Saturday, August 02, 2014

A Taste of Kerala

Noted Cuban violinist Santiago Jimenez plays with the Indo-Swedish band, Mynta. But he took a year's sabbatical to teach in a music school at Kochi 

Photo by Melton Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2005, violinist Santiago Jimenez of Cuba came to India for the first time. From the airport, he went directly to the late Alla Rakha's house in Mumbai and met the legendary tabla player's illustrious sons, Zakir Hussain and Faisal Qureshi. “They hugged and welcomed me with an open heart,” he says. “I will never forget that. I immediately felt that I had met the right people.”

The next day, Santiago reached musical nirvana. At an auditorium in Mumbai, he met his teenage idol, the British guitarist John McLaughlin, who is regarded as one of the all-time greats. “We jammed together on stage,” says Santiago. “It was an unforgettable experience. A dream come true.”

Santiago's turning point occurred when he joined the Indo-Swedish band, 'Mynta', in 1987, which was led by Swedish bass player Christian Paulin. Together, the band travelled all over the world, and played more than 400 concerts.

That has given me a lot of exposure,” he says. “I met many good musicians and had a good interaction with them.”

Later, 'Mynta' released eight CDs and appeared on TV and on radio numerous times. “The music of Mynta is a mix of Indian classical, African, Latin-American rhythms, Arabic sounds and Scandinavian folk music,” says Santiago.

Asked about the impact of Indian music on his work, Santiago says, “When I heard the ragas, for the first time, it was a deeply spiritual experience. I have enjoyed listening to Indian music on the radio but I especially loved the songs of Mohammed Rafi. Whatever improvisation I have done is mostly because I have been inspired by Indian music.”

Music came easily to Santiago. His grandfather, Agustin Jimenez Crespo, is regarded as one of Cuba's great music composers. His father, Manuel Jimenez, is a percussionist, while his mother Teresa Borges, played the contrabass. Santiago received training at the Escuela Nacional Del Arte at Havana. All his three brothers are musicians.

But he is frank about life in Cuba. “The people are happy, but there is no creativity because of a lack of freedom,” says Santiago. “You cannot speak against Fidel [former President Castro].”

In 1991, on an invitation from Swedish musicians, he went to Stockholm and remained there. A few years later, he fell in love with the Swedish singer-flautist Jessica Hugoson. They have two children, Julius, 8, and Otto, 4.

When Jessica came to Kochi, in July, 2013, to spend a year teaching at the Amadeus Academy of Music and Fine Arts, Santiago took a sabbatical and followed her, and became a teacher himself.

Today, he has a good idea of the Indian education system. “It is too structured,” he says. “There is too much of focus on doing lessons in textbooks. You should have a free spirit.  You should not learn an instrument because it is a lesson. You should learn it because it brings you happiness.”

Santiage feels that the Indian students, by nature, are very obedient. “Some of the students should be allowed to go free,” he says. “They should not follow the teacher all the time.They are well behaved students. But they lack the creative edge. The teaching is too strict and that is a mistake, I feel.”

Despite this, he loves Kerala. “The climate, people and the small houses, they are all similar to Cuba,” he says. “The people are not afraid to show their spiritual side. In Kerala, like in Cuba, people look you in the eye when they speak.” But what was startling was his liking for old Malayalam songs. “I heard them when the movies were telecast,” says Santiago, with a smile. “You can get inspiration from anywhere.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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