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The Emperor of the Saxophone

Kadri Gopalnath brings the ax to South India


Every December, the South Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras) hosts over 1,000 classical concerts devoted to the region's ancient Carnatic music. In 2002, the Narada Gana Sabha -- one of many fan-run organizations that sponsor these recitals -- hosted 99 stage events, most of them vocal concerts. Of the instrumental programs, seven featured the veena, the South Indian equivalent of the sitar, and three showcased the wooden flute. Four more concerts presented soloists performing on a mostly metal, single-reed Belgian creation known as the saxophone.

The saxophone's emergence as an accepted Carnatic instrument is a very recent development, the responsibility for which resides almost exclusively with a 53-year-old man from a town 200 miles west of Chennai. The musician's name is Kadri Gopalnath.

From 1977, when he gave his first public recital in Madras, until only a few years ago, Gopalnath was considered the lone Carnatic master of the saxophone. Within the last decade, however, there has been an explosion of regional interest in the instrument. Saxophonists can now be found performing sacred pujas (prayer ceremonies) without restriction at Hindu temples across South India. The ebullient master saxophonist, Gopalnath, explains that he has nearly 300 students, including a number who have already become recording artists.

Born the son of a nadaswaram player, the 15-year-old Gopalnath was in the process of learning the long, oboe-esque, double-reed instrument when, on a school trip to the Mysore Palace, he heard his first saxophone in the palace's fanfare band. He talked his father into buying him one and began spending a minimum of six hours a day attempting to conjure the shuddering oscillations and note embellishments that give South India's vocally derived music its distinctive character. It took another two years and some alterations to the keypads before he began producing forth the sound he'd always intended for the instrument.

In 1975 he moved to Madras where he continued Carnatic music studies under the famous percussionist T.V. Gopalakrishnan. After two more years of constant practice, his new guru judged the 27-year-old ready to perform his first public saxophone recital. Though Kadri speaks of an initial resistance on the part of certain members of the Carnatic music establishment, it seems to have melted away almost instantly.

While the saxophonist concedes that "there is a limit to how far any instrument can reproduce [the nuances of] a singer," his playing has won him nearly universal praise from the most discerning of rasikas -- experts whose judgments determine the fate of a musician's career. Over the last 25 years, Gopalnath has recorded dozens of CDs and been honored with a constant stream of awards and titles including some that seem to have been created specifically for him such as Saxophone Chakravarthy -- The Emperor of Saxophone.

Though Gopalnath's background is hardly influenced by Western and jazz sources, he was invited to perform at a Bombay jazz festival, in 1980, where Charles Mingus alumnus John Handy was so stunned by the Indian's music that he ran off for his saxophone and joined him on stage. This brief meeting led to further collaborations between the two as well as appearances at a series of European jazz festivals. More recently Gopalnath has recorded with the American flutist James Newton and toured England with British free improvisation legend Evan Parker.

In 1994, legendary film director K. Balachandar collaborated with Gopalnath on a movie built around the character of a classical saxophonist. Prior to filming, Gopalnath sat down with music director A.R. Rahman, a childhood friend and currently the most popular composer in all of Indian film music, and recorded brief solos with broad emotional content.

The resulting picture, titled Duet, begins as a love triangle involving two brothers and the girl next door. After almost three hours, the film evolves into an action movie in which the saxophone-playing brother must save the girl from a megalomaniac film actor she has spurned. Duet was a huge hit and sales of Gopalnath's classical tapes and CDs instantly spiked.

On his current tour, Gopalnath is accompanied by one of South India's premier violinists, A. Kanyakumari -- a major solo artist with many recordings under her own name. She is a featured member of the ensemble Vadya Lahari and as a soloist is famous for performing a legendary 29-hour, non-stop recital. Expect the Emory concert to be somewhat shorter, but no less memorable.

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