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New Groove

Published: 2001/09/19
by John Sadowski

Garaj Mahal

The rise of the jamband' culture has created a diverse array of musical creations. In essence it has run the full gamut of the musical spectrum and gathered it all together in a giant sonic blender to be created batch-by-batch, moment-by-moment. Each band touring today showcases its own perspective on a variety of musical traditions, from rock and jazz, reggae and calypso, to the blues and bluegrass, and from coast to coast new configurations of musicians have come together to try and create something new out of that giant grab bag of tricks.

One of those bands is Garaj Mahal, a simple dichotomy of a band. On the one hand GARAJ: scrappy, rough-necked and edgy. On the other, MAHAL: soft, complex and somewhat mysterious. It is in essence a balance, sitting somewhere just between the concrete jungles of the urbanized areas, slopping with soul and gritty, raw emotion, and the everlasting great plain of nature, a soft and sloping contemplative air of the infinite, sweeping out over the mountains and oceans until dissipating into the wind. It is comprised of Fareed Haque (guitar), Eric Levy (keyboards), Alan Hertz (bass), and Kai Eckhardt (bass), a unit that between them have worked with such notable musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Sting, Bela Fleck, Al Dimeola, Steve Kimock, and Henry Kaiser. Drawing from a diverse array of musical traditions Garaj Mahal has set out to create something new while at the same time retaining its roots.


I had a chance to catch up with Fareed Haque, a world-renowned guitarist of Blue Note recording fame, Professor of jazz and classical guitar studies at the University of Northern Illinois, and now full-time member of Garaj Mahal, to discuss the band, its roots and the constantly revolving role of teacher and student. The band is about to perform its first east coast dates- for more information so be sure to visit

JS: Tell me a bit about how Garaj Mahal came together.

Fareed Haque: Well Garaj Mahal came together basically through the efforts of Alan [Hertz] and his good friend Christian Weyers who now is the manager of Garaj Mahal, and basically is the founder. Christian used to work at a management firm that handled me. So he knew what I was doing pretty much off in the jazz world, going to Europe a lot and in that universe. And he was like well here’s this guy who does all this stuff and isn’t really plugged into this west coast scene and Alan was looking to do some interesting things. So Christian hooked the two of us up and the first time we played together was in Studio E, I believe, and we had some nice gigs. Alan and I really kind of dug playing together and then we started thinking more and more about different configurations and different personalities. Kai [Eckhardt] is a songwriter and a virtuoso bassist but he’s also got a certain persona and political consciousness and just you know, has a whole worlds music kind of vibe. And then Eric [Levy] is a little bit of street [laughs]. Chicago, that street, you know….

JS: A Chicago boy.

FH: Exactly. In a certain respect Kai and I are the Mahal, and Eric and Alan are the Garaj [laughs]. So it’s been a real easy musical development but schedules and rehearsals have been tough. There are a lot of different energies so we’re always bickering and arguing and cuddling and laughing and all that stuff a family goes through.

JS: So I know you’re based in Chicago is Eric also based in Chicago?

FH: Yeah.

JS: And Kai, where’s he, San Francisco?

FH: Oakland. So that makes it hard for rehearsing [laughs].

JS: So given your relative outside perspective from this whole "west coast scene’ as you describe it, how has that been a change for you?

FH: It’s been real interesting. I still do some tours of Europe on a fairly regularly basis. But as Garaj gets more and more work, we’re trying to figure how to juggle all this. I think the jamband scene is no longer just a west coast phenomenon, that’s for sure. And I’m not sure it was ever exclusively that, but I think there’s a lot of energies focused in San Francisco.

JS: The people in New York would beg to differ. Loudly [laugh]...

FH: Well good for them [laugh]. I’ve done a fair amount of playing in New York without running into the jamband scene but I don’t think you can even exist on the west coast without running into it. But that’s neither here nor there, I think ultimately that regardless of whether its New York or Denver or Atlanta or Chicago or Madison, its really healthy for the music.

The psuedo-intellectuals try to convince us that music isn’t for dancing. They try to say that "well there is music for dancing of course, but serious music isn’t for dancing," and that’s bullshit. I mean if you look at the history of jazz, it’s always been dance music. I was working with Ramsey Lewis on his new record, and he and I were talking, and he would say that when he was playing with his straight-ahead be-bops groups in Chicago clubs in the 40’s and 50’s there was always a crowd of 10, 15, 20 people in the front listening to the music and being all serious and smoking their pipes and looking cross-eyed at the music, that’s like our tapers today. You know, being all serious and listening to the music, and really having a very wonderful deep musical experience. But the majority of the crowds then and now were dancing their butts off.

