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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Do You Speak Indian?

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa

Listen past the end of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s third album, Mother Tongue: Do You Speak Indian? (Pi), and you’ll hear the alto saxophonist and composer say the following: “No, I don’t speak Indian. There isn’t such a language. I speak English. My parents speak Kannada, which is a language spoken in the state of Karnataka, in the south of India. There are many different languages in India….”

You’ll also hear a jumble of other voices-all fellow Indian-Americans speaking a version of the same statement, in their own mother tongues. They are telling us that India does not possess a singular culture, nor do Indian immigrants and their children carry a singular history. But Mahanthappa isn’t simply venting about ignorance and ethnocentrism; he’s highlighting the inherent music of speech itself. He wrote most of the pieces on Mother Tongue using melodic material derived from these very speech recordings.

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Originally Published

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music,, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.