Photo Credit: Brandon Munoz
India-born, Brooklyn-based experimental beatmaker/singer/songwriter and ‘The Jazz Diaries’ (TJD) founder Jitwam got on a call with OTJF to talk latest release, “Sun After Rain,” and the impressive ‘Chalo’ project he’s put together with writer Dhruva Balram. Currently in Sydney to spend time with his family, Jitwam takes us through some of his musical influences, crate-digging exploits, and what he’s been up to for the better part of 2020 in Australia.
You were born in India, then raised in Sydney & New Zealand. You did a bit of traveling in between, and now you’re making beats in Brooklyn. Can you tell us about some of your noteworthy musical Influences?
My mom used to listen to a lot of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. Back then, I didn’t know the names of any of the songs. To me, it was just Indian music.
Growing up, I listened to everything from the Spice Girls to TuPac & Biggie, a lot of psychedelic rock. I find that my music is a cultural melting pot. That’s really what India is to me as well. All of the Bollywood music that I love is a mish-mash of Spanish guitar, Qawwali rhythms, Psychedelic rock breaks with orchestras. So, I want to continue that legacy of using different sounds and making fusion music.
Do you still have family in Assam?
Yeah, my whole family is there. My mom and dad are in Sydney, but all my cousins are in Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, and Manipur. I try and make a trip every year.
I’m assuming you shot the music video for Busstop on one of your yearly trips to India.
We shot the video in 2018, and the record came out in 2019.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you and your friends got together and started ‘The Jazz Diaries’?
It was me, K.C Vanwright, from Sydney & Nigel Emphiso from London. We started the label in 2014 while I was still in Sydney.
Same story as everyone else. I was doing music, and no one wanted to put my record out, so I said, “Fuck it, I’ll put my own record out,” and that’s how TJD started.
It’s been a blessing, man! Ever since I put the first record out, Gilles Peterson was on it, Andrew Jervis from Bandcamp was on it, and it also got to Moodymann that put it on his DJ Kicks. I feel like if you put some things out there in the Universe, it just does what it does.
Is the trio going strong? Are you all still involved with TJD?
Yeah, we just divide up the responsibilities. The guys help me get the records out. There’s a lot of infrastructure involved with running a label, and so, it’s really important to have a team behind you, to keep the engine running.
With the Chalo Project, there’s Dhruva, myself, Nigel, Amanda. Everything is a team effort.
Speaking of Chalo, Can you tell us a bit about how this project came together?
On all my trips to India, I’d been meeting loads of producers and musicians from different cities. In any local country, we always rely on foreigners to be the headliners. Despite how talented they are, the local artists from cities like Mumbai always get relegated to the little text on the bottom. I really just wanted to change that narrative and put people at the front of it and just build the scene and connect loads of different people. That’s the basic idea!
It’s beautiful, man. I’ve made so many new friends out of it. It’s really good to have the record out and get everyone to hear many of these artists for the first time (especially in the west.) I couldn’t have done this without Dhruva. He was a godsend. Having ideas is one thing and having the manpower to execute is a totally different story.
2020 has been a bit all over the place. I assume you weren’t traveling as much on account of there being no gigs and stuff. That must’ve given you a lot of time to focus on ‘Chalo.’
100%. When the COVID stuff hit, I put this project to the side. But Nigel brought it up on one of our TJD calls, and he was like, “Now is the perfect time to be doing something like this.” And it was.
Now that the Vinyl is out, what are you planning on doing with Chalo next? Are these compilations going to be a yearly thing?
That’s the plan, definitely. Further to the music, Dhruva is heading up a podcast series to shine a light on a whole bunch of different topics ranging from the super-political to the light-hearted.
The focus is on music, arts and culture with a social awareness of today’s world. We started Chalo HQ as a platform to elevate a lot of good work that these guys are doing. Hopefully, God- willing, there’ll be some workshops and bigger projects down the line. It’s all in god’s hands, you know? You just take it one step at a time.
Moving from place to place for someone inspired by a whole variety of sounds, I bet you’ve got your hands on great records crate-digging across the world. You’re known to dig for lesser-known alternative cuts. Can you tell us about some of the wax you’ve procured over the last few years?
Wherever I go, I always try and buy local records because they’re the cheapest (laughs). There are so many collectors all over the world. There are crazy collectors in New Delhi with a whole stash of ‘His Masters Voice,’ ‘EMI’, ‘Polydor,’ and all that. I guess, lately, my last one is ‘Karate Bogaloo’ from Melbourne; I picked that up the other day. It’s like funk music, basically. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to travel and explore a lot of these niche scenes in different parts of the world.
Given that this is such an emotionally charged year, do you find yourself inspired by music from the past, or do you have a lot of new stuff you’ve been listening to these days?
It’s whatever I can get my hands on or whatever people are playing around me. Music is such a big part of my life. I love listening to music; I love driving the car and just listening to tunes on the stereo. Everyone’s always sending me joints and telling me to check this or that out. It’s an ongoing thing.
I love old records from the 60s like Velvet Underground or Records from Radiohead and like Miles Davis. It’s a journey, you know?
That’s what I try and do with the albums as well. It allows me to explore different styles, different rhythms, and concepts. I’m always expanding the sound, you know? The last record I did was with Natureboy Flako, where I got the chance to expand my palette. With this next record that I’m working on, you know, it’s more of the same. Just bigger and better.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest release with Folamour, “Sun After Rain,” and the remix of that? How did you guys meet, and how did these tracks come together?
I met up with Folamour through my booking agent in New York. He manages Folamour’s bookings too. Folamour dug one of my tunes, “Where you gonna go,” and it just started from there. He came over to the house, and within 10 minutes, we had that tune down!
