George Howlett: Writing CV

 

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Current Writing

 

– At the moment I’m a freelance writer in London, focusing on jazz, global rhythm, Indian classical, and other improvised music. Recent articles have appeared in Jazzwise, JazzFM, The Wire, and Música Macondo, covering topics from jungle and techno to Indian rāga and classical minimalism. I got into writing as a natural outgrowth of discussing music with friends and students, and now it’s a dedicated, full-time obsession – see selected writings on my homepage.

 

– For most of 2019 I’ve been working with Darbar Arts & Heritage, who run one of the largest Indian music festivals outside the subcontinent. My first writing collection, Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st century Indian classical music, explores how music with ancient roots can continue to innovate and flourish in the modern world, and features interviews with leading artists and in-depth essays on the music’s context and inner workings. See the dedicated homepage here.

 

– In July 2019 I organised a collaborative research effort – Which Ragas was Coltrane Listening To? – analysing the spiritual jazz pioneer’s handwritten notes and sketches to reveal which particular Indian ragas captivated him so much. I’m linking up with some leading jazz and Indian artists to crack this truly fascinating musical puzzle – watch this space!

 

– I’m a regular MusicRadar contributor, writing online lesson articles on global topics such as Indian Melodic Ornamentation, Raga Basics for Jazz Guitarists, and Odd-Time Songwriting Grooves (next up: West African Rhythm Primer). Alongside this I give various workshops and demonstrations on topics related to improvisation and self-learning techniques.

 

Other Work

 

– At Darbar I completed over 100 online artist biographies, and edited a series of historical articles by the author, critic, and BBC broadcaster Jameela Siddiqi. Also handled various comms tasks, and added detailed descriptions to all 300+ videos on the Darbar YouTube channel to aid public engagement with Indian classical (examples here and here). Currently I’m writing Darbar’s Know Your Raga database, a much heavier theoretical project.

 

– In 2015 I wrote a lesson article, Shakti’s Remainder Bar Rhythms, breaking down how the pioneering Indo-jazz group uses a cyclical view of time to gain rhythmic freedom (John McLaughlin, guitarist for Shakti and Miles Davis, gave my analysis the stamp of approval). Other past work includes Musical Harmony: How and why do we dream it?, exploring some fundamentals of sound perception through quirks of our neurology.

 

Outside Writing

 

– I play guitar, tabla, and santoor in the London area, performing, teaching, and working with open-minded collaborators. I recently started releasing music as ‘Rāga Junglism’, loosely fusing jazz and jungle with Indian classical concepts (sample: No Kanjira, with Indo-jazz sax master Jesse Bannister). Full musical CV here.

 

– Beyond music I’m interested in systemic activism for a fairer world. I’ve worked with forward-thinking development charities such as GiveDirectly to raise philanthropic funds and promote ‘workplace activism’ – the idea that young professionals can push for radical change via their often ethically frustrating private sector jobs. A handbook on how we go about this will be released shortly (e-mail me for the draft).

 

– In 2017 I guest lectured at Harvard and UC Berkeley on the role of written discourse in activism, and was published in Prof. David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs – a radical anthropologist’s take on the rise of meaningless employment under late capitalism. Thank god I’ve escaped the grey mundanities of corporate life now.

 

• Get in touch! george@ragajunglism.org

• Musical CV here

 


 

 

George Howlett: Musical CV

 

[Formulaic promotional material – but let’s face it, nobody likes hanging around on LinkedIn so here it is instead]

 

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Current Projects

 

– Right now I play guitar, tabla, and santoor in the London area, performing and finding open-minded collaborators. I recently started releasing music as ‘Rāga Junglism’, loosely fusing jazz and jungle with Indian classical concepts (sample: No Kanjira, with Indo-jazz sax master Jesse Bannister).

 

– I teach on these instruments, and run private sessions and group workshops on raga, global rhythm, self-learning techniques, and the psychology of improvisation (get in touch if you’re interested!). I’m a regular MusicRadar contributor, writing online lesson articles on global topics such as Indian Melodic Ornamentation, Raga Basics for Jazz Guitarists, and Odd-Time Songwriting Grooves (next up: West African Rhythm Primer).

