AN INTERVIEW WITH RAVISH MOMIN
Ravish Momin is an Indian-born drummer, composer and educator. Ravish Momin makes up half of Turning Jewels Into Water, which is the duo of Haitian-born drummer, DJ, educator and electronic music artist Val Jeanty and Ravish Momin. Ravish talks to Teresa and Sam about defying musical genres, what it means to talk about music intentionally, and performing live as a duo.
Sam: I know the new album was really influenced by kind of redefining global music. How would you say, for people who haven’t heard it, this album redefines that global sound?
Ravish: One of the big things for me, especially as a person of color, also, is the idea that when you make music - so we have rock, jazz, blues, afro-beat, all these genres - and then there's world music. We just lumped the entire world, it could be from Shanghai or from Kampala or from Jakarta or from Lagos. There’s no way it could all be the same. For me, that was a big sticking point - it’s not all the same. This idea of this global music is just not one entity.
Then, number two. The minute they see you as “Oh, you look like you’re from such and such background, well “wear your native instruments” or “wear your native clothing”, or “why do you dress like this and not like in your -” you know. “Where’s your sitar?” you know. What’s the word I’m looking for? “How come you’re not performative of your ethnic identity?”
So, Val and I both challenged that - she’s Haitian, and she is raised in a Vodun family with deep cultural roots, but she plays all digital instruments and sings with me. I’m channeling all this stuff, but I’m not showing with Indian instruments or just trying to be some kind of ethnic identity. So that’s a big thing.
That’s the first thing you’ll notice. It’s like we’re making what I call - I call it “digital folk music”. Folk music to me always just meant the music of our time, music of the people, and it’s digital and that’s what it starts out to be.
Sam: That’s funny. Our second question was actually just how you define digital folk, so thanks so much for running through that for us. *Laughs* Wait - I think Teresa wanted to ask something about the ensemble you lead. Teresa?
Teresa: I read that you guys lead an ensemble of musicians from around the world to challenge this ethnic fetishizing of global and world music. So I know you explained a little bit about that concept, but also when did you personally first come across this as a problem in your career or your personal life?
Ravish: I mean, just been a problem for a long time, since the early 2000s. I’ve been professionally touring and recording for a couple of decades now. So one of my first projects was this band called Tehrana, which was like a jazzier thing, it was all acoustic. But I was working with this Chinese American violinist, Jason K. Hwang from Chicago. But we weren’t doing Chinese music, we weren’t doing Indian music, and the bassist was from the Middle East. But we were doing a free world music, like it was just taking from all these things but it wasn’t trying to be anything. It was Brooklyn - like we all live in Brooklyn and that’s the best thing about living in New York, to me. It’s just like everyone’s together and you just exist in that world. You don’t think about it.
So for me it was that, but then, we didn’t get accepted into the jazz world, because it wasn’t jazzy. The world music people were like “well, you guys aren’t playing Indian music or Chinese music or Middle Eastern music, so it’s none of those.”
So for me, to answer your question, it’s been on my mind for a long time. And then it especially became really obvious when I started doing digital music. Even in New York, for instance, we can’t really go to a club elsewhere or nowadays. They’d be like “oh, you guys aren’t DJs, you guys are playing stuff.” So we’ll go to like Issue Project Room or Roulette or something, and they’d be like “oh well, but you guys are beat based, so that’s not really experimental music.”
You know what I mean? It’s always been this thing - why do we have all these categories to push people into corners? It’s been a thing on my mind for a long time, and I don’t know… I’m hoping this conversation is a good place to start, to get people to think about our own perceptions and our own prejudices against what those things mean, and think of new ways of looking at it.
Teresa: Just going off of that a little bit - do you think that music should be put into genres? Is there still any value to that at all?
Ravish: That’s a good point. I think like, I mean… There are specific genres. Like, you could be a jungle producer, you could be an afrobeat musician, you could be a soul singer. So I think there is value to that [genres]. For starters, it’s not up to me, in a sense. If you choose to decide that’s what you want to label yourself, that’s fine. But in general, I think it’s a different thing here. We’re talking about two things: one, how I think about it, and how the marketing world thinks about it.
