interview by dimmSummer
transcribed by derek beres
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
ET: This is the interview with the very talented, multi-faceted actor, Ajay Naidu. We're sitting in the back of Joe's Pub in New York City. Let's talk about your current situation as an actor.
AJAY: Ahh yes, the 'situation...' No, no, things are good. I mean, it's been up and down, but I'm always working on things. Things are really good most of the time, they have been for a while now. The last three or four years have been a pretty extraordinary roller coaster: the stuff going on with the Asian Massive world and the acting world, which are two vastly different places. They compliment each other in my life, they help each other to move forward, in terms of the work and creativity.
I was reading an article about you online. It was very brief, because I know you have a very interesting life thus far, it was maybe two or three paragraphs.
AJAY: I made it on, right?
ET: It said Ajay is into this new music - I think the article was a few years old - this new music called jungle, and in his spare time he likes to breakdance.
AJAY: That's funny. I think I know what article you're talking about. When I got out of school in 95 they followed us for a year - I think there's a reality show on TV that does the same thing now - it followed us, 12 actors from a theater program, in and around New York, to see how you'd make it. I can't imagine how it was with these kids from the video because I know how distracting it was to have to check in every three months with someone charting progress.
That first year I got the best and worst a year could bring. I was basically riding on top of it. I was really outside of myself but very much within myself, it was a very new time. I tried referring to the fact that in 95 I returned back to Chicago right after I finished school and started going to raves again because I was going before I went to training and I got heavily into the drum-and-bass scene, which is really wicked. Actually, it's very similar to the London energy and yet you have to travel great distances.
ET: In my readings I've discovered that, not drum-and-bass but perhaps the whole techno vibe was born in Chicago - never went anywhere - and had to go to London to develop and came back over here.
AJAY: I would say that there is extraordinary similarities between the midwest in America and Europe in that there is this sense of vast, open sky and loneliness and cold, and I think there's a strong spiritual presence outside of a very microcosmic existence, particularly the sound of Indian music and drum-and-bass, and house and all that stuff. The journey's are always very inward.
ET: How long did you grow up in Chicago?
AJAY: Until I was about 21. I finished high school and then there were a bunch of things going on with my family that I couldn't really leave so I had to start in the theater there. I had been working early in my life in films - since I was 11 - and then I stopped when I was 14 and got heavily, heavily into theater. It was the only real choice because I had stopped making films and had gone back to school. When I graduated high school I journeyed out into the theater community in Chicago and started doing non-equity theater and going to a trade school for the arts where I learned combat and make-up and things like that. But I knew I wanted to wanted to train with these guys so about two-and-a-half years after high school I applied to American Repertory School up at Harvard at got in.
At that time, the way I was feeling about acting, I needed something classical to rebel against really badly. Acting school was summer camp and I needed concentration camp. I had so many different ideas swirling between culture and how to tie things together in my body and tell that story.
ET: When you were in Chicago in the drum-and-bass scene, was it developing there?
AJAY: I stayed in Chicago until I was 21 years old, and from the time I was 11 I went from being a mod to being a punk to being a new wave, techno, slick-backed hair guy, Oak Tree wearing clothes guy to being a hardocre, black industrial miserablist. Then the music really started changing with the Wax Tracks label. I really didn't have much to listen to, so I just went off to school knowing I was going to go through a nerdification process.
In Chicago they used to steal radio time and loop for hours on end. All India radio was worldwide; I'm sure all my friends in New York, wherever they grew up, went through a series of heavy exposure to various sounds. Then I went to school and came back out and started listening to where I left off.
ET: Did you ever try to create drum-and-bass music?
AJAY: Most of my friends I grew up with had turntables, and you just kind of play records with your friends. As you continue to build up a store of things that bliss you out when you're hearing them, you relate your experience, naturally it goes deeper and deeper, particularly talking about South Asian drum-and-bass. Talking about Karsh, and my friends who I have been spending time with over the past couple of years, is that usually that journey happens pretty much solitary and by yourself. You find a space between the notes, like a slick spot, or like a place that you really find tangible.
