Guitarist Ross Hammond and vocalist Jay Nair presents “Songs of Universal Peace” Sunday afternoon at Maybeck Recital Hall
Guitarist Ross Hammond and vocalist Jay Nair presents “Songs of Universal Peace” Sunday afternoon at Maybeck Recital Hall

Jay Nair, a mild-mannered civil servant who works as a systems analyst for the state of California, was walking through downtown Sacramento minding his own business a couple years back when his ear caught a sound that reminded him of home. Born and raised in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, he was passing by the popular brunch spot Weatherstone when he heard what he thought might be a sitar. Circling back to double check, Nair realized that the sound emanated from Ross Hammond’s 12-string guitar.

“I spent the next three minutes listening to him, and then it wasn’t the sitar-like sliding notes that captivated me anymore but his music,” says Nair, explaining the origins of their collaboration. Blending Hammond’s rootsy approach to jazz, folk and blues with Nair’s Carnatic vocals, they released the singular duo album Songs of Universal Peace in 2018. They’ve been performing together ever since, and make their Maybeck Recital Hall debut Sunday afternoon.

“Listening to him play that morning some ragas came to me,” Nair says. “I went home and recorded them on my iPhone and shared them with him. That’s where everything started.”

While he’s never formally studied Indian classical music, Hammond has collaborated with several Indian and Indian-American percussionists over the years. He was more than open to seeing what might develop with Nair, inviting him stop by his weekly Luna Café gig. “He came and sat in and, dude, people were crying,” Hammond says. “When Jay sings and gets into his devotional music, it’s a really powerful spiritual thing. It hits me. After that I said we should probably start a project. You don’t find guys singing Carnatic music like that all the time.”

If Hammond’s name sounds familiar it’s probably because he was a close confederate of Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola for several years. About a decade ago their duo project The Lovely Builders performed widely around the region. In 2016, his duo album with drummer/percussionist Sameer Gupta, Upward (Prescott Records), was hailed by KQED (in a piece I wrote) for its “lush, buoyant and expansive” sound.

That project was deeply informed by Hammond and Gupta’s shared experience as jazz musicians. With Nair, Hammond uses his finely honed chops as an improviser to respond and interact with the traditional modes. “I’ve listened to Indian music since my 20s,” he says. “Sameer and I play together from a jazz background. We’re not doing anything traditional. I’m not a raga guy. With Jay, he’s singing ancient Sanskrit verses and puts his own melodies to them. I’ll ask him ‘What does that song mean?’ ‘Let’s all be beautiful.’ Fantastic!”

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Nair studied Carnatic vocals from the age of five to 18 (with a few years on violin too), and started performing at 10. After he went off to college to study engineering he got the chance to explore Hindustani classical tradition of North India. He didn’t have much exposure to Western music before he moved to the US at the age of 30.

Over the years he’d tried to collaborate with several non-Indian musicians but the attempts quickly foundered. Nair feels he wasn’t really ready to meet other musicians on equal ground. “With its very deep history of 3,000 years, a student of Indian music has a danger of believing that is what music is, and anything that breaks the rules is not music,” he says. “I had a phase where I thought that music means it has to be this and that. Maybe that contributed to those collaborations not flourishing. And non-Indian musicians can be a little intimidated with the vastness of Indian music. So those attempts didn’t go anywhere.”

Hammond has been a pivotal figure on the Sacramento music scene for the past two decades, patiently building festivals and concert series that showcase local players alongside artists from outside the area. By the time Nair encountered him that morning at Weatherstone in 2017 his musical perspective had evolved. Rather than obeying a set of rules, music served a larger purpose aimed at “the enlightenment of the human mind,” he says. “I was open to learning from people who are different. Ross is a master of what he’s doing, and I was looking to learn.”

With the civil war in Syria raging and conflict dominating the news, Nair was already focusing on Shanti peace mantras in his spiritual practice as a Buddhist. He’d set a Sanskrit verse to a raga and bring the piece to Hammond. “It is accompaniment, but almost two soloist working around the same melody at the same time,” Hammond says.

“I’ve played with a lot of Indian musicians, and Jay is the guy I’ve learned the most from in terms of how you approach structure,” he says. “He says don’t worry about the tala and rhythmic cycle. We’re two guys, listen to each other. You have this tonal center, this scale or mode. Don’t go out of it. Simple stuff that’s so powerful. What we’re doing is finding a bridge between a traditional American blues and roots music, and combining that with raga.”

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You may have noticed that Ukraine has been in the news lately. With Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia and a proxy war grinding away near the eastern border, the young country with an ancient and extraordinary vocal tradition needs friends outside the region. No ensemble has done more to share Ukrainian culture abroad than DahkaBrahka, the avant-folk quartet that returns to Freight & Salvage on Oct. 8-9. Avant garde folk songs might sound like an oxymoron, but with DakhaBrakha there’s no contradiction between roots music from the Ukrainian countryside and art music from Kiev’s experimental theater scene. Creating haunting polyphonic vocal harmonies while accompanying themselves on cellos, hurdy gurdy, piano, and sundry percussion implements, the multi-instrumentalistsOlena Tsybulska, Irnya Kovalenko and Nina Harenetsha founded the band in 2004 and were quickly joined by Marko Halanevych on vocals, tabla, didgeridoo, accordion, and trombone. They’ve acquired their international menagerie of instruments during their world travels, adding new sonic facets to the traditional songs they’ve been immersed in since birth. The fact that the three women often perform in towering black fur hats and white wedding dresses cribbed from a production of Shakespeare’s Richard IIIadds to the music’s decidedly otherworldly feel.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....