In that world, I do agree with you more that it should be looser. Everything’s changing, our ideas are changing. To pigeonhole it in such a way - like when you go on Spotify is a good example. Right, like you listen to us, and then it also says “you may also like” and it lists artists. I’m like, I might like Flying Lotus but I might like Johnny Cash [too], you know? They’re so different. Spotify is never gonna suggest Johnny Cash if I’m listening to a lot of Flying Lotus.
So that’s the problem for me. I think people are fluid, just like gender is fluid, people’s idea of music is fluid. We live in this age where we get forced into things, especially with music, and that’s a big problem in this age of Spotify and all these algorithms and the way that works.
Sam: I never thought about how Spotify puts things into boxes like that. Another thing, and this is kinda going down the genre route, but - we’re both from Chicago, and I hear a lot of footwork influence in your music.
Sam: And could you talk a little bit about how footwork has influenced your work? Or more generally, it could be footwork, jersey club, any of these American regional dance musics.
Ravish: I mean, Val, my partner, she is super into DJ Rashad. That’s a big influence for her. Just the way she cuts up her vocal samples has a lot to do with the way she thinks about how the juke producers think about samples and how they take all that together. So I wanna say at the beginning, we’re not trying to be juke producers, and we’re very aware of not being culturally appropriative. I mean, God, in this day and age people just steal people’s ideas and just make it their own. That was the big thing. So we look at it as, like, it’s super important to acknowledge the influences.
One of my pivotal experiences in that sense was seeing DJ Rashad play a live set at 258 Kent Street, which is no longer there. I think it’s the offices of Vice magazine, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He played a set, and he came on at like one or two in the morning and played until 5 AM.
It was a sweaty, crazy night. There was no ACs; they were hosing down the audience with water - it was like a throwback to the old rave scene, it’s like, this is amazing. It was just a flawless set he played, channeling jazz and soul and just all these amazing Black musical influences. For me, it was just so eye-opening to see - like, wow. I thought of myself as trying to create the digital energy that he was creating in my own way.
That was a big influence. DJ Rashad, then I went back and studied a lot of the masters in DJ Earl and DJ Slugo, and obviously RP Wu, and then I really got into Jaylin, also. That’s always for me and Val in our background, in the way we think of how we want to cut up our samples and how we think about bass. That’s always filtered into a lot of our stuff.
Teresa: I also saw that you and Val - a lot of your projects are rooted in improvisation. So can you speak a little bit more about what improvisation brings to the table, and why do you have this focus on more spontaneity?
Ravish: So both of us come from jazzier stuff. She also toured a lot with jazz musicians, and same with me. In my 2000s, I was touring with - actually, speaking of Chicago, the AACM, which you guys may or may not know, is from Chicago. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was in ‘69, started in the south side of Chicago. So I was touring with Maurice McIntyre, who was one of the early members of that scene, and all these legends came out of that scene. For me, Chicago is always at the root of a lot of this stuff.
Improvisation is a big part of jazz. And also, being Indian, improvisation is a big part of Indian music. When you’re playing classical music, we just take a theme and just go off on it. That was fundamentally part of our identity. But when we got to electronic music, I was like, “hm, what if we tried to create an electronic music that has this really intense vibe, but then we can make it up and we can improvise?”
I felt like there was a whole new area for us to explore, where we hadn’t seen a lot of that. Again, talking about Flying Lotus earlier, he was another big influence on me. Hearing how loose he made those 1984 APs and how amazing and elastic that music was and it was all electronic, and I was just like, “I want that in my music.” I want that energy in my improvisation, to have it be loose and just really elastic, but then still have this like- there’s a beat, there’s a pulse, there’s a baseline, there’s all these things that kinda center it. So that is the root.
And then the improvisation energy, again, comes from Indian music, from Haitian music, from jazz. It sits on top of it, and it kinda creates this looser structure under something that’s a little more rigid. I think it works for us!
