Montreal Serai Editor Rana Bose interviewed Catherine Potter, leader of the Catherine Potter-Duniya Project, after her show at the MAI in Montreal.
MS : The show La Convergence des Continents at the Montreal Arts Interculturels on 23rd January, 2009 was very tight and innovative with an interesting visual backdrop provided by VJs jocool and Liberty. North Indian classical flute as played by you fused with the Senegalese Kora played by Montreal Kora player Zal Idrissa Sissokho, and Quebecois Jazz guitarist Jean-Marc Hebert. Resulting in some very interesting improvisations. Let me ask you right away, what was driving the pulse of this show, meaning what beats were you improvising around, the tabla of Subir Dev, or the drums of Tom Gossage. I ask this because both of them are so tight and volatile and yet set an interesting dual pace?
CP: What you refer to as “the driving pulse” of this new repertoire is not so much the percussion instruments, as it was with my last album, but rather the rhythmic and harmonic force of the kora, the West African harp. I had worked with different kora players over the years and, in fact, my first Duniya group in 1985 was with kora player Nathalie Dussault. I had been waiting for an opportunity to integrate the kora into Duniya Project because it is such a beautiful palette to play off of; like a wonderfully complex and rhythmic tanpura around which the drum and tabla grooves were also created. I worked a lot with Zal while writing these new compositions in order to tune his instrument, quite exceptionally, to the modes of the North Indian ragas. This allowed me to write original material for the kora with the other five instruments and to find ways to use the traditional Mandingue kora accompaniments with these new tunings.
MS: I know that you trained under Hariprasad Chaurasia and you have played live with him in concerts. Who in the Jazz flute world has had an influence on you? I heard Yuseef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in some segments. Am I right?
CP: My approach to cross-over music is not only in my way of composing and in bringing musicians from different traditions together, but also in my own improvisational flute vocabulary. I have a background in jazz flute, having completed a jazz studies degree at Concordia, and I’ve probably been influenced by those jazz flutists whom I like such as Yuseef Latif (who himself was influenced by Indian music.) However, I’ve think I’ve also been influenced by many other jazz and world musicians including Wayne Shorter, John McClaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Pat Metheny, Paul McCandless and Jan Garbarek.
MS: This is a world music ensemble you have put together Catherine Potter-Duniya Project . How did you put this band together and what were your inclinations towards this fusion? Is this where you are settling into? Or would you tour also playing exclusively North Indian classical? Also tell us something about the musicians and your interaction with them. How did it develop? They are all such individual stars, especially the Kora playing of Sissokho, guitarist Jean-Marc Hebert and contre-bassist Nicholas Caloia.
CP: I founded this ensemble in 2001 as a performance platform for my original compositions. Since the early 1980’s, it was something I knew I would eventually do but I had to wait until I felt that I had certain mastery over North Indian classical music first. I needed to feel that I was using the knowledge and art which has been passed on to me with respect and was able retain the depth of this music rather than simply borrowing from it, as do many musicians trying to create world music would do. I was shuttling back and forth between Mumbai and Montreal to study with Pt. Chaurasia Between 1990 and 2001 and I released my first album of ragas, Bansuri,– in 1997. As much as I love North Indian classical music, my original work better reflects who I am artistically and culturally. It is also great to practice and perform as a group. Here in North America where Indian classical concert opportunities are few and far between, one can spend a lot of time practicing alone and it becomes quite isolating. I feel privileged to have such amazing collaborators such as Thom Gossage on drums, Nicolas Caloia, Subir Dev; they all contribute their creativity to the project and they are all excellent improvisers. Zal Sissokho is an excellent traditional kora player who is in the process of opening up to new ways of using his instrument and Jean Marc Hébert was an excellent choice for these new pieces because his eclectic playing is like a bridge between our different musical cultures.
MS: It is great to see a woman composer from Quebec, highly accomplished in North Indian classical music, lead this world music band and put it together. This issue of Montreal Serai has a theme Women: Changing the World! You are unique in that sense. Over the years I have seen you perform, there has been a consciousness about the rights of women and the relationship to your music. Comments?
CP: On the eve of International Women’s day, I must admit this is a difficult question to answer. Unfortunately, I don’t feel things have changed much and many of the challenges faced by women musicians remain the same. If I have made any contribution in changing things, it would simply be in the choice to persist in a extremely male-dominated musical milieu, where even my guru-bhais would often tell me I was wasting my time because i was a woman and certain male musicians I’ve collaborated with have told me “no woman musician could ever kill like men” (?!) What to say to that, besides the fact that I’m not interested in killing?
MS : Tell us something about the India tour you did in 2008. What were the venues and how was it received? Who accompanied you? Give us some highlights.
CP: We had a fantastic tour Europe and in India where the Duniya Project album was released by Music Today under the title “Following in the Footsteps of Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia”. We performed in Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai, London, Dublin, Paris and Brussels, including some prestigious venues like the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, Congo Square Jazz Festival in Kolkata, the East-West Encounter Festival in Bangalore and the Pavilion Theater in Dublin. What I found most touching was doing 3 cd launches in large music stores in India. Ordinary people just showed up not knowing what they were about to hear and were very visibly touched by the music. There was a question period with a microphone for individuals to express their impressions or ask questions. I was really touched to learn how they were moved by my music and my playing, more so than some of the feedback from “elite” audiences. We also got a very good response from the Indian press. I understood that it is easier to be acknowledged as a musician doing what they call in India, “fusion” and which I prefer to call original cross-over music, than as a full-out Hindustani classical flutist. While here in the West, we have gotten beyond the need to have Caucasians Europeans perform Western opera in order for it to be considered “authentic”, there is still a widely held belief in India that you have to be ethnically “Indian” to be able to play Indian classical music “authentically”. This attitude has had an effect on how the Western world perceives those like myself who have chosen this path.
MS: What is the look ahead? What plans do you have? What are you working on?
CP: I’m presently in pre-production of my third album, which will include most of the pieces from La Convergence des continents. We are also promoting this new show to eventually tour both in Canada and again internationally and will hopefully show-case it at CINARS 2010. I was brought to Morocco a couple of months ago where my career is being promoted and had some wonderful opportunities to collaborate with Moroccan musicians. I will return later this year for more collaboration and to continue working on building a festival tour there for Duniya Project in 2011. I also plan to return to Indian next winter for a few months with a Shastri fellowship to continue to study ragas with Hariprasad Chaurasia, to seek inspiration in the wealth of South Asian musical traditions and to work on new original material.