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Charu Suri: A Blender of Melodies

May/31/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi
charu suri
Image courtesy of Laura Wheatley

Once you’ve listened to the Charu Suri style, you just cannot stop. It is a mood. You can listen to her “Book of Ragas Vol. 1” and “Book of Ragas Vol. 2,” and so much more on Spotify, and still be left wanting. No worries, because she’s coming out with some new stuff soon.

Born in South India, brought up there and in Nigeria, and now based in New Jersey, Suri is the first Indian-born jazz composer to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. She pioneered a style of music that marries three great traditions: Carnatic, Sufi and Western classical jazz. The International Singer Songwriter’s Association nominated her for seven awards in 2022.

We had a chat with her about her music and her life growing up in Nigeria and Chennai. As we mentioned you can listen to Suri on Spotify.

Tell us about yourself. Where are your roots from, where did you grow up?

I was born in Madurai, India and my dad got a job as the chief executive officer of a record label in Nigeria, Africa, which is where I learned how to play the piano because the bungalow he had had a piano in it. I left India at the age of 5 and lived in Africa from 5-9 years of age. My earliest memories of music are from there, where we would listen to so much vinyl daily on the turntables. Then I returned to India and lived in Chennai, where I studied with one of the best piano teachers in India, Gita Menon. She really helped me hone my technique and shaped me into the artist I am today. I left Chennai at age 17 after getting a scholarship to Princeton University to further my musical education.

Your compositions draw from Hindustani, Carnatic as well as Sufi music – three great traditions celebrated in India. But these musical traditions are known for requiring long and rigorous training to master. Your oeuvre is astonishing. What was your musical training like growing up?

It was pretty rigorous! From the age of 5, I learned both Western classical and Indian music. So, from the age of 7 I was performing pretty complex pieces – from Chopin waltzes to Beethoven sonatas. And also I played the veena a bit, thanks to my grandmother. So I tried to learn some ragas and sing (I was no means a professional singer) but on the piano is where I shone best. Apart from this, I listened to many different types of music, from jazz to pop, thanks to my dad’s job in the record industry.

You’re a published writer as well as an award-winning musician. Would you call yourself a prodigy?

Maybe! I was pretty crazy skilled when I was very young, and used to practice 8-10 hours a day when I was little!

What’s been your journey to professionally performing music?

My parents and my piano teacher put me on stage at every opportunity they could get, from school functions, to concerts at various embassies. So I grew out of my nerves quite quickly with all the practice.

You are the first Indian-born jazz composer at Carnegie Hall. What was your journey to that accolade?

It was quite surreal, I didn’t expect it to be honest. I contacted Carnegie Hall and submitted my material and I got an amazing date my first time, in December 2019, when I premiered my first “Book of Ragas” and “New American Songbook.” The journey to that accolade was much longer, and often, a struggle. It took me some time to find my voice, because I didn’t want to do yet another album that was similar in sound to everything I had heard growing up. There was the pressure to be creative, to put something out and get gigs. I didn’t want to be yet another performing musician without a proper vision. In the meantime, there were bills to pay! So I did everything from being an organist at churches, to teaching music and performing on Broadway, etc., so I could discover what I really was meant to be doing, musically. When Carnegie Hall came along, I was finally ready, musically speaking.

Tell us about a typical day in your creative life. How do you go about constructing your songs? Is “constructing” the wrong word? Is your process more fluid and incomprehensible? 

My process is somewhat fluid but all my music has been written usually in one sitting, with few revisions. I often live with an idea or an emotion and if that is very strong or intense then the process is much quicker. But I usually sketch a few ideas out on the piano, then it blossoms and just sort of comes together. I try not to force anything.

Your Book of Ragas is unprecedented and, as the reviews say, groundbreaking. Was it hard to share your vision with your co-performers?

Thank you! Yes initially it was really hard to explain my vision and sounds in my head. Not only was this jazz using ragas, it was jazz using ragas in a Western trio setting with Sufi improv! Most of my bandmates had never heard anything like that, I think they were expecting Duke Ellington or Irving Berlin! So I bought them Indian drumming books, and told them about my vision, and played many ragas for them, explaining the moods, and ascending/descending scales etc.

Who are you currently listening to? What’s on your playlist?

I’ve been listening to a ton of Stevie Wonder lately, I am just astonished at the breadth of his work, and his mad skills. I’m also listening to a lot of McCoy Tyner, and Chick Corea, as well as Oscar Peterson, who I listen to on an almost daily basis. Also the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, whose drummer is on my upcoming CD.

What’s coming up next for you by way of projects and performances? How can we get deets on your performance dates?

So I am working hard to launch my fourth album, “Ragas and Waltzes,” which should come out at the end of summer. And also busy with gigs, I am excited to perform at some really nice venues including An Die Musik in Baltimore, MD on July 1, The Cutting Room on July 23 in NYC, and back in Carnegie Hall for the third time on Nov. 18.

For more musicians like Charu Suri taking Indian sounds to the world stage, check out Kiran Ahluwalia’s music breaks boundaries