Prem Joshua talks about his latest album
World music maestro Prem Joshua talks about his latest album, released in India last month
Ask world fusion music exponent Prem Joshua if the word “boundaries” ever features in his vocabulary and he’ll tell you not unless it’s appended to “breaking” ”“ be it in his worldview or his mastery of musical instruments. The German-born multi-instrumentalist and musician was touring the country in support of his latest album, Luminous Secrets.
Joshua first came to India when he was 18, drawn by his fascination for Indian classical music. “When I first heard Indian classical music it was so mindblowing that I had to come to India because of that. It was a time when Indian musicians were finally coming to the West and at the same time, Western musicians were coming to India to absorb the complexities of Indian music. It was a blast!” he smiles. Born into a musical family, Joshua had begun learning the flute when he was five years old and on coming to India he expanded his repertoire by learning the bansuri and the sitar under Ustad Usman Khan. “But I was a wayward student,” he laughs. “I was not interested in pure classical music. I wanted to experiment and see what would happen when you merged music and cultures.” He cites Shakti, with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, as a major influence on his music.”
While Joshua’s music is rooted deeply in Indian ragas, it’s the willingness to experiments with genres, styles and seemingly disparate influences that lends uniqueness to their sound. In the past, his albums have thrown together shlokas and jazz, chillout and Hindustani classical, drum and bass and Sufi music into a seamless whole. On Luminous Secrets, his 14th album, he says he chose to go in a slightly different direction. “Besides the subtlety of how we use ragas, how we use unusual beats ”“ like we have introduced a bit of Moroccan influences, we have also done tracks in unusual beats like 9 beat and more unusual ragas like Marwa and Hemavati ”“ but one ingredient this time is a little more emphasis on poetry so there’s poetry by Hafiz, Meerabai and Kabir,” he explains. “Earlier, in my older albums, the vocals emphasised more on shlokas and, I would say, religious or spiritual motifs, and somehow I wanted to get a little bit away from that angle and give this more mystic and poetic feel to it. And I think this is something I want to pursue, this will continue in more albums because there are so many fantastic poets in India and in the East.”
While a lot of Joshua’s music in the past has been written and composed entirely by him, he repeatedly reiterates that all the output from the last five years be credited to the Prem Joshua Band, which includes Satgyan Fukuda (bass, percussion, vocals), Chintan Relenberg (loops, keyboards, darbouka, tabla, vocals) and Rahul Sengupta (table, percussion, vocals). While Joshua has played with Fukuda and Relenberg in various for more than two decades, it was only five years ago, he says, that he found himself on a financial footing sure enough to support a full-time band. “Of course it’s an economical thing also, how big a band can be and how many people you can feed through your music. But we have really grown together. The step towards the band, and the step away from me being the main focus and the band developing the sound it has only been a growing process. I don’t feel like something has been taken away from me. I’ve only learned. I feel very grateful to play with these guys because I’m learning every day.”
But world music has also become a much maligned genre, brought to infamy by the readily accessible Buddha Bar-style of mashups. How does he get people to look beyond that barrier? “Fusion gets very often misinterpreted by people who just take tidbits and throw them together and think this is fusion. I don’t think this is the way to go. It’s only when you have deep respect and complete understanding of all the music you are trying to blend that it becomes sincere. World music is too wishy-washy an expression to define what we’re doing, which is why I prefer calling it world fusion music, which basically means a merger of cultures and in this sense that’s what we’re trying to do and that’s what we’re trying to do well,” says Joshua.