When Bird was playing, people were grooving’ to it. And I think that to try to deny that is to deny the essence of the African-American experience in a way. There’s something mildly racist about denying that jazz essentially in all its seriousness and all its integrity, is a celebratory, dancing grooving music. Just like the music from Africa, or the tribal traditions from all over the world. You know white and black and yellow and brown. So I think to bring serious music and dance together, is something that’s been going on for thousands of years and it inevitably going to come up again. You can’t keep that human spirit down.

JS: As you say that jazz is a dancing music, would you say that Garaj Mahal is a jazz band?

FH: Yeah, pretty much, in the context of today it’s a jazz band. I don’t get too caught up in that label of jazz. The music is sophisticated, it’s improvisational and it draws on the tradition of jazz, and in that regard it s a jazz band. As much as anything today is a jazz band. I mean it’s not a Charlie Parker group, but I mean John Coltrane wasn’t playing traditional straight-ahead jazz. Ornette Coleman wasn’t playing traditional jazz, by Bird standards, Miles wasn’t playing traditional straight-ahead jazz. Even before he went into the more electric period. So I think its absurd to limit or expand that label beyond what’s necessary.

JS: So when Garaj Mahal came together what was the driving idea, or the goal you guys had in mind?

FH: GARAJ, [pause] and MAHAL. [laugh] That was really it.

JS: Just the dichotomy?

FH: Well I think that all of us in the group, we love grungy dirty raw kind of messy cool music, and we like the more meditative spiritual side. But sometimes the meditative thing gets confused for slick and polished and in some respects insincere. Sometimes the Garaj, and the dirty gets confused for the stupid and angry and ignorant. And I don’t think they have to be.

You know truth is really beautiful. And truth is usually neither perfect nor so polished that it is a fake, it’s not so gritty that it’s ugly. Truth is kind of unadorned, it is what it is. And I think that in a way that the essence of all of us is trying to get to something that’s substantial, to something beautiful. And something beautiful doesn’t have to be polished to the point where it’s shiny. And you don’t have to start thinking that the world is all turds too [laugh]. There is something beautiful about some things that are unadorned and are raw, and in a way we try to keep the music raw enough that it’s honest, but not so raw that its ugly. And sophisticated enough to be honest and true to our selves, but not so sophisticated that it’s dishonest…

JS: Or highbrow in a way….

FH: Or highbrow…you know complexity is not highbrow at all. One of the funniest things is going to a convention of the greatest scientists. I mean I remember playing for a reception of scientists for Motorola who were like the cutting edge in communications and computer technology at the time. There were plates and plates full of all these fine hors d’oeuvres and things, and they were all eating fried chicken. [big laugh] You know? So having this whole intellectual development and serious part to your nature doesn’t mean that you’re everything refined. And vise versa you know?

JS: For you, coming from that more traditional jazz route, traveling Europe and being in the academic circles you’re in, what’s the true challenge of being in a rock band?

FH: Well it’s not really that tough for me. It’s not hard to be in a rock band, it’s hard to be in a rock band and then pretend that I’m not, you know when I’m here at university. See most of my students and the people I deal with, they’re down with it. I can walk in here with my hair dyed blond and its cool, its fine.

JS: So do most of your contemporaries there know that you’re in Garaj Mahal and playing out?

FH: Yeah, yeah. However some of the more conservative faculty, or traditional type faculty I should say, not conservative, they have no idea that this world even exists. And I think they would probably find it like, "Huh? I don’t get it." So that’s harder for me, to try and explain what this is in a way that they might understand it. And unless you’ve seen it and been out there and seen a bunch of people really listening and having a good time, it’s hard for them to really understand it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked "What’s Garaj Mahal’s audience like?" "Well it’s really great, they’re out there grooving." "Oh, so they’re not really listening?" "No they are really listening. In fact they’re listening way better than most audiences that are just out there sitting on their fat asses, but they’re also grooving." Oh, so they’re real serious about the music and they don’t really enjoy it." "No [laughs], they do both." And it’s not contradictory. But to some people it’s very hard to imagine that reality existing.

JS: So lets talk about the music a bit. How does the writing process happen among you guys?

