Deepak Ram was born in 1960 in Lenasia, a “coloured” township close to Soweto, and grew up in a household where John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Wes Montgomery were the daily musical fare. Ram also developed a deep love for north Indian classical music. He took lessons in bansuri (the bamboo flute) and tabla in South Africa, and then went off to India to study with some of India’s master flautists, most notably Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
Ram’s recording career has reflected these multiple musical influences. He has brought his thorough training in the Indian classical tradition to numerous collaborations with artists working in other genres, such as jazz pianist Darius Brubeck (son of Dave, now resident in South Africa) and South African jazz/folk band Tananas.
Ram’s latest release, Searching for Satyam, is another such collaborative effort. Together with the Spaniard Eduardo Niebla on jazz-flamenco guitar, the German Achim Tang on bass and the Indian Partha Sarathi Mukherjee on tabla, Ram produces an often-fascinating mix of flamenco, jazz and classical Indian styles. But although the individual playing of each contributor is impeccable and often brilliant, the results are decidedly uneven.
The down side of this joint effort is that several numbers (for instance “Kalbadevi Road”, “Danse pour Kooksie aux Ben”, and “Space-Time”) revolve around rather banal melody lines, which all instruments play together in unison, several times, to open the piece. The playing is machine-like and frequently as boring as an uninspired item from the ECM catalogue. The soloing numbers is usually dynamic and innovative, but the effect is quickly broken when the group returns to the in-unison melody line, which concludes the number.
Far more successful are numbers like “Minavivek”. Here, Ram and company forego the effort to produce the catchy riff. Instead, the piece opens with Ram on bansuri, playing in a meditative mode and demonstrating the ethereal beauty of the north Indian classical tradition. Guitarist Nieva takes over for a shorter solo, with Ram echoing him in the background. With Mukherjee’s tabla providing the rhythmic underpinning, the flamenco and Indian classical styles join together to produce, not a hybrid where you can hear the forcing together of two radically different traditions, but a gorgeous synthesis. “Lullaby for Krupa” and “Memories of Kiron” work in a similar vein.
The ensemble works together best, therefore, when it is not trying to sound like Shakti. Indian classical inflected with flamenco appears to be a more promising direction for the talented Deepak Ram to take rather than the jazz track. Ram has now relocated to San Francisco due to the difficulties he has faced in making a living as a professional musician in South Africa. Hopefully this means that we in the US will have more opportunities to hear from Ram, and that even more fruitful musical collaborations are in the offing.