Mother Tongue: Do You Speak Indian?

Most of the music on Mother Tongue is from a suite entitled Mother Tongue: Do You Speak Indian?

There is a ubiquitous view that India is a country with one language and one culture regardless of the fact that this vast nation encompasses a diverse population that can be culturally delineated by religion, language, music, food, etc. At best, some know of there being a cultural/linguistic separation between North and South India. In response to having been repeatedly asked “Do You Speak Indian?” or “Do You Speak Hindu?” throughout my life as a son of immigrants, my goal was to somehow musically convey the fact there is no single Indian language. I did this by creating compositions that are directly based on melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding to such questions in their native Indian tongues. As you can see, most of the titles are simply named for a particular language.

I was not interested in transcribing the spoken voices and then having my quartet simply play along with the actual recordings of the speakers. While this is a fascinating idea, I didn't feel that "forcing" tonality upon the speech samples would satisfy my goals. Nor did I want to simply provide an accompaniment or musical backdrop to a recording of spoken words. These are areas that have been explored extensively in both jazz and contemporary classical music. I was more intrigued by using the melodic transcriptions as source material for composing. I will demonstrate how I went about this process by examining the piece Gujarati.

Here, you can listen to the actual recording of Kamal Bakri reply to the question "Do you speak Indian?".

The translation in English is approximately:

No, I do not speak Indian! There is no such language.
I speak Gujarati. This is the language that is spoken in the state of Gujarat in the North of India.
There are many different languages in India and Gujarati is only one of them.
Having lived in America for almost 20 years, I also speak English!

As one can see (or hear), transforming speech into music can prove very challenging both melodically and rhythmically. One word can span several pitches and several words can be interpreted in myriad ways with regard to rhythmic notation.

Raw transcription of Kamal's speech sample:

And here (mp3 stream) is what it sounds like:

Here is a more quantized ("rhythmically even") version with some help from a software application called Melodyne:

Sounds like this (mp3 stream).

With this in hand, I was able to actually score something for the quartet that made musical sense when combined with my compositional sensibilities including the use of several devices based in the traditions of Indian Classical music.

Here is the final composition (pdf) which it's accompanying mp3 from Mother Tongue:

This project is by no means finished as I only managed to include seven languages thus far. I hope to at least engage all of the Indian languages that are spoken in the US.

More to come!

–Rudresh Mahanthappa

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