MUSIC | The indescribable Samosa, masters of Indian fusion


Ever since I first heard John McLaughlin—back when Lassie was a pup—fusion has mystified me. It takes incredible discipline to learn to play that well, yet cats who can do it sound like they wouldn’t know discipline if they fell over it. The purest of artists understand the rules so well, they’re able to break them over one knee. That’s the caliber we’re talking about when you bring up Samosa—who are so monstrous, their press release quite plausibly boasts, “Because of our unique sound, we have been virtually indescribable by even connoisseurs of fusion music.” No brag, just fact. These guys can blow.

“Much of our ability to impress at every show,” they continue, “has come from our use of complex rhythmic systems combined with dangerous arrangements.” If anything, that’s an understatement. Don’t take my word for it: listen to their recently relased album Samosa and hear for yourself. The trio are Neil Wadhawan (traps, tabla), Tony Varghese (acoustic bass), and Mashuk Rahman (guitar).

Dwight Hobbes: With names like those, you guys will never be mistaken for an Irish folk group. You fellas all Indian?
Neil Wadhawan: Yes, basically we are all Indian. My parents are both from there, Tony was born in South India though he grew up Kuwait, and Mashuk is from Bangladesh—which was once a part of India. Bangladesh has pretty much the same culture, though they are all Muslim.

How’d the October CD release gig at 331 Club go?
[It] was great. We had a great turnout and sold a decent amount of CD’s.

Is this your first CD?
Besides live shows, we did record in a studio almost two years ago—but we had just formed and we decided not to release anything from that session.

How did the trio decide to get together?
I play in another group with Mashuk called Jantri. I wanted to do a trio thing and I work really well with Mashuk, so I decided to ask him. We wanted to include someone who was familiar with Indian music like us but yet was rooted in Western traditions. We had also made up our minds that we wanted an upright acoustic bass player, not an electric player, no matter what. We were serious about making sure we found the perfect person, and Tony Varghese is such a perfect fit.

The press release says Mashuk has spent most of this career playing metal, yet remaining rooted in Bangladesh’s folk music. How has he managed to pull that off?
Mashuk loved 70’s metal like nothing else. When he was growing up in Bangladesh he and his musician friends were very interested in playing only metal. However he was inevitably influenced by the sounds around him. The sounds around him are what kept him grounded in the Indian/Bangladeshi sound. You can never escape who you really are.

Why fusion? Actually Samosa’s music’s even wilder than that, but, for lack of a pigeonhole category let’s loosely call it that.
When talking about Samosa the hardest thing to do is to describe the music. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it really is difficult. We ask many of our fans to describe it and the best we could come up with from suggestions was progressive jazz/rock fusion with an Indian flavor. To us, fusion is just fusing different genres whatever they may be, and, as you said, for lack of a pigeonhole category, we don’t know what else to call it.

Wanna say a little something about your drumming style?
When looking at other drumming traditions—mainly tabla—one can see how the sound has developed. Traditionally and pedagogically, the drum set has basically been dumbed down in many ways [with] the idea of just staying in the pocket, only being a rhythm instrument, only keeping time. These so-called rules are completely arbitrarily made up, mostly by producers and rigid drummers. There is so much that can be done with the drum set. I feel like most drum-set players aren’t utilizing its full capability and all of the wonderful colors that exist within the drum set. Also, there are certain ideas in rhythmic theory such as metric modulation—as articulated in the West—polyrhythms, rhythmic illusions, etc., that are hardly developed. Why? Probably because of popular music. With that said, there are many wonderful drum set players who are exploring the [instrument] in many different ways that I find inspiring. I just hope that as the instrument develops, so will its repertoire. The tabla has such a repertoire that it would take more than a lifetime to play its many fixed compositions. The drum set doesn’t really have much of a solo repertoire. This is one thing that I have personally taken much interest in, and I hope other drummers will [as well].

In the release, it says “the Sarangi is a very rare instrument few in the entire country
can play.” Which country? Since it’s so hard to play, what are you, some daredevil who loves a challenge? A musician who loves the instrument? Both?

Outside of India it is hard to find anyone in any country who can handle it. I was referring to the U.S., but it really goes for most countries. We aren’t daredevils, just lucky guys. Peter Altenberg was gracious enough to lend his amazing ability. He has been taught by one of the greats, Ustad Sultan Khan. I really wanted to dedicate a track to a drum solo but I wanted to have a melodic loop playing with me as is done with tabla solos. Its very helpful to the listener to have a reference for where one is in the time or metrical cycle. Peter played the melodic loop for me after his brief but beautiful introduction. Though it may seem simple it is a very daunting task to be able to play one melody with good time, especially when there are moments that it becomes very hard to find where the beat is. We all love the instrument! Tony is actually trying to learn it. The Sarangi produces one of the sweetest sounds available in the world and we were and are so lucky to have had Peter play on our album. He made that solo happen.

What’s next for Samosa?
We will continue to play out and promote our CD.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.