The first time I saw an Aditya Prakash video in spring 2019, I was moved and intrigued, left wanting to know more. The remarkable Carnatic singer’s music reflected a pure heart and exploratory spirit, and also impressed me with its musical ambition. The young Prakash first formed his eponymous Aditya Prakash Ensemble while studying ethnomusicology at UCLA. The group recently released its third album Diaspora Kid, which just blew me away.
Prakash was born and raised in Los Angeles, in a household steeped in Indian classical arts. “Indian classical music,” Prakash tells us, “was the first language I knew and the medium through which I negotiated the multitude of sounds in my American environment.” He hid his singing from classmates so as not to stand out more than he already did as one of only four Indian kids at school. His friends thought he spent summer and winter vacations in Chennai visiting family, while in reality he was there to study with vocal teachers in the Carnatic style of southern India. His secret was finally revealed in senior year of high school (2005-6) when he took several months off to tour with the great Ravi Shankar, performing at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Prakash returned from touring with newfound confidence and even presented the basics of Indian classical music to his high school choir. You can read more of Prakash’s touching story on his website.
After the tour, Shankar urged Prakash to drop other concerns and devote himself to a life in music. Prakash decided to study ethnomusicology at UCLA, and his years there exposed him to jazz and world music. He also met many of the members of his ensemble at UCLA. At informal jam sessions, the group realized the commonality between Indian classical music and jazz music, both of which rely greatly on improvisation.
Shankar had inspired Prakash to be unafraid to mix different music traditions: “Ravi was an icon who not only delved deep in the classical tradition but made it accessible to new audiences with his ground-breaking cross-cultural collaborations and inventive approach. This was precisely what I aspired to do with my music.” Yet, Shankar had also cautioned that he must not ever lose touch with the classical music roots amidst the experimentation. I think Prakash found the perfect balance with the latest release, Diaspora Kid, the title of which refers to his multi-cultural roots.
The new album showcases Prakash’s vocal virtuosity in traditional Indian singing and the compelling urgency of his songs. He has infused the cross-cultural hybrid with new ideas, refreshing it with a contemporary sound and feel. I love the combination of classic Carnatic vocals with a large and accomplished jazz ensemble, paired with Indian instruments like tablas, the bansuri Indian cane flute, sitar, and violin. There are many accomplished Carnatic vocalists, but few sing and record with a big (24 musicians!), hybrid ensemble like this. The album even features hip-hop vocals. In today’s crowded musical landscape, records like this do not come every day. Los Angeles is blessed to have a group like this in our midst. I look forward to hearing them play live once we are able to live normally and come out of hiding.
Prakash wowed me with this cover of “Maiden Voyage” last year:
Live performance at the bluewhale in Little Tokyo: