Amit Heri needs no introduction. One of the country’s biggest names in fusion jazz music. We chatted up with the versatile artist in his Bangalore pad on his take on new Indian music.

Amit Heri with his custom made fret-less 12 string guitar, which sounds similar to the sarodAmit Heri with his custom made fret-less 12 string guitar, which sounds similar to the sarod

Amit Heri, though a man of immense talent, modestly says, “Don’t know about being in the industry for a while, but I’ve been playing music for a while now, yeah”. Heri is most known for his commercially hit production of ‘Morning Raaga’, and is among the few Indian jazz musicians to have performed in International venues, such as the London jazz festival, Paris jazz festival, WOMAD, and the Montreux jazz festival among others. We caught up with Heri at his home in Bangalore speaking to Heri about his growth as a musician and the growing opportunities for jazz music here in the country.Heri’s latest album ‘Jhoola’, is a potpourri of various folk and classical tunes from all over the country, fused with jazz music.
My Bangalore: Fusion jazz music is not commercially recognized, why?
Amit Heri: To an extent, yes. More so as the over riding factor in India is that commercial music means Bollywood. Commercial success is connected with marketability and how at a certain point music is taken in the market. Naturally, if you have music coming on television, and concerts people would take more to it. Besides, marketing is the main key for success of any style of music and in India most of the marketing happens with film music. Whenever, there is a concert of good fusion music, people enjoy it. But, if you talk about commercial success,  then clearly fusion music is not marketed enough. It’s the case with most of the other music forms in India actually because the backing of money is all in Bollywood. That’s what happened with Morning Raaga, it was a commercial success because it has some amount of the backing and made like a commercial film.

“Commercial success is connected with marketability and how at a certain point music is taken in the market” Amit Heri“Commercial success is connected with marketability and how at a certain point music is taken in the market” Amit Heri

Tell us about your genesis into music, how did you get into the profession of music?
Amit Heri: My family is not in the profession of music. Dad has a crane manufacturing company. But I started playing music when I was about 9, and I started to play the sitar when I was about 13 or 14, also the guitar around the same time. When I was 15, I knew I wanted to play music which led to my heading to Berkley in Boston when I was 17 to study music. So, I grew up with Indian and Western music influences, and my music is maybe a result of that because as a human being that’s what I experienced. I experienced Western music, rock, blues, reggae and jazz, which attracted me to it later. Jazz has its similarities to Indian classical music, because of its virtuosity and just the level you play jazz at, it’s quite similar to Indian classical. I finally came back to India in 1996, because it’s my passion to be working with Indian music and Western music. As an Indian,  who has experienced other cultures, that’s what I would like my music to be about.
Would you say that your music is well accepted in the International crowd?Because you have played at a platform like the WOMAD, and some of the biggest International jazz festivals. In terms of crowd acceptance, and in comparison to the International scene, where do you think people absorbed your music better?   
Amit Heri: In terms of the music I play, definitely it’s the west. Because, the usual reaction is like ‘wow, what is this?’ But I think that also in India when I play, because the music is accepted here. Especially, the energy with which we play, it definitely connects with the population here. With the West, the reaction would be double fold. For e.g.; if you haven’t heard a sitar, and when you hear a well played sitar for the first time, that itself is an uplifting feeling. And, we are also talking about the platforms, like the big jazz festivals are all abroad. 
Speaking about platforms, what’s your take on smaller performance venues here in Bangalore?
Amit Heri: 
Clubs are there anywhere in the world, it’s more like having a good time. From a performance point of view, it’s good to have clubs because it encourages local talent. Audiences get to hear music more often, and in Bangalore 10 years ago there were hardly any venues where you could listen. From audience perspective also it’s good, because you get to hear good music more often. From an artist perspective, it’s good for the local scene because, a lot of young musicians try and play at these venues, so it’s good for them as well. And it’s basically a good thing to have a club scene. Because there is a club scene, and there is a festival scene and they both contribute to the growth of music in the city. I wouldn’t say that the situation in the city is very good yet, very good would be about 30 clubs or so, and a whole lot of jazz festivals. Bangalore is just getting there. The infrastructure for the growth is good.
Bangalore is just getting there. The infrastructure for the growth is goodBangalore is just getting there. The infrastructure for the growth is good

How were things for you during your struggling years, or at a time when you started out with music?
Amit Heri:  When I left from here at 1989, there was hardly anything for jazz music, and even when I came back in 1994, in terms of jazz, there wasn’t much at least here in Bangalore. Probably, in Bombay things were more happening in reference to jazz music. I toured with a lot of musicians then, even though Bangalore had a crowd who wanted to listen to music, there weren’t any places to perform. I had to create a scene for myself, I got musicians to perform gigs at places like Chowdiah, and this once we had a performance in Zero G. So at that time there wasn’t anything happening and you had to create your own scene. Now of course things are much better, and in terms of jazz festivals and clubs as well, there is a lot going on. It’s definitely progressed. I can’t understand, the legal stress, like for e.g. sometimes cops would just walk in and ask you to shut down which is not good for the general progression of music in a cosmopolitan city. And it’s performing arts; we are not doing anything illegal. For a jazz scene to be thriving there has to be a lot more venues, and concerts. Maybe Bangalore in five years, the infrastructure would be much better.
Could you tell me a little more about your albums Elephant Walk, and Morning Raaga your latest album Jhoola?
Amit Heri: The Elephant Walk was a contemporary jazz album, unlike the Morning Raaga album, or the Jhoola for that matter of fact. Elephant Walk is a jazz quartet, but has Indian influences in a very subtle way. With Jhoola I went to different regions and recorded what lay people were singing. I travel to some all these places, and one of the tracks Krishna which represents Karnataka is symbolic to this place. Goa, for instance I did the song Gai Gai, a track which the state is very well known for. I took folk songs mainly, and composed around it elements of jazz, older forms, and got it to the now. I tried to capture, the traditional songs, I tried to compliment these songs with the traditional and modern songs. India has got such an incredible musical wealth, and basically because of the Bollywood angle, Indian music is generally ignored. A lot of the folk songs are just lost, and it’s such a rich tradition, and color and background to it.

In musical sense, if you were given the opportunity for re-birth, which era would it be?
Amit Heri: In 1960’s American music scene! Things were so much more expressive and free in there.
Any singer/ composer that you would want to collaborate with?
Amit Heri: I’ve played with Zakir Hussain once before, but I think I would like to work with him. He’s an incredible artist, and I would want to do more with him. In terms of singers, artists with world music influences.
Considering the fact that Bangalore has such a small jazz scene, what made you decide to stay here?
Amit Heri: I wanted to be here, I like Bangalore, and I mean I grew up here. But, Bombay is about Bollywood and commercial music, and I feel at home here, it’s easier to live here. As an artist you finally become a local person, you are where you are.
More of Amit Heri’s work can be seen on
Tags: bollywood, interview, Amit Heri, Fusion Jazz Music, jhoola, morning raaga, indian music

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