Corky Siegel and Kalyan Pathak: Blues, Classical, and Indian Music, From Chicago to Cobden
Corky Siegel, the Chamber Blues harmonica player, pianist, and composer, will present a weekend of music with internationally renowned percussionist Kalyan Pathak Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11 at the Yellow Moon Café in Cobden. Tickets are on sale now during regular café hours for $35, cash only. Dinner reservations are required for seating.
Siegel was welcomed into the Chicago blues scene as an innovator in the 1960s when he cofounded the Siegel-Schwall Band, and has been at it ever since. He began heading in refreshing new directions by developing a hybrid musical form that features classical instruments, blues, and world music. He has won the Lila Wallace National Award for chamber-music composition and has been inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. Among his recordings with the Chamber Blues ensemble are Complementary Colours (Gadfly Records, 1998) and Corky Siegel’s Traveling Chamber Blues Show! (Alligator Records, 2005).
Indian tabla player and percussionist Kalyan Pathak was musically active in his homeland and eventually settled in the United States after receiving a scholarship from Roosevelt University in the 1990s. One of his recent works is a 2016 album with Elizabeth Basta and Jazz Mata called Dream With the Dreamers, a world/Indian/classical/jazz recording dedicated to the power of love as expressed through Indian poetry.
Nightlife had a chat with Corky and Kalyan to explore the history and ideas behind their music. Here is an edited transcript.
You began playing chamber blues in 1960s Chicago. What inspired you to combine classical instruments like violin and cello with blues piano and harmonica? How was the public response to your efforts at the time?
Corky: The idea of bringing blues to classical was presented to me in 1966 by Maestro Seiji Ozawa, who asked if my band, Siegel-Schwall, would jam with his band, the Chicago Symphony. The performance took place at Ravina with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1968.
Seiji insisted that I pursue the juxtaposition of blues and classical. We performed at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony and also with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, and received invitation from major orchestras around the world.
The five concerts at Lincoln Center in 1969 really stood out. When us hippies walked on stage with harmonicas, guitars, blue jeans, and long hair, the audience broke into a cacophony of boos and hisses. Seiji asked me, “What should we do?” He knew the answer, he was just asking me for the answer. I said, “Seiji, let’s have fun and play the music.”
At the end of the concert, the audience broke out into cheers and were on their feet immediately in total unison. For a twenty-some-year-old, this was life-changing. I saw hatred and anger completely dissipated by music.
With Chamber Blues, you have a forthcoming album, Different Voices, which you said is self-produced. Can you tell me a little more about this album set for release on April 7 and who appears there?
Corky: This album is the culmination of my life’s work. I’m still following the path of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the blues masters. I’m still following the path that Maestro Seiji Ozawa and composer William Russo laid out for me. Besides presenting the intertwining of blues and classical, I’m bringing in different elements— that is, Different Voices. Ernie Watts is a jazz-saxophone icon. Marcy Levy is a rhythm-and-blues diva. Matthew Santos, singer/songwriter, sang “Superstar” with Lupe Fiasco. It’s not that I’m looking for names. I really love these people— they’re friends, and some of the best reps of their genre we can find.
Kalyan, you’re cited as an Indian and multi-ethnic percussionist. What other cross-cultural drum styles do you work with?
Kalyan: I’ve systematically studied Brazilian, West African, Afro-Cuban and Middle Eastern drumming traditions by going to masters of each one. I learned not to come through with my individual voice as an Indian drummer, but to learn and play the traditional voice and part first. Before any mixing up can happen, my focus for around twenty years has been to engage deeply in the drumming traditions I got into.
What is it about the tabla that sets it apart from other drum styles?
Kalyan: The tabla is deeply rooted in aural and oral tradition. All the sounds we make on the drums are conceived and conveyed in the special language of bols, the tabla syllables, words, phrases, and themes.
Today, there is a lot of interest in the jazz-drumming community about North Indian tabla bols and South Indian konnakol systems of vocalized drumming, mainly because such a study lends one in the mastery of odd time signatures and over-the-bar line phrasing. I find that the North Indian folk drums such as tabla, dhol, and dholak have many grooves that have two-against-three feeling of swing and shuffle that works well with blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk.
What can we expect from your show in Cobden, and will your new album be available there?
Kalyan: One can expect danceable roots of rhythm and blues, meditative trance of Indian music, and the musical freedom of jazz. They blend into a new lyrical language where laughter, pranks, and puns are all allowed.
Corky: The new album won’t be released until April 7. We just received the first review [in Midwest Record], which I think was inspired by the Academy Awards show: “... so cinematic that it’s better than most of the movies coming out these days. This is smoking, out-of-the ordinary stuff.... Totally killer.”
I think he liked it.
who: Corky Siegel and Kalyan Pathak
what: chamber blues
where: Yellow Moon Café
when: Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11