So much of South Asian culture is related to tabla and the heartbeat and the facility and the freedom through improvisation, which is really spontaneous composition as opposed to improv in the jazz sense. You can do anything you want as long as you come back with perfect time, whereas in jazz you just go off into a whole other place. Raga and drum-and-bass and the development in electronic music are extremely similar, so naturally the parallels just immediately take you over and soon as you start hearing and takes you to your youth somehow. I think that happens to everyone, just in a different way.
ET: You talk about so much, and so many questions come to mind, then they just sort of float away and are replaced by other questions.
AJAY: Believe me, I have a lot of questions too about why all of this went down. I've pretty fairly charted through a timeline with friends of mine in and around my world. It was 97 or 98 that I met Karsh, but only a month later when we first met Talvin, and that ANOKHA had come out. Then in 99 we went to this enormous party which was sort of the shakedown of about who was heavily involved with that particular aesthetic of drum-and-bass. It was this Diwali party in London, and Tavlin basically brought me, and Karsh, and Mideval Punditz, and Dave, and LELONEK, Equal Eye and all the people involved to come together to at least be with each other and realize that there was this thing happening. This uprising of this particular sound - and particular aesthetic, I should add - happened simultaneously and without warning, but through some sort of metaphysical connection. I avoid saying that, but it really is.
ET: I agree. Like myself who is into this music, even if you don't connect with the people around you, you feel an inner connection with this music and you figure there are other people into this. When you do finally meet the people around you-
AJAY: That right there - I'm sorry to interrupt you - is the most incredible thing. I wish that everyone who could ever learn something about Indo-European culture, or Indo- any culture could have been there to experience that. The energy amongst these people, who are now my closest friends and blood relations, I hope to see all their children and we'll be there for all of our deaths for each other. Obviously, it's hard to recapture, but at the same time it spawned something to send you off to keep working for a particular cause or mission statement. In the theater, and in films, and in my acting, I strive very much for that aesthetic that we unintentionally developed.
ET: Do you think the aesthetic came together because people like yourself or myself or Karsh, who are all first generation Indians here in America, have lived two lives - our Indian life and our America life?
AJAY: One of the common denominators of the Indian experience in America is this overwhelming sense of loneliness. And I don't mean to be sad about it because I had a glorious childhood. All of everyone I know who was an Indian person, even if they had it really rough, which a lot of my friends did and I'm sure a lot of your friends did, in different, weird fucked up American ways, is that it is this loneliness. And it's this reinvention at an early age of myth that really really strikes me. My friends, most of them who listen to this music, reimagine what happened around them as they want to see it.
ET: You are spelling in words what people like Karsh and Talvin are spelling in music. Exactly how I feel.
AJAY: Thank you very much, first of all. But secondly, I've done a lot of work for them just trying to put what I feel in and around music. Sometimes it comes out spoken word, sometimes it comes out text, sometimes it comes out like something someone use to draw or try to make. The formation of words and vocabulary around sounds is where it comes into play. If you say 'I want to get up and emcee,' yeah you can do that, but it's once you start to take on the role, you know what I mean. Or you can say 'Yeah, I want to get up and act,' that's one thing. But the formation of words around music is a skill I want to build. I want to be able to ride the vibe the same way a tabla artist or guitarist does it without having to force anything down anyone's throat.
ET: What little I've read of your writing, you're an extraordinary writer.
AJAY: Thank you. It's hard because actors shouldn't say 'I'm an actor, that's my trade.' I just say it's my trade and this particular kind of music allows me to bring words forward to put them on top of. Other musics, I'm sure they don't, particularly now.
ET: This particular music that we're into, what do you call it?