 

– Recently I launched a collaborative research effort – Which Ragas was John Coltrane Listening To? – analysing the spiritual jazz pioneer’s handwritten notes and sketches to reveal which particular Indian ragas captivated him so much. I’m linking up with some leading jazz and Indian artists to crack this truly fascinating musical puzzle – watch this space!

 

– I’ve been working with my friend Mark Claydon (former Peter Gabriel producer at Real World Studios) on developing his ‘groove engine’ – AI software which uses neural networks to generate curious new rhythms by ‘shattering’ the sounds you feed in. An absolutely engrossing improvisatory challenge, not sure where we’re heading yet…

 

Early Training, Past Experience, Etc

 

– First learned guitar from jazz master Guy Harrup in Bath at age 14. Received Grade 8 (for what it’s worth), awarded first place in the electric and acoustic guitar competitions at the 2010 Mid-Somerset Festival. Built up performance experience around the South West with a Stratocaster and a 12-string acoustic.

 

– Studied Hindustani classical music under Pandit Shivnath Mishra in Varanasi, living at his academy under the traditional gurukul system and completing introductory training in sitar, tabla drums, and Indian music theory. I now also play the santoor (‘hundred-stringed Himalayan box’), having self-taught it for the past few years.

 

– Various session projects, including recording guitar parts for a primetime BBC2 wildlife soundtrack (The Great British Year), playing tabla for an ambient house producer, and imitating Nick Drake’s style of acoustic fingerpicking for a folk album.

 

– Taught guitar students for over a decade now, spanning ages 6-60, and including schools, youth centres, and dozens of private students. Delivered some school workshops on Indian classical along the way, explaining core concepts with live instrument demonstrations.

 

– Wrote a theoretical article in 2015 – Shakti’s Remainder Bar Rhythms – investigating how the pioneering group’s cyclical view of time allows them to flow over odd time signatures. John McLaughlin, guitarist for Shakti and Miles Davis, praised my analysis (…and I discovered I wasn’t as immune to fanboyism as I thought).

 

Get in touch! george@ragajunglism.org

Writing CV here

 


Featured Compositions

 


 

 

What is it about drummers? Rock mythology vs. tales of the tabla

 

[Article preview] Why do disparate societies seem to build such similar stereotypes around their percussionists?

 

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UC Davis Professor and blues-rock drummer Brad Henderson describes the psychology of his craft in frank terms. “Establishing the beat is a drug for drummers. And just like any other addict there is a restless, irritable discontent until they find their drug. If I could just sit around and play drums all the time I would, because the rest of life just doesn’t feel as good to me. And I think that’s true of most drummers. So when they get out in reality and try to deal with people they fumble”.

 

Stereotypes about percussionists abound – they are intense, excitable, and locked in their own worlds, radiating a nervous energy which can only be dissipated by tapping on whatever surface they can lay their hands on. They seem to be in constant communication with something unseen, and can only focus on the present when immersed in the beat. They escape boredom by harnessing a primal force, and prefer the grooves of their inner world to the mundanities of everyday life.

 

But to us percussionists, living this way is the most natural thing in the world. Who would choose to go without such immediacy and childish playfulness? What is a rhythm other than just a pattern observed through time? What could be more fundamental than that? All conscious beings search for structure in the sounds around them, and we can’t predict the future without a feeling for regularity. An infant can tap in rhythm long before they can sing in key – perhaps compulsive drummers are just keeping the habit up.

 

These stereotypes are not confined to the West. The history of North Indian tabla is also full of colourful characters, and heroes who perform extraordinary feats of virtuosity in chaotic circumstances. They totally dedicate themselves to the tala cycles, drawing on supernatural powers to aid in their quest. Blues and rock have a penchant for self-mythologising, but how often do their tales involve rival kings, battle scenes, or dramatic divine interventions?

 

All societies romanticise their extreme and creative characters, and revel in lurid anecdotes. This article features plenty of them, but we do ourselves a disservice if we stop there. We want to understand how our drummers actually relate to the world, and why the East and West seem to build similar mythologies around them. Do they genuinely share particular psychological traits? Or does society always find comfort in painting the percussionist as a certain kind of outsider? What, if anything, is really up with drummers?

