The Continuing Journey of Autorickshaw

The Continuing Journey of <b>Autorickshaw</b>
The cultural presence of Canada’s South Asian population has given rise to a wave of Indo-Canadian fusion bands; Tandava in Vancouver, Tasa in Toronto and Galitcha in Ottawa each have different takes on fusing Indian traditions with other musical impulses. Based in Toronto, Autorickshaw is the busiest of these, having toured the country four times and released three discs since 2003.

Initially the partnership of vocalist Suba Sankaran and tabla player Ed Hanley yielded a blend of South Indian classical forms with jazz and a touch of funk. Constant activity in the last few years has seen them add two band members, electric bassist Rich Brown and percussionist Patrick Graham, and their new album So The Journey Goes is their most ambitious work yet. "The last few years have seemed like we were running to catch up,” Sankaran says. "[This is] very much an audio snapshot of where we’re at so far. It speaks to having gone through process a couple times before, but without as much experience and repertoire.”

The inspiration for the existential title track came from Sankaran’s trip to India a few years ago. "That was the first time I went to India without my family, to study on my own. Even though I dressed the part and had the same skin, I was pegged as a foreigner instantly. It’s like I had this bizarre alien radar. It was a bit of a culture shock.” Now, having toured India with the band last November, both Sankaran and Hanley have gained new appreciation for the dual cultural impulses in their work. "It was amazing,” Sanakran says. "I think we carried some paranoia with us — is it presumptuous to take their music back to them in a completely different package that they may not be expecting? But that ended up being the point of entry for them to understand what they were doing. Specifically the comments to me were that they were overjoyed that I was embracing the Indian culture and doing it in a way that made sense to me.” The most ambitious song on the album is its closer, the digitally composed "Heavy Traffic.” "The song was commissioned by [Toronto’s] Harbourfront Centre,” Hanley explains, "but the only part of the tune that was left when we got to the studio was the vocal part. Suba laid it down to a click and we overdubbed drums and bass, then everyone just started overdubbing their parts.” The final result distilled 64 tracks into a tripped-out, free form groove. It is their most abstract statement on record, and brilliantly solves the problem of how to incorporate electronics into their sound while building on the band’s foundation.

The opposing forces of tradition and experimentation can be difficult to balance, and Suba’s father, master percussionist and professor Trichy Sankaran, was initially cautious of Autorickshaw. "He will always say he’s a purist,” according to the younger Sankaran. "He’s done experimental music, electronic music, and jazz but his heart is with South India. At first he didn’t know what to make of us. I’ve studied with him my whole life; it was like cutting the umbilical cord. He saw us perform and realised ‘they’re not diluting the music in any way, they’re creating this fusion in a way that makes sense to them coming out of this culture where a lot of things are blended.’ As long as it’s done in a meaningful way, that’s what he was concerned with.”