Name: Surya Botofasina
Occupation: Composer, keyboardist, improviser
Current release: Surya Botofasina's Everyone's Children, co-composed by Carlos Niño, is out November 4th 2022 via Spiritmuse.
[Read our Carlos Niño interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Surya Botofasina and would like to know more about his music, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, and twitter.
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
It was in my being from my musical beginning from the time I was in elementary school.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
Before I knew what musical improvisation even was, it enthralled me due the musical environment that was naturally weaved into my childhood. One of the most impactful moments to me was hearing the trumpet solo of my Uncle (Roy Campbell, Jr.) on a song of my mother’s (Radha Botofasina) called 'Human Hearts’. The power of his solo blew me away, an still does to this day.
However the first two artists that made me yearn for improvisational expression on the piano were two artists that my teacher- the late and great Yusuf Rahman led me to. They were Gonzalo Rubalcaba playing ‘Well You Needn’t’ and Bud Powell.
Little did I know that Swamini studied with Bud Powell; for the music I heard in the Mandir (our place of worship where i grew up felt like it was brand new every time.
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
I think this is an intellectual and academic way of acknowledging that all Source for improvisation comes from a place closer to the stars and the core of Earth than anything humans created.
The true answer is what makes that call louder within us as we pace this Earth.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
In every way, my approach is continuously being inspired by the gifts and challenges of navigating this human existence in an increasingly material plane. My approach reflects a large part of the African-American experience and how deeply our music has reverberated through the planet and culture.
I hope with all of my soul, that I am able to pay homage and one day be worthy of a place in the lineage of the ones I admire so much. It is not for me to ratify however; I can only hope to be given that seat by those who forged the path before me.
All Glory would go to the Divine and Guru Swamini Turiyasangitananda.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
I asked McCoy Tyner how many hours he practised per day to become great. His answer was one challenge.
The hardest one is to play what I hear, and more importantly what energy is in my being plus the space the improv is happening.
That requires an amount of attention, and intention that is only received through a certain lifestyle and focus for me.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I feel every piano or keyboard I see wants me to play it. I liken this to feeling like the Aborigine people and the First Nations members of North America had about their native land before it was viciously separated from them.
Every place, every key, every piano I feel a deep desire to honour and greet. My keyboards and synthesisers are electronic expressions of soul calling and joy.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
When I was about 21 years old, I was given the opportunity to play a solo piano piece at the John Coltrane Festival in Los Angeles.
I was very nervous about it. I honestly did not feel ready. During a point in the five minutes i was graciously allotted by his family I was able to close my eyes, tune everything out and go within and make it up on the spot.
That is the first time I thought I could possibly be “enough” as a musician.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
Being raised on an Ashram - plus a love of team sports is the emotional baseline for a person like me; I feel more naturally inclined to be a part of a conglomerate or collaborative experience.
However at this point I feel just as confident to search in solitude or in fellowship.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I do not agree or disagree with his perspective, but I respect that it is his view.
Life and its connection to the Divine is the only source I will ever need. I am lucky to have family, ocean, sunrises and sunset also inspire me too.
When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?
I love how my teacher Reggie Workman would refer to it as “making your statement”. When we make statements, we are not reinventing a language but rather using it to express the sentiments our emotions are navigating. I feel the same way about the notes and sounds we use to improvise.
We did not invent wood, brass, nylon, metal, soil, fire, or liquid. We do use them to enhance our human experience and hopefully with congruence to a deeper purpose than consumption or waste. Such is the same about scales, chords, and rhythm we use to make our “statements.”
To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?
Find a balance between the sound and your ego.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
When one has the deepest moments with other humans language or words are often not present. This can be applied to both group and solo performances.
Usually the mind needs to be as clear as possible - well at least it does for me.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
The ideal state of mind to me is just emotionally honest. Being creative is often spurned by not just the desire to express - but the emotional plane one is travelling on in that moment of our lives. Whether that emotion is somewhere closer to elation or despondence can affect what we are led to.
However one of my best friends used to tell me he knew when I was the saddest, for that was when I tried to play the prettiest music. That does not change when in a group or solo, but if one is required to follow the structure of a song then it becomes more about the material and not the vehicle.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
I see sound, space and performance in the same view: being present.
At this juncture in my life I do not feel any need to fully conform to anything outside of the soul’s desire to feel peace and positivity wherever I may be blessed to play music. No matter where I am, the eyes can always close and be transported to an alternative world.
I hope one tries to “read the room” in both a physical and metaphysical way.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?
Music is a literal soundtrack for the experiences we have. But even for our baseline mental health, the sounds and frequencies of music can curate our recovery from so many difficult situations. Or, the elixir to assist us to persist for yet another day. Then, of course, there is the celebratory and spiritual energy within its Divinity … which is where is ends up for me in my view.
I have had beautiful amounts of joy being a musician this time around. None more than when my heart was connected to playing my instrument in devotional intention and praise to the Divine. Peace and joy … OneLove.