AJAY: It's changed a lot. When I was younger I used to be like 'Hey man, I like it when it's droney with hard beats.' Now, I'm like 'Well, it's really important that you consider development in the story,' because I hear music as narrative in this style. Other musics I can be childish and allow myself to go, but with this, I feel strongly and am such a part of it. I call it story. Rag is the same thing. You can take a great story that you've read from India, they set a tone with exposition about what they're going to do, come out and then present actions that are in the here and now. They know when the story ends because the end is coming and you know it's coming. The joy is you know that it's going to end, and it keeps going. It's freedom.
ET: Do you see similarities between that description of the music and rap?
AJAY: Rap is rhythm and poetry. It could be anywhere in the world. Rap could be in the temple, if you break it down to what it means. Hip-hop has gone so many different ways. It was a window that became a triumphal arch for a particular group of people. Hip-hop is storytelling and poetry as well. It's one thing to do poetry and enjoy the sounds of the words and the alliteration, but it's another to put intention behind words, and change the sound of the world by virtue of what you feel. That holds it up in a different light for a different sort of consideration. I think that rap is narrative, when it's done right.
ET: Do you feel musicians like Karsh and yourself are on the cusp of something that can be as big as hip-hop is now?
AJAY: I can't critique the music like that. I leave that sort of definition to a critic. I feel something much different about the music. It's been here for five thousand years. It sounds the same way as when you hear a jam-bay in Africa as it does when you trance out in a rave and hear it properly. Some people can't hear it because they freak out and they the kids do, and think that's there's drugs. It's a sound that's thousands upon thousands of years old. The fact that now the ear is ready to hear much more makes me think there's no other choice but to hear because there's a rhythm again.
ET: Damn, you got your shit down.
AJAY: If it takes on an emotional context, there will be thoughts that you have that you haven't put on your lips until you say them. This thing I learned about being around this music is that I cannot plan, I have to just feel it.
ET: It's like your dance style. I've never seen anyone dance like that except for ZAKIM, who says he's a student of yours. It's like your body becomes the music. Where did this dance come from?
AJAY: I was definitely a breakdancer early in life - Michael Jackson was there and all that stuff. I grew up in a community where there was a lot of Latinos, a lot of black kids, and a lot of whites all together, very integrated. They were not down with letting you get by with silly dancing. It was a place where people housed each other a lot. Not to say that I liked that environment, but it does build a sort of character as to how you move. Through that barrier, when I was about 16 and didn't care anymore, I knew I was happy when I was dancing. My body started to change as a result of being around different people.
I started really taking care of myself in school and in acting school, and when I came out, and started to experiment again with hallucinogenics and hearing the drum-and-bass and smoking a lot marijuana, and continuing to breakdance even behind closed doors, it sort of cracked something open in me in front of the speakers. Back in Chicago, there are particular styles it did come from - the liquid style of techno raving, Bollywood, breakdancing, all these different things, and then having practiced the Alexander technique and yoga opens a lot up in you so you don't feel as inhibited. Then when you find the sound that's exactly perfect for you, you have no choice but to respond in a positive way.
The thing I love about my friends is watching them hear the music. Some people, when you watch how they hear the music, will teach you about yourself. One of the things I wanted to do was get out how I was feeling about it, because it came into my ear a different way, and it came into my body a different way. Then I started spending weeks and weeks listening to tabla and dancing by myself and dancing by myself...
It got to the point where it wasn't me when I was hearing it, and I always try to get back to that feeling of connected disconnectedness. I know some people who are like 'I don't have any mystic flowing through me.' I mean I believe them and I believe that they don't, but sometimes I feel like they do have it flowing through them.
ET: Talking about disconnected connectedness and this unspoken connection people have who don't want to admit it's there but know it's there, what's your religious background?
AJAY: I'm a Hindu with this tendency, like most of my friends in America who grew up staunch-Hindu. We're all exposed to so much, and we had Christmas in my house and we had Jewish friends, but I did grow up a Hindu and all that. Whatever you're calling it is the same thing. That's another unspoken thing that all people understand, there's got to be something greater than us.