Sam: It definitely works. But I think you can see that energy too, in your guys’ live performances. Obviously, I haven’t gotten the chance to see you live, but watching the live streams was awesome. You guys looked so happy while you’re performing. Can you talk to me a bit about what energy you try to bring, or what performing feels like?
Ravish: I mean, that’s such a loaded question, right? Do you mean performance feels like in 2020, or in general? I’m thinking it’s so much more powerful in 2020. I haven’t really played any shows, all my tours and performances have been canceled, just as everybody else. Just to be on the same stage, and Roulette - I think it’s the live stream you’re referring to - was awesome because it’s really huge, big theatre, and we already knew we wouldn’t be clustered together and we could still stay social-distanced and still play together. That was a big game changer, because otherwise it’s hard to even play together. That was amazing.
And Val and I have been together for two years touring, and our first actual tour was right as soon as this band came together in 2018, and then we went to Europe for three weeks. And we hadn’t even really rehearsed that much, and now we’re in Europe for three weeks. So, we just got really good at playing together. Being on the road is really deep, because when it’s just you guys and nobody else in a car or in a train or in a plane together for hours and hours at a time, and you have to make these really tight schedules. I think you just get a new appreciation for each other.
And it either works, or it doesn’t. Like you could be with somebody that you love, is amazing, is a great human being, is a great person, but maybe you just can’t get along with them for six hours in a car, you know? It’s true, ‘cause I’ve been touring for so long, I choose to tour with people I know that I can hang out with them for hours and hours and go through this insane, we gotta be at the airport at five in the morning, then we get off the plane at like eleven thirty, and then we have to immediately get in a bus and then that bus is gonna be a four hour ride, and then we’re gonna hit sound check at seven thirty…
You just make it work. And you know you don’t have to think about that other person being spaced out or not checked in.That was a big part of it. We just have this energy together, so when we’re onstage we just know that we just vibe together, and that’s a big part of our connectedness.
Teresa: On this note of collaboration, I know that you and Val met, sort of, through the Pioneer Works Initiative in Brooklyn. Also, I don’t know if this is a question, I’m just spitballing here. But, also I know a lot of rappers in Chicago, they met through art initiatives. In terms of pushing boundaries, because y’all are collaborating, like that’s how you meet people, where do you think the role of community plays in pushing musical genres, and meeting new people through these initiatives, if that makes sense?
Ravish: That’s a big part of it. That’s also why I think we’re talking. Hopefully we’re creating a community here. Hopefully, we’ll have eyes and ears on this, and hopefully, drive it to the music. And then beyond that, drive it to all these other things you guys have been asking. What is this all about? What is all the music? What is all the stuff?
And what is it to be a person of color, to have all these disparate identities in 2020? What does it all mean? Tomorrow, who knows what’s gonna happen, but, regardless of what happens, for us, we have to stay determined and focused as artists. And point out these things, and continue to fight it because otherwise it’s not gonna change.
So, Teresa, to answer your question, that’s a big part of what I think of every day. And I think community is so important to make that happen. Whether it’s Pioneer Works, or this magazine, or if it’s a club or if it’s a social justice organization. And the other part of that, for me also, it’s really important - who is bringing that community together? And I’ve been thinking about that more and more.
For example, in music, think of any music magazines you guys might read or listen - whether it’s Pitchfork or Stereo Gum, whatever - if you’re thinking about that as a community. Who is controlling it? Who is in charge of it? Who are the people bringing that community together? Is it just, to be blunt, a bunch of privileged white people, or is it people of color, people who are queer, people who are trans, people who are working class?
Class is a big component to all this. Lot of times when people talk about people of color, they don’t talk about class. Like you could be a rich Indian, you could be a rich Asian, and have no idea of what it’s like to be working class - Chinese working class, Indian working class… It’s such a different thing. So for me, who’s in charge of this stuff? The community’s absolutely important, but I’m also interested in knowing and finding out who are the people making those communities.
