In Amrita Rajasingham’s native Sri Lanka, no one celebrated the holidays.
“It was just completely quiet for New Years Eve. Everyone’s mourning someone,” the Walt Whitman High School senior said. “My family’s okay, we were really lucky in that, but I’ve been hearing from cousins who have been calling and writing and saying that they lost friends, they’ve lost a school friend. They’ve gone through a lot.”
“You didn’t realize how big it was automatically until you started hearing the numbers that were coming in and you start getting phone calls from family and it’s just completely shocking,” Amrita said.
That shock, that feeling of helplessness to correct something so emotionally close and so physically far away was what brought the internationally-recognized jazz fusion guitarist Prasanna and a dozen of volunteer organizers to the Whitman auditorium Friday night.
A crowd of more than three hundred braved wet weather and messy Friday traffic to attend a jazz fusion concert to benefit relief organizations working in south Asia.
The event was organized by members of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras Alumni Association of Washington DC.
The Tamil Nadu province of India, where Madras is located, was one of the hardest hit.
“Naturally when this happened, many of us had been there on those beaches, we had lived there for five years in the city, going to college there. So we were personally very touched by it,” said Shankar Ayer, vice president of the chapter. The concert, he said, was the work of “a very small group of dedicated volunteers … literally they have moved mountains to make this happen.”
In roughly a week, the organizers lined up the artists, rented the concert space and audio equipment, publicized the event, and acquired sponsors to cover the overhead cost, so that all of the money raised will go directly to relief organizations. At $20 a ticket, the event is estimated to have raised at least $6,000.
Prasanna, himself an Indian Institute of Technology Madras alumnus, performed with bassist Mike Pope and drummer Brian Delaney, both well known in New York music circles. Delaney is the current drummer for punk rock icons the New York Dolls.
“Why did we choose Prasanna? …. First of all he’s a known guy. But what the world has to do in a crisis like this is to understand the bonds that pull us together as a community and sitting out here halfway across the world Prasanna’s music actually symbolizes a lot of the process of sharing bonds,” said Amrita’s father Indira Rajasingham, another one of the organizers.
Prasanna’s music integrates the classical music of south India known as carnatic music with jazz and other world music.
“[It’s] music which is hopefully fun for people to listen to and at the same time it also is something for peoples mind,” the performer said. “It draws form where I come from which is south India and south Indian classical music. … At the same time there’s a lot of rock and roll, and jazz, there’s blues and funk and R&B and all kinds of things. I don’t start making those divisions. It’s when other people point out, ‘Hey I saw some influence of James Brown’ or something I realize ‘Oh it’s there.’”
Prasanna, who lives in Boston, was preparing to return to Madras a few days after the concert and said he was glad, somehow relieved even, to be going, rather than watching from afar.
For those still at a distance from the tragedy, the concert was a welcome opportunity to be involved.
“So many of us are speechless. We don’t know what words to use to express the event. So how do we react to this as a global community? There’s nothing we can do about the tsunami. It’s killed these people,” Rajasingham said. “But the next stage is that the death toll … could double in the next few weeks because of disease, sanitation, water, and housing. So this whole effort was to address that need.”