 

[Full article coming soon]

 


 

Light Shadow Boom Boom (album review)

 

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Queen Bonobo’s engaging debut, Light Shadow Boom Boom, unites a broad array of textures into a coherent whole. Backed by a talented young group of Northern Irish jazz musicians, her ten tracks draw together the acousticism of jazz and directness of singer-songwriting with an expansive range of other sounds.

 

This eclecticism is no surprise – born in an Idaho forest, she has spent a lifetime on the move, pursuing spontaneous collaboration with musicians from all corners. The album showcases less idyllic themes too, with lyrics covering depression in the family and the difficulties of radical self-acceptance in changing circumstances. But the restorative power of music making is always at the core. In her words: “the title stands for the heavens above (light), the earth below (dark), and the pulse of life throughout it all”.

 

The Lord Does What He Wants, opening the album, places folksy melodising over joyous chord-strums, but the upbeat feel of the instruments is tinged with escapism too (“I’m plain dysfunctional…break me so I know nothing’s permanent”). Light Me Up moves from sultry jazz to cracking, imploring screams, and Shadow explores other shades of contrast, with light brushes of sax giving way to lilting solos. I hope future efforts could make even more space for these jazzy tradeoffs.

 

Honey’s brief stopover in 7/4 is balanced by the simple, earthy percussion of Boom Boom, reminiscent of Ibeyi’s back-to-nature approach. Inspired by the Appalachian Mountains, its signature line may serve as the album’s best summary: “My energy’s infectious, connected with the earth”.

 

Spin Me is unquestionably the album’s most intriguing track. Half-sketched melodies are pulled apart by a dream-swirl of languid synths, the music somehow seeming to rotate around itself without having a clear centrepoint. Perhaps this is what Boards of Canada would sound like if they tried to write catchy choruses?

 

The natural sincerity of Queen Bonobo’s voice superbly ties together the variety, elastically summoning energy and introspection in a fine balance. The album is a clear product of its situation – a collection of promising young musicians trying a range of styles on for size (I’ve seen some of the same group running soupy Bitches Brew-style riffs above a pub before turning off the amplifiers to cover tasteful acoustic ballads). This is an intriguing debut that bodes well for the future of all the artists at its core.

 

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Get Light Shadow Boom Boom on Bandcamp!

 


Musicians:

 

-Maya Goldblum – lyrics, vocals, guitar, & production

-Daryl Coyle – production, drums, synth, backing vocals

-Jack Kelly – double bass and production

-Neil Burns – piano & keys

-Joseph Leighton – guitar

-Mateusz Jerzy Chmielewski – guitar

-Ciaran Wilde – saxophone

-James Anderson – percussion

-Jack Kelly, James Anderson, Joleen McLaughlin, Maryann McDonnell, Anna Nolan, Oisín Ó Scolaí, Feargus Murphy, Neil Burns – percussion on Vintage Gouda

 

-Niall Doran – engineering

-Ben McAuley – mixing

-Stephen Quinn – mastering

-Bryce Pedersen – album cover design

-Audrey Gillespie – album cover photo

 


 

Bullshit Jobs: using rhythm games to escape office boredom

 

Quick description of how I used Indian rhythm games to help keep my mind alive through the grey mundanities of my former life as an office worker. Written for and under a pseudonym in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, radical anthropologist David Graeber’s insightfully provocative 2018 book on the rise of meaningless employment under late capitalism.

 

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Full submission to follow some time soon.

“Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals” – Akram Khan interview

 

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The trailblazing choreographer returns to his roots, curating Darbar Festival’s Indian classical dance programme at Sadler’s Wells later this month. He discusses this off-stage role with Darbar’s George Howlett, along with how classicism can be experimental, and why reconnecting with nature must be physical.

 


 

As a teenager, Akram Khan toured the world as part of Peter Brook’s eight-hour production of the Mahabharata. Each evening he would immerse into the ancient Indian epic, exploring themes of love, family, and war alongside sweeping visions of the cosmos. The work depicts the struggles of two noble families who vie for the throne of Hastinapura. They disagree about the proper line of succession, and their intergenerational feuding shrouds the world in darkness.

