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Pop CultureFebruary 1, 2017

Oldest band ever? Prabhash Maharaj on his family’s 500 years in the music biz

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Ahead of Splore, one of the final stops on the summer festival calendar, Don Rowe chats to tabla drummer Prabhash Maharaj, the youngest musician in a lineage more than 500 years old. 

For four thousand years the holy city of Varanasi has been the spiritual centre of India. A lodestone for music, religion, philosophy and art, Varanasi is considered a particularly auspicious place to die, and cremation on the ghats which line the Ganges is believed by Hindus to lead directly to salvation.

The Maharaj family have inhabited Varanasi for 500 years, performing sacred ‘ragas’ as part of their role in the priest caste, or Brahmans. More recently they’ve taken their music abroad as the Maharaj Trio, performing in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and even our own shaky isles. This month the father-sons trio return for Splore, laying their mystical, transcendent sounds on a well-primed and spiritually lubricated audience.

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The Spinoff: Tell me a little bit about the city of Varanasi and it’s relevance to Hinduism and Buddhism.

Prabhash MaharajVaranasi is hard to explain in a few words, but we believe it’s the oldest living city in the world. Varanasi is the birth place of Hinduism, it’s the birthplace of Buddhism, it’s the birth place of yoga, it’s the birthplace of music and the birthplace of Ayurveda. It’s the equivalent of Mecca for Muslims; Varanasi is the holiest city in the world for Hinduism. Our family dates back more than 500 years in Varanasi.

And they were all musicians?

Everyone. Everyone. Everyone was a musician. Our family, thousands of years ago, they used to be tribal musicians, they used to sing stories of gods and goddesses and play in the temples. We are actually temple musicians – even what we are doing now, when we are sitting on the stage, we’re not just playing music but we are also worshiping the gods and goddesses, and giving them thanks for giving us this life.

Is that a similar concept to that of Bhakti Yoga, where everything you do is in service to a higher God, or a higher principle?

It is one, because when we say yoga, we mean conclusion, total conclusion. We say that when we perform, we are worshiping. And if you don’t give your total self, if you don’t devote yourself inside and outside – your inner soul, your body, your mind, your heart – if you don’t bring them together as one, you won’t gain peace, or whatever you are searching for. So when we are sitting on the stage, when we are doing the mantras and we are playing our instruments, we are collecting our bodies, our hearts and our souls together, and then we are performing. It is like a direct connection to God. Also, the words that we are playing are taken from a Sanskrit script which we believe was written seven to ten thousand years ago. All the scripts are taken from the Samaveda.

And your songs are called ragas, is that correct? What’s the difference between a raga and a kirtan?

Only the form is different. Ragas have a particular timing and tone, so if we are playing early in the morning, we are playing only the notes which belong to early in the morning – only minor notes. When we come to the daylight, in the afternoon, the notes will be minor and major mixed. When it comes to the early evening it will be also major and minor mixed. At night it’s all major notes. Our raga system goes like the human mentality. If you wake up very early in the morning and someone plays loud pop music to wake you up, you will not like it. During that time you want ocean sounds, hummingbirds singing outside, someone waking you up very softly. During that time the human mind doesn’t accept hard noise, so we have special early morning ragas, which don’t have any hard sharp notes. But every few hours we are changing the raga system accordingly.

What is the significance of ragas in Hinduism?

Our family are Hindu, and in Hindu we are the highest caste, Brahmans. Brahmans belong to temples, and in the early ages only Brahmans were allowed to go into the temples, no other caste. But my family are a little more accepting and people are doing more honour to our family because we never said that one particular person or one particular caste is able to practise music. We believe music is universal, from thousands of years ago. These days everyone has an iPhone in their hand anyway, and so now we see that we are all similar and that caste system doesn’t matter. Music always has been in our veins, but also the thinking that has been in our practice is that caste has nothing to do with music. Music comes by birth. My father always explained on stage that the words that we are saying, the voices coming out, that is the melody, and the heartbeat that you have is the rhythm. Everyone is a musician. When we go to a teacher and study music, we learn only to express the feelings that we already have inside. You already know what music is, you can feel it, but sometimes people just don’t know how to express it.

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Is that helpful when you travel and play to audiences who might not have a cultural context for what you’re doing? The audience may not have  the same connection with India that you do, but because music is universal, it transcends that barrier.

It’s a very nice question, because we often face these kinds of things, but I really, surely want to tell you that when we say that musically we might be a little bit hard to understand, this is only, only, only on the ground level. This is ground level thinking. Because it’s all coming from your mind, you know? I learned hip hop, I learned opera, I learned flaminco and other music too, and I love the haka, when Maori perform a haka, because I can find a rhythm in it. Music is universal, when we go to other countries and we sit on the stage, every person who’s sitting in front of us – it doesn’t matter which kind of land we are in – everyone is a musician, and the music is universal. You have the same rhythm that I have, you have the same melody that I have, only the approach is different.

What have you been able to learn through playing these international festivals, and collaborating with different artists? 

It’s a learning process. It’s always a learning process. Music is a form, like any kind of art, and art always has to be learned. Until this day, nobody born on this earth, no matter how great a musician, they never said ‘this is music’. They might say ‘I think this is music,’ but if thousands of people are sitting in the audience, and you go to each one individually and you say ‘How do you feel about this music?’, everyone will have a different opinion. Nobody can describe music in one line. So when we go to shows like the San Francisco Jazz Fest, which is one of the biggest jazz festivals, and we are sitting with like 40 different jazz musicians on this stage, we just have to connect our rhythm. Every day when you sit with great musicians you learn new things. You try to evolve with it, and of course it affects your music because you want to add. Music is endless, and it’s always a learning process.

You’re saying that no one person can define music, and I’d agree with that, but if you had to describe music in the context of what the Maharaj Trio does, what would you say?

We are offering a journey. In one hour of performance you will get Indian rhythms, Indian philosophy, mantras and chants, so it’s like an Indian journey. For music in general, we say that every sound that makes you feel good, that is good for your ears, that is music. If somebody sings or plays and you don’t want to hear it, and it hurts your ears and your heart, that’s not music. Music was invented to give happiness to the society, to bring peace, to bring people together, not to divide people in two parts. Music is always there to work as a tool to bring each and everyone together. Music is very pure, and that’s all I can say about it.

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