FH: Well it’s still in its kind of in its infantile stages. Kai writes, I write, Alan writes, Eric writes, we all write, and we all just bring tunes in and then kind of throw down together and see what happens.

JS: So it’s been more of a collaborative, kind of stew-pot of things, each of you writing?

FH: Yeah, I think we all have more or less a shared idea of what Garaj Majal means. You know that it has kind of an Asian, tribal element to it, but it also has a raw rock element to it. And we’re all pretty cool with that, and so we all bring our take of that vision into the band. We have written a few things collectively, we have written a lot of jams, you know we improvise a lot on stage, and a handful of those have become tunes. So there’s definitely been some kind of unconscious composing together, but we haven’t actually had any time to sit down and compose together in a room with no pressure, no gigs that same night or anything…

JS: So what’s most exciting thing for you about playing in Garaj Mahal?

FH: Getting to do it all. Getting to do almost anything that I would want to do all in the same gig. I could play a classical thing, I could play some sitar, I could play something bluesy, I could go nuts, I could play something really beautiful. And it’s all acceptable within the context of the scene. There is nothing that is not ok. And I think that’s really great.

I mean if I were to play a classical guitar concert and then pull out my electric guitar and play something with distortion most people would get up and leave, you know? And if I were in a serious blues band and that played nothing but the blues, and then I pick up my classical guitar and play some Spanish music people would start leaving for the most part. Cause they’re really into that one vibe, and the nice thing about this whole scene is that there’s such an intelligent musical awareness. I mean everybody really knows a lot of music and there isn’t that kind of prejudice.

JS: So you’re a teacher as well. Out of curiosity how does this affect your teaching, the role of teacher-student? A lot of musicians have said that when they’re standing on stage playing that’s when they learn the most from everybody else. How is that for you as you walk back into a classroom setting after playing three nights in San Francisco or wherever?

FH: Well it’s interesting. You might also ask Eric that because you know he was my student for four years, and we have a really interesting relationship, a pretty great one actually I think. We’ve had some pretty mystical experiences together in music, which is pretty unusual for any musician to have, let alone musicians who have kind of that father-son relationship thrust upon them. We don’t consider ourselves that way but I’m saying that’s the nature of that kind of relationship, teacher-student. And so you have to kind of rise above all that, all the clich and all the traps that people can fall into.

I’m not a particularly orthodox teacher. I’m not a particularly dogmatic teacher, so it’s not that hard for me. Again its not hard for me to go play a bunch of jam sessions and meet a bunch of musicians, who may or may not be schooled. I don’t place that much value on formal education. I place a lot of value on education, but I don’t care whether it’s done formally or informally. I learned about classical music because I loved it, not because I was supposed to take it in school. And I learned about funk because I loved it and not because I was supposed to learn about it in the street. You know? It really wasn’t about either of those things.

The hardest thing is to be able to say to people that this is how you perceive the world and excuse me but I’ve been out there, and that’s not how it is out there anymore, or maybe that’s never how it was. And the academic environment tends to be pretty isolated from the real world in a lot of fundamental ways that the people within it would deny up and down because they really don’t have any awareness of it. If you think that the world is flat and no one can take you outside the world in a spaceship and show you that the world is not flat, its impossible to convince them that the world isn’t flat. Unless you experience it doesn’t happen.

That’s the case here. Its actually harder for me to come here not to teach the students but dealing with the other faculty. To say well that’s all nice and good but this is what they need to know to make it now.

A really simple concrete example is the idea that a great musician is someone who can read music, and who knows a lot about music, and has all this information about music. And that someone who can make you dance but may be completely be ignorant of the formal structures of music is not a great musician. That kind of an academic viewpoint does not give the same value to rhythm and to groove. And groove is not the same as rhythm; groove is like a social thing, a tribal thing. How can one person playing a drum or a guitar bring an entire tribe of people together in a spirited way, and it’s a very different experience that is completely unquantifiable by academic standards. I mean, how do you grade somebody’s ability to bring the Holy Ghost into a room with a drum? [laugh] And you can’t deny that when you go to a gospel church, or a tribal meeting in almost any tribal or Indian village, you can’t deny that that’s a real thing.

JS: Do you think that’s why you like the jamband scene?

FH: That's exactly why I like the jamband scene. All the pieces of the puzzle are coming down in the right order: groove first, all that other shit later.

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