Through tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Ari Roland leads artistes to build international understanding through music.
The Ari Roland Jazz Quartet performs at the NCPA International Jazz Festival 2018, held in Mumbai. (Photograph courtesy U.S. Consulate General Mumbai)
When Ari Roland picks up a bass, he usually plays beautiful melodies and sublime counterpoints inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker Jr., Louis Armstrong and other legends of American jazz. During a recent tour, though, Roland used his virtuosity to channel not just the musical traditions of the United States, but also those of India.
Roland teamed up with saxophonist Zaid Nasser, guitarist Pasquale Grasso and drummer Keith Balla in late 2017 to bring their unique, improvised music to Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad for a weeks-long tour. Performing for a diverse array of enraptured audiences, the jazz quartet kept its daily schedules packed with appearances, regularly playing vigorous concerts at night, holding educational workshops for students during the day, and participating in radio and television broadcasts in between.
Roland relishes the opportunity to participate in such jam-packed international tours, which are sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and designed to foster cultural exchange and international friendship. He was first accepted into the State Department’s program, then called The Rhythm Road, in 2007, and spent up to four months every year performing in countries like Syria and Cyprus. Roland estimates having completed around 135 international musical diplomacy programs, and has no plans of stopping.
“Touring to places like India with the State Department is amazing,” says Roland, who was born and raised in New York City. “Never in a trillion years would you otherwise be able to interact and share music with such a wide range of people—from general audiences and student groups of all ages to children in orphanages and hospitals to members of the U.S. and international diplomatic corps—and everyone in between! It’s such a wonderful experience to set up in the middle of a rural town square, whether it’s in India or Turkmenistan, and play for people who have never heard jazz before.”
One unique feature of Roland’s 2017 tour to India was a collaboration with the Bauls of Bengal, musicians who practice a form of traditional folk music that Roland found captivating. “Performing with them felt like it wasn’t about us as musicians showing off how good we all were, but about bringing the performer, audience and, hopefully, the whole world into a celebration of God and all of God’s manifestations,” says Roland. “I’m an agnostic,” he continues, laughing, “but I very much get and appreciate the idea.” The concert, New York Meets Kolkata, was part of U.S. Consulate General Kolkata’s initiative to promote cultural ties between India and the United States.
Roland sees direct parallels between Baul music that he experienced and American styles ranging from gospel to blues. “Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues musicians to ever live, used to say that, sometimes, when you sing, this wave takes you over and everything else is gone. Even though we were playing different notes and different rhythms with the Bauls, that feeling was there.”
When performing with the Bauls, and elsewhere in India, Roland made an effort not just to play the jazz of his home country, but also the music of the region he was visiting. “We always want to learn local music,” he says. “Wherever we play, we want at least a third of our songs to be melodies that everyone, from little kids to grandmothers, will recognize. We don’t try to imitate how local musicians would play them, but we do try to play the melodies faithfully, and then improvise. We’ve learned a lot of wonderful music that way.”
Roland’s tours include cultural exchange not just on the bandstand, but in everyday life as well. “I remember the trip we had to a village in Bengal,” says Nasser of the 2017 tour. “The drive was incredible. At one point, we were on a narrow dirt road in the forest. We played at an all-girls school. They were very enthusiastic. We had a great lunch and somehow… we ended up trying to play cricket with the girls. That was a really special day.”
Chris Byars, a saxophonist who accompanied Roland to India on a previous State Department tour, recalls the group’s uplifting collaboration with Rajasthani musicians, the Barmer Boys, and describes them as truly inspirational and passionate about their music. Byars also recalls his wonderful experiences visiting museums and shrines in Kolkata, the Red Fort in New Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra. He also greatly enjoyed local live radio appearances, during which members of the musical ensemble received messages from all over India.
Throughout his travels to India, Roland has found his collaborations with local musicians to be hugely rewarding, not just on cultural and personal levels, but on a musical one as well. “On one tour to India, the group I was with worked with Carnatic musicians, who taught us several ragas,” he says. “Playing in those ragas was definitely not my comfort zone. But, when it was time to perform, I did my best, and the reactions from the other musicians and audience were great.”
“When I was able to play with great feeling, even if I was new to that particular style and musical format, it reached across rules and traditions,” continues Roland. “It’s fascinating and wonderful. That’s just what music does.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.