 

Khan sees the opposite phenomenon at work in today’s Indian classical dance world. For him, classical forms shine brightest when examining their own boundaries, and pushing the margins of what is considered ‘proper’. He knows that classical arts must experiment to survive, but acknowledges that innovating with traditional ideas is a fine balancing act. Modern experiments can miss the deep knowledge of the past, but ancient forms that stay too ancient are consigned to the history books.

 

Khan has always lived at the confluence of these tensions – classically trained, but not a classicist. This year he is curating Darbar Festival’s dance programme, inviting some of his favourite artists for a three-day takeover of Sadler’s Wells (23-25 Nov). How does he choose what to represent?

 

“I believe the artist liberates the form. Great artists are storytellers, and you have to trust them to bring their own subjects to life. So for me choosing artists is more important than styles. They both have to combine to communicate something universal. For Darbar I’ve chosen classical artists from kathak, bharatnatyam, and odissi, which happen to be three of the best-known forms.”

 

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Khan’s own roots are in kathak, and his choreography has never become unmoored from the style’s core characteristics – fluid spins, intricate hand gestures, and periods of calm punctuated by bursts of densely mathematical footwork. He has entrusted Sangeet Natak award winner Gauri Diwakar with representing it at Darbar. She will perform Hari Ho…Gati Meri (“Let my salvation be in the supreme”), a modern four-part solo work tailor-made for her by Aditi Mangaldas.

 

Elsewhere in the programme, bharatanatyam explorers Renjith Babu and Neha Mondal Chakravarty will use subtle eye movements and striking limb geometry to evoke different incarnations of Shiva and Kali. Their unusual jugalbandi duet draws on yoga and ancient martial arts, balancing creation and destruction over Carnatic vocals and a live orchestral score. Mavin Khoo, its choreographer, will also be leading a bharatanatyam improvisation workshop, open to observers and participants.

 

Odissi dance can trace its roots back over two millennia, to carvings in the Manchapuri caves and descriptions in Sanskrit aesthetic treatises. It was suppressed to near-extinction under British rule but has since enjoyed a resurgence, adding theatrical elements to a core of sinuous postures and energetic jumps. Award-winning modern exponent Sujata Mohapatra will walk a rhythmic line between dance and drama at Darbar, dissolving character into shape with sensuous poise.

 

Khan has always been inclined towards fusion, mixing traditional Indian vocabulary with moves from Thriller on the carpets of his father’s restaurant as a child (“how I’d prance around…”). His programme reflects this, turning to artists from the experimental sides of classicism. But he recognises that they approach things differently:

 

“To me there are two ways of creating – you can push the walls of a room from within, or pull from the outside. I’ve always been on the outside, drawing from all styles that catch my eye. The artists I’ve selected are classicists, pushing from the inside of their rooms. Classicism isn’t about stasis – it’s about adherence to particular boundaries, and creating using ideas within them. They all show that traditional forms can evolve without losing their core.”

 

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India has played host to deep cultural interchange for centuries, and its classical arts have always been in flux. They blend colour from multiple waves of history – Vedic metaphysics, Hindu rituals, Islamic colonial patronage, and English terminology. Khan is drawn to the places where these roots intertwine, pointing out that Mangaldas’ kathak piece is based on Muslim devotional poetry to Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity.

 

Indian classical dance is a global phenomenon now too, with plenty of innovation occurring outside the subcontinent. Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu, but Khoo is a Malaysian who trained in Britain and the USA as well as India. Others look elsewhere in the world, with Kiran Rajagopalan fusing Indian and West African ideas in New York last month.

 

Khan is himself a product of India’s vast artistic diaspora, born in Wimbledon to a Bangladeshi family. He frequently looks back East, collaborating with artists of South Asian heritage including Nitin Sawhney, Anish Kapoor, and Hanif Kureishi, but is adamant that he never chooses them on this basis: “It’s about whether their work has universal appeal. This has to come from the human story itself – one of imperfections and pain as well as beauty and joy. You should feel like you’re all learning together rather than being taught.”

 

So do Indian classical arts have a particular power to entrance the uninitiated? “I feel there’s something universal about narratives from ancient Indian history – the grand themes, the shared myths, the flawed deities. Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals. And empathy is extraordinarily important – facial expressions and subtle body language communicate so much. I feel we’re drifting away from empathy in today’s world, and dance invites us to return to it.”