What about “Body Do.’?
That’s with my boy Mike Bloom from New York. Again, just vibing out in the studio and creating sounds. That record has gone through a lot of different journeys, and I’m glad that it’s finally seeing the light of day.
Most of your releases in 2020 are a departure from the mellow sound you had on 2019’s ‘Honeycomb.’ Was that a conscious decision given the year we’ve all been having?
“Sun After Rain” was definitely a conscious decision to put something positive into the world. I feel like it’s so easy to get down, but we also need to get up as well. It was really conscious to put that record out during CoVID. That tune was written ages ago. Sometimes you look through the vaults, and different tunes mean different things to you at different times in your life. “Sun After Rain” is one of them. When COVID hit, and I was going through the archives, that tune just spoke to me because I just feel like it’s the message that we need right now.
You got Bass from an Indian musician, Nate08. How did you guys link up?
In Mumbai. I did a couple of shows out in Mumbai, and we met up with the whole crew out there. Nate08 stuck out. He’s super talented.
There’s been a really good response to his tune on the Chalo compilation. It was featured on DJMag and a bunch of different places. It’s just a blessing to meet such talented people and work with them. I don’t take that lightly at all.
Do you step out of your comfort zone a lot?
Yeah, definitely. That’s what makes music exciting. That’s what keeps me going. When I listen to all my old stuff compared to the music I’m putting out now, I see a progression in the textures and the palette of sound and my songwriting and musicianship. Everything is always evolving. Just exploring new and better ways of doing things, you know? That’s constant.
It’s easy to get stuck, especially in a year like this. You’re a big proponent of Allen Ginsburg’s “First Thought, Best Thought,” and I found that interesting. Does that help you in a writer’s block situation?
100%. As with anything in life, when you try too hard to do something, it often becomes a little bit out of reach. I feel like anything to do with creativity or the arts, surrendering yourself as the vessel for the message is where I find a lot of my best work comes from. I find that to be true for a lot of the music I’m attracted to; it’s the same thing. You can’t hold too tightly, and you can’t hold it too loose.
Interestingly, though, if you look at someone like D’Angelo, he took so long to release his projects. You could say he’s a perfectionist, but does that mean that his way of working is in direct contrast to “First Thought, Best Thought?”
No. First Thought, Best Thought is more to do with when the idea is born. It’s like throwing as much paint onto the canvas as possible. A lot of the other part of music is the editing process. That takes anywhere from a couple of hours to months, if not years.
There are definitely two parts to the process for me; The initial act of creation and the editing process – Sculpting the rock so that it forms a statue instead of it being a bunch of random rocks.
Some tunes are instant, and they lend themselves towards very little editing, and others are constant works in progress. I guess, in terms of all that stuff, I try not to dictate anything. I let the music dictate what it means instead of me trying to. I just try and let the music tell me where I need to go with it.
If you find yourself in a difficult situation creatively, how do you get back? What positive rituals do you practice to circumvent some of those feelings?
Practice! Practicing different scales on the guitar, listening to different types of music, DJ’ing different kinds of music, going over to your friend’s house, and listening to what they’re cooking up in the studio. You have to be open in all ways. It’s not always that you’re going to be in a super creative zone, you know? There are moments in life where you need rest, and I think it’s important to accept the moment as it comes. I feel like everything always feeds into each other.
Do you have anything planned for 2021? I’m sure staying put has impacted the quality and the quantity of music you’ve made.
You’re exactly right. This was the first time in a long time where I got to just sit down and just make music every day. I’ve taken this time as a blessing and just put the work in. There’s always a silver lining to every dark cloud. As artists, you better have something to say now. After Trump, and all the shit that’s gone down, you better have something to say.
Do you feel a lot more hopeful about the future now? I’m sure it’ll be life-altering to have representation in high places. How do you think that’s going to impact projects like ‘Chalo’? I’m sure there will be a trickle down effect in some way, don’t you think?
I don’t know, man. I’m just really skeptical about this political stuff, but it’s all about you and what you do at the end of the day.
It’s so easy to place all your fortunes or misfortunes on external things. But, I feel like you need to be doing your own thing consistently, and that’s how the game works, you know? It may have a trickle-down effect, god-willing.
All my friends in NY are just partying it up right now. All the cities are going wild, but at the end of the day, you still need to legislate, you still need to put bills on action, you still need to keep on protesting, you still need to keep educating and informing. That work never ends. It doesn’t matter who’s in power.
This is probably just a step in the right direction, but there’s still so much to do.
Are you going to be in Sydney for the foreseeable future, or are you going to make your way back to Brooklyn?
I think I’m going to go back next year.
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session (past or present), which one would it be and why?
R.D Burman (Burning Train). They went out to an actual train track to record that. Charanjeet Singh recorded all that synthesizer stuff on that record. I would love to be in the Studio with R.D Burman and just see how he does it. He was so crazy with it.
Every time I play a Burning Train tune on my DJ sets on the dancefloor, everyone goes crazy. “What is this music?”
I’m attracted to things that you can’t place a time or a genre on. I feel like R.D Burman’s music is the epitome of that.
It’s crazy how it didn’t work out for him at the end of his career.
Back in those days, I feel like a lot of mental health issues weren’t widely known, or people weren’t informed—same thing with Jaco Pistorious.
I feel like there’s a lot of mental health issues that we just don’t know about. We only hear, “Oh my god, he committed suicide,” or whatever it is. I just feel like back in the day, a lot of mental health issues weren’t really known about. We’re learning more and more, and we’re a lot more accepting, so hopefully, there’s a lot less of them.
Thank you, Jitwam.
Words by Akhil Hemdev