That’s a big problem in the United States, to be honest. I just don’t see a lot of communities made by the people from those communities. I mean, I love Pioneer Works but, and I know this is going public, Pioneer Works is not people from Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s amazing people, no doubt, but they’re from the outside. I’m interested in who are these communities comprised of? I didn’t mean to throw a question back at your question, but I think that’s an awesome issue you brought up. I would also love to hear other artists talk about this.
Sam: For sure. I mean, that’s why we literally started The Q. Because we hated reading these Pitchfork reviews that just weren’t coming from a perspective [inside the community] and I think there’s also something that has to do with age in there too as well. It’s kind of weird for me to see, sometimes, 50 year old Pitchfork writers reviewing a young 16 year old’s project. But yeah, I totally agree with what you’re saying.
Ravish: Because, I mean, they’re the ones that still pick the winners. It’s like they’re looking for all these markers now. It’s almost like it’s grossly fetishizing, like Teresa said - that’s a great word, I use that word for a lot of this discourse. It’s like, okay, you’re young, Black, queer, you’re making electronic dance music, you’re gonna be selected. But what if you don’t have access to some of those resources, or if you’re queer, but you don’t come from a certain class, or whatever.
There was a lot of confusion about some of the artists, I don’t want to name names, but there’s a big artist in the electronic music world right now who is queer and trans, but they come from a very privileged background. And a lot of people were calling them out, but then, people came to their defense also. Like, “hm, you know what, they’re still doing good work for the trans community.”
Then it gets difficult. Okay, so they come from a really privileged background, they could just buy their way into the scene, so to speak. But on the other hand, they seem to be doing genuine work bringing up other trans artists or doing other work with other people in the community.
So it’s definitely really complicated. But I agree, as people of color, we have to be aware of these forces and call them out when we need to. And I just don’t think enough artists do that, I think a lot of artists get comfortable - once you get your piece of the pie, or whatever you want to call it, like you’re like, “Oh, I’m good, I got Red Bull endorsements, I got my Newtech lineup set or whatever. I don’t need to now worry about you guys and your struggle anymore.”
But also, as artists, we’re aware that it could be taken away from us at any moment, because it feels like it’s this flavor-of-the-month fetishizing that’s even more pronounced, more like - I don’t know what’s the word I’m looking for - it’s really obvious and it’s just there all the time. I think about that a lot too.
Teresa: Bringing a question into that, I think something we struggle with is definitely [our mission]. Our mission is to basically critique art from recognizing our perspective, and really critiquing with a lot of intention and how we speak about artists and stuff. But at the same time, you know, we would definitely have more of a larger following if we did talk about more mainstream, popular music. What do you think is the most effective way to reach audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be educated about this, while still maintaining the core of your mission?
Ravish: Wow, that’s a pretty intense question. *Laughs* I think also, look, before I go on, you have to also remember we live in this world of Facebook and social media, where the algorithms that control a lot of things that we can’t control. You may have genuine intentions and make the most amazing posts, but then the algorithms cut it down, or it becomes like, “Oh, you’re not paying for it, so we’re not going to show it.” I think those factors are important to consider.
But I do think what you guys are doing is even more intense now. You have these platforms which are really controlled by, to be blunt, a lot of privileged folk. So it’s really important to be a voice that’s standing against that, and I do believe that just this, just creating community - I’m gonna be sharing this post with my audience, or with my people, or with my social media, and then other artists will do the same - the hope is that that’s one way to build it.
Also hopefully, if we ever get out of quarantine, I think since you guys have such a diverse worldview and you have so many things on your radar, you guys could be doing cool stuff like curating concerts, or curating playlists, or curating… I mean, there’s so many other things to fit into this that I feel all that stuff helps grow audiences.
I don’t think it’s one thing anymore - it has to be different things. Just like I mentioned, all those things come together - having an interview, having a playlist, having artists share content, having live streams, having in person meet ups, having forums where you guys host discussions of artists talking about social justice issues or gender issues or climate issues, etcetera.
I think all those things together feed into each other. To me, I see that as a really powerful way of bringing people together and growing it, as opposed to just “We’re a magazine, and we’re only gonna write about music.”