 

Kathak derives from physical storytelling, and the expressive techniques of the bards are still visible today. Khan sees that dance must embody complex characters and identities if it is to inspire broader social reimagination: “It can erase walls and boundaries within us. This may be momentary, but serves as a reminder that the walls are man-made, mainly coming from a place of fear.”

 

Kathak devotees describe how middle-aged male dancers can suddenly morph into beautiful young women using only the subtlest of movements. This is no mean feat, especially while synchronising their footsteps and leaps to intricate tabla rhythms. Indian forms bring high demands, and training often starts early. “Classical dancers have to sacrifice themselves in a way – the physicality and precision are immense. There’s a certain discipline and rigour you can’t teach.”

 

Khan knows these feelings of obsession from the inside. After returning from the global Mahabharata tour he skipped school to dance, waving goodbye to his parents each morning before changing out of his uniform and practicing all day in the garage. He got away with it for a year, only being discovered when they turned up to bemused teachers at a school parents evening. “They realised how serious I was about dancing then. I practiced eight hours a day for long periods, but it never felt like a sacrifice – it was a need.”

 

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Newcomers to Indian classical arts often enter expecting a reverent atmosphere, and leave surprised at the sheer playfulness of the performance. Hindustani musicians will twist and stretch each other’s phrases, and kathak exponents are masters of mime, transforming into peacocks, demons, and many-faced gods at a moment’s notice. There is something refreshing and childish going on, as if witnessing a return to our most basic human impulses.

 

Choreographers combine the playful and cerebral, contrasting these mime-like expressional movements (abhinaya) with those embodying ‘pure form’ (nritta). A dancer may impersonate a flock of birds, then use rapid-fire footwork to tease new tensions from a 14-beat rhythm.

 

Khan credits Indian classical music with first opening his eyes to mathematics, and is drawn to kathak’s interlocking numerical patterns (perhaps a logical inclination is in his genes: his grandfather was a prominent Bengali mathematician). But he doesn’t see it as an abstract mode of engagement: “I had a natural impulse to search for sequences in the world around me, and ‘take things apart’ as I learned them”.

 

He feels that modern technology confuses our perceptual apparatus: “We live in a high-speed world, full of unfamiliar patterns of movement which blend representational elements with those of pure form. But modern life also pulls us towards logicalising everything, so we struggle with these ambiguities more than we should. Dance is such an ambiguous form of communication, and we misunderstand it if we forget this. We must be fascinated by ambiguity – art is always about what cannot be quantified.”

 

He explains how classical dance can directly address the messiness of the world around us, with all styles originating as much from everyday folk rituals as abstract Sanskrit philosophy. Dancers can summon the monsoon or harvest, and depict rivers, galloping horses, or vines swaying in the wind. He laments modern society’s disconnect with nature:

 

“Our relationship to the natural world is primarily a physical one. Humans have a need to explore and respond to the environment they’re in, but today’s world is so virtual and disembodied. The supermarket is the closest some people get to nature. Dance should be about celebrating the importance of our bodies, and reminding us that we can’t reconnect with our environment without them.”

 

I mention that six of the festival’s eight main dancers and choreographers are female. He recognises the rarity of this on the British dance scene: “Men have been dominant over civilisation. The injustice is still frightening, and unequal power dynamics can bring up the very worst aspects of humanity. People are in denial, and the arts world is no exception. We need more balance at all levels.”

 

Khan begins to tell me more about the Mahabharata, but then profusely apologises for having to run off to another appointment. There is plenty more to discuss – he will be giving a talk at Darbar on innovation and his classical roots. He may be retiring from full-length solo performance in 2019, but still leads the Akram Khan Company, and shows no appetite to retreat from the dance world. Some of his final remarks are revealing: “I always wanted to dedicate all I had to my art. I’ve talked about this with classical dancers – we feel that it can never really leave you.”

 

  • Darbar Arts & Heritage believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. To find out more, sign up for the Darbar newsletter or explore their YouTube channel.

 


George Howlett | www.ragajunglism.org