Local musician Jay Nair, who is releasing an album with guitarist Ross Hammond called "Songs of Universal Peace," sees two types of peace.
One where people respect one another without directly engaging with each other, the other where you actively celebrate other people and their differences. It’s this second definition that he sings about on his record, set for release on April 14.
“That is what's needed now. We are rejoicing each other, empowering each other, a celebration of diverse moods,” Nair says. “The other one is not sustainable. If we just try to coexist, it's just a matter of time, we will get bored and find fault with each other and try to kill each other. We need to find ways to celebrate each other.”
The songs on "Songs of Universal Peace" are all improvised, with Hammond on guitar and Nair on vocals and percussion. The words however are not. They are mantras in Sanskrit about peace, some as old as 5,000 years old. Nair hopes to introduce these Sanskrit verses to people not typically exposed to Sanskrit.
Sanskrit verses are typically chanted in monotone. Nair’s melodies are improvised on the record. The songs were recorded on the record live, and in most cases first takes.
“I didn't want to create new lyrics for it because these lyrics carry a lot of power because it has survived 5,000 years,” Nair says. "I wanted to have some product that I could offer to my friends, family and community which is based on universal peace. My friends and family in India can listen, they should have the same mood that is created for you or anybody here.”
There’s a meditative quality to the songs, which mix elements including raga, Americana and jazz.
Hammond – who’s been gigging the better part of the past two decades – is well-known around town as a prolific jazz and experimental guitarist . He hosts Luna’s once a week and owns the Gold Lion Arts.
There’s less jazz in his music these days, and a little more of an Appalachian folk music sensibility, but it’s always experimental, and bucks clean genre lines. He also collaborates with musicians from different backgrounds and genre traditions.
Nair is a classically trained raga musician from India. He moved to the U.S. in 2001, initially to the East Coast, then later to the Bay area, and finally in 2005 to Sacramento.
By day he works for the state. He also shares his musical skills with a handful of yoga centers, teaching raga-based music for meditations.
He also performs kirtan music with the band Radiant Friend.
“We made something work. and it wasn't Appalachian music and it wasn't Raga, it was kind of this other thing. to me that's the best thing because that's yours. I've always been that way,” Hammond says.
For years, Nair played in more traditional Indian musical circles, but had been on the lookout for non-Indian musicians to collaborate with.
He met Hammond, oddly enough, by chance, walking by Old Soul at Weatherstone early in 2017 and heard him play his guitar. The tones and notes he was playing reminded Nair of the sitar. Not intending to stop for coffee, he swung in and introduced himself to Hammond. They immediately hit it off and found they shared a similar philosophy musically.
“It's not that easy to collaborate unless the artist is really confident in what he's presenting and also willing to compromise,” Nair says. “There should be a meeting in the middle. I was willing to do that from my own culture. I was looking for artists who were confident with another style of music.”
The first time they played together was in September 2017 at a 12-hour benefit concert for Sacramento Food Bank Hammond threw at Luna’s. Nair hopped on stage and improvised with him for two songs. During the second song, Nair noticed a couple who’d come in for coffee. They were watching the duo play intently and were moved to tears.
“I was like, this is what I want to create,” Nair says.
By December, Hammond suggested they make a record.
“I'm trying to have his voice and his songs be at the front," said Hammond. "And I'm trying to either accompany him or twin him or counter him. It's almost like counterpoint in a way. Like two melodies going against each other. As a duet I really like that format because I've always been really attracted to how much stuff can you do with the smallest amount of people? What's the most complex or the most fullest we can make it just with the two of us?”
Nair feels good about the ways he’s bending the rules of raga to play with Hammond because, ultimately, he feels like he’s serving its higher function.
“I'm more committed to the deeper philosophy, that these set of rules are not just for practice, when you play, you create the mood,” Nair says. “In playing even if you have to break some rules, as long as it is melodious, I don't care.”
'Songs of Universal Peace' Concert
When: Saturday, April 14, 7 p.m.
Where: Sacramento Dharma Center, 3111 Wissemann Drive
Info: 916-386-9844, www.sacdharma.org