TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival features two musical takes on the Komagata Maru

Neelamjit Dhillon and Michael Blake have very different reasons for exploring a shameful chapter in Vancouver’s history
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It might seem strange that this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival features not one but two musical projects inspired by the Komagata Maru centenary, but consider this: jazz has always been concerned with memory, prejudice, and positive change.

That’s one of many good points made by Neelamjit Dhillon in a telephone conversation from his current home base of Los Angeles, where he’s wrapping up his doctoral dissertation in music at the California Institute of the Arts.

“Social justice has been a part of jazz ever since its beginnings,” says the Vancouver native, a multitalented percussionist, saxophonist, sitarist, and composer. “We’re talking about a music that was coming up in a racially divided America, where some people weren’t getting the same kind of rights as others. And then as the civil-rights movement became more and more at the forefront of the black experience, musicians started using their music specifically for that purpose. Think of the iconic images of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’, or John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’, which was kind of an elegy for the four children that were killed in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Many artists have used their music as what they do to pursue justice.”

That’s true of both upcoming Komagata Maru concerts, although bandleaders Dhillon and Michael Blake have startlingly different reasons for wanting to take one of the most shameful episodes in Vancouver’s history for their inspiration.

For those of you who have somehow avoided the front-page newspaper stories and the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s recent exhibition, it was a hundred years ago last month that a Japanese-registered vessel, the Komagata Maru, steamed into Vancouver and was prevented from unloading its cargo—that cargo being 376 Indian nationals, mostly military veterans from Punjab, who were seeking a new life on the West Coast. After a two-month standoff, and at the instigation of white-supremacist politicians, the ship was forced to sail back to Calcutta, where 19 of its passengers were killed in a clash with police.

The episode left Vancouver’s small South Asian community with a lingering fear of racist reprisals, and an entirely understandable mistrust of authority figures.

“The story of the Komagata Maru is one that I’ve known since childhood,” Dhillon says. “You go to any community function and they’re always trying to retell this story. So the Komagata Maru leaves a legacy with all of us, as Canadians, and it comes back to the question of identity. I was born in Canada, but how do I reconcile the fact that I was born into a country that doesn’t want me, in a way?”

Dhillon hopes to answer that question with his Komagata Maru project, in which he’ll also try to integrate his mixed musical heritage: he’s trained on tabla with South Asian masters Swapan Chaudhuri and Zakir Hussain, but has also benefited from the guidance of avant-jazz educators Vinny Golia and Wadada Leo Smith.

“In my early days, I kept those identities separate: I would play Indian classical concerts or at the Sikh temple, the gurdwara. And then I would play the jazz music I was learning at school with my friends,” he explains. “But being from Vancouver, and being a part of things like the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, they just came to seem like a natural fit.’”

Blake, a Vancouver-born saxophonist now living in Brooklyn, has a simpler—if arguably more problematic—connection to the Komagata Maru story: he’s related to H.H. “Henry Herbert” Stevens, the Conservative politician at the forefront of the so-called Hindu exclusion movement.

“The light bulb went off last year,” he relates in a Skype conversation from his home. “I realized that it was the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru, and I finally put it together that my great-granduncle, H.H. Stevens, was linked to this great atrocity. So having acknowledged that there was this kind of dark cloud over H.H.’s actions, his abuse of power, I thought it would be profound and important to create a piece of music that had a quality of atonement. That’s really what provoked the idea.”

Different as their stories and intents might be, Dhillon and Blake have a lot in common beyond their interest in history. Remarkably, given that neither knew of the other’s project until recently, they’re sharing the services of keyboardist Chris Gestrin and bassist André Lachance. (Drummer Dan Gaucher will also play with Dhillon; cellist Peggy Lee, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, trumpeter JP Carter, and guitarist Ron Samworth round out Blake’s septet.) And both share the conviction that having Vancouver musicians of different ethnicities appear on-stage together will further our city’s ongoing racial and historical reconciliation process.

“Ultimately, I’m trying to write music that is respectful to the victims of the Komagata Maru incident—and that reflects the power that music has to right a wrong,” says Blake. “As Albert Ayler said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe,’ so I hope that comes through.”

The TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival presents the Neelamjit Dhillon Quartet at Performance Works next Saturday (June 21). Michael Blake’s Komagata Maru Blues plays Ironworks next Sunday (June 22).

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Kevin McNeilly
Neelamjit Dhillon and Michael Blake will also be talking about their music around the Komagata Maru at "Improvising Across Boundaries: An Unconventional Colloquium" sponsored by Coastal Jazz and by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 10:00am at UBC Robson Square, room C400. Admission to the colloquium is free.
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