The Alaya project energizes traditional music from northern India

The Alaya Project is made up of Colin Hogan (left), Rohan Krishnamurthy and Prasant Radhakrishnan. Krishnamurthy plays a hybrid drum kit which is a combination of a classical drum and a South Indian mridanga. Photo: Julie Sparenburg / Alaya Project

Alaya Project band members like to joke that they are a Beatles cover band.

The first time Rohan Krishnamurthy, Prasant Radhakrishnan and Colin Hogan performed as part of Project Alaya was in 2017 for a 50th anniversary celebration of the Beatles’ 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at the UC Theater in Berkeley.

But five years later, the East Bay trio are no longer covering the Beatles and have produced nine original songs that make up their self-titled debut album, released on August 15.

The sound of the Ayala project is a mix of jazz, funk and carnatic percussion, a classic North Indian sound that focuses on vocals, with instruments imitating the human voice via a mixture of percussion, accordion and saxophone. Radhakrishnan’s saxophone floats over Krishnamurthy’s rhythmic carnatic percussion, while Hogan’s soft piano plays.

The combination shouldn’t work, and yet it does.

Now, throughout the month and into November, the Alaya Project plans to play its unique sound at four Bay Area libraries during their celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, which falls this year on Monday October 24. The band also plans to perform at a few venues in San Francisco, including the Black Cat jazz club in the Tenderloin on Nov. 13, before heading out on a cross-country tour.

“It was never really about trying to combine these (genres),” Radhakrishnan said, but “I started to hear certain melodies and certain sound textures, certain harmonies.”

The Alaya Project at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Photo: Julie Sparenburg / Alaya Project

Project Alaya’s distinct sound is enhanced by Krishnamurthy’s hybrid drum kit, which adds South Indian mridanga drumming to a classic kit. Krishnamurthy said the idea behind the hybrid drum kit came from his time at the California Jazz Conservatory, learning from longtime drummer teacher Alan Hall.

“As I formed more and more of the sound of the Alaya project, I realized that I needed this combined hybrid sound that takes us from the jazz space to the funk space, the carnatic space, and the combines in new ways,” he explained.

While the band’s jazz elements often replace the vocals that typically accompany Carnatic percussion, vocals are still intrinsic to Carnatic music. To that end, they perform frequently with San Jose singer Roopa Mahadevan. She said the group trusted the music “to speak for itself and be authentic”.

“And there’s a flow there,” she added. “So my goal is just to see how the voice can work with that or challenge it or just play and engage with that kind of soundscape.”

San Jose singer Roopa Mahadevan frequently collaborates with the Alaya project. Photo: provided by Roopa Mahadevan

In the United States, the group notes, there are not many classical South Asian artists, let alone those involved in the Carnatic tradition, so they feel a particularly strong connection with each other.

Krishnamurthy and Radhakrishnan met in college in Michigan and started jamming together. But it wasn’t until they moved to the Bay Area that they finally came together musically for Project Alaya in 2013.

A few years later, they contacted Hogan, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist from Oakland, to ask if he would play accordion at the Beatles’ anniversary show. Although Hogan is the only non-South Asian member of the band, he gained experience performing Indian musical genres while growing up in San Francisco.

“He was exposed to many South Asian and African rhythm traditions from childhood,” Krishnamurthy said. “His dad is also a tabla player, so he’s always been in tune with (that culture), and he’s also a phenomenal musician.”

Their friendship with Hogan grew quickly as they played music together.

“We all really like being together,” Radhakrishnan said, “and the music feels very natural.”

They may never become as big as the Beatles, but members of Project Alaya say their real goal is to show audiences how South Asian music can blend with other styles and connect with music lovers. far beyond the Indian community.

“We kind of have a responsibility here,” Krishnamurthy said. “We represent this tradition that dates back centuries.”

The Alaya project: 6:30-7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24 Free. San Carlos Library, 610 Elm St., San Carlos; 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25 Free. Millbrae Library, 1 Library Ave., Millbrae; 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on November 13. $25 to $35. Black Cat, 400 Eddy Street, SF www.rohanrhythm.com



Norma A. Roth