Deepak Ram may be the only South African-born Indian musician to compose a tune in honor of the dance that Nelson Mandela does on stage. He may be the first person to ever master the jazz standard “Giant Steps” on bansuri (Indian bamboo flute). But none of this is surprising given where he came from. His latest album, Steps featuring both of these tunes, is a logical response to his life experience, with one foot in ragas and one foot in African and African-American jazz.

Deepak Ram


Genre: Jazz.


  • Deepak Ram (bansuri)
  • Vic Juris (guitar)
  • Tony Marino (bass)
  • Jamey Haddad (percussion & drums)

“Madiba’s Dance” and “Blues for Shyam Babu” published by Seher Music Publishing (ASCAP)

Fire in the Attic: South Africa’s Indian Bansuri-Player
Deepak Ram Takes Steps to Merge His Dual Musical Heritages

Deepak Ram may be the only South African-born Indian musician to compose a tune in honor of the dance that Nelson Mandela does on stage. He may be the first person to ever master the jazz standard “Giant Steps” on bansuri (Indian bamboo flute). But none of this is surprising given where he came from. His latest album, Steps (on Golden Horn Records) featuring both of these tunes, is a logical response to his life experience, with one foot in ragas and one foot in African and African-American jazz.

Only a few weeks after he was born in South Africa, Indian musician Deepak Ram’s family home was bulldozed. In fact the whole town was razed thanks to South Africa’s Group Areas Act, which formally segregated people according to the government’s racial classifications. Sophiatown, the mixed area where Ram’s parents, uncles, and brothers lived, was the same area that many of South Africa’s best jazz musicians originated. So even after they relocated to the all-Indian town of Lenasia, jazz had made its impression on the family.

“When I was thirteen, my older brother spent his wages every week on a jazz LP: Coltrane, Miles, but also Ravi Shankar,” remembers Ram. “When he wasn’t around, I would sneak and play his albums. My mom and dad would listen to Bollywood, Kirtan, and Bhajan music, and my other brother was making guitars with oil cans like the African kids.” But, at age fifteen, when Ram discovered Indian music, starting with his first formal bansuri and tabla lessons in South Africa, he immersed himself completely for the next 20 years. “When I started those lessons, I was born again,” says Ram. “I forgot about high school. I read every music book in the local library and wanted to play music all the time.”

At age 17, Ram — whose grandfather was brought to South Africa to work on a plantation in 1860 — moved to Bombay to study with one of the greatest flute makers in India. “We didn’t have family left in India, so I stayed in one of the poorest slums in Bombay and shared a room with nine other people,” says Ram. “The household head was a famous flute maker named Suryakant V. Limaye. I was very close to him. He was like a father, a friend.” Ram kept going back and forth between South Africa and India studying and practicing.

One day Ram got word that his 65-year old teacher had died and left his collection of flutes to Ram. It was four years until Ram could gather the funds to return to India. The flutes were stored in the attic until Ram’s return. “Though they were somewhat reluctant, eventually his family brought all the flutes down and cleaned them up,” says Ram. “That night there was an electrical problem causing a fire in the attic. If I had been a day later, the flutes would have been gone forever.”

Ram went on to study with world-renowned bansuri master Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia starting at 21. “My technique is informed a lot by my teacher,” explains Ram, who is considered Chaurasia’s senior disciple and has 400 recordings of the maestro. “For twenty years I listened to my teacher every single day; very concentrated listening.”

Steps finds Ram taking his mastery of Indian music and applying it to the jazz he heard as a child. The latest chapter may have begun when Ram was interviewed for a book about flute technique. The author posited that it would be impossible to play “Giant Steps” on the bansuri. Ram took that as a challenge.

“Jazz and Indian music have one thing in common: improvisation. The first American musicians to respond to the earliest Indian musicians that came to the West were jazz musicians. Miles and Coltrane were drawn to the improvisation,” Ram explains. “In Indian music you explore a raga for a length of time following melodic convention within a set group of notes. But in jazz the set of notes moves all the time. It’s possible to play that way on the bansuri, but it’s not designed that way. When you improvise in the raga system it is very concentrated. You explore one mood for as much as an hour in a concert. In a piece like ‘Giant Steps’ every four beats you have to think of something different because the chords are changing, the harmonies are different. It’s a very tricky thing to do.

“The greatest thing gained by doing Steps is I have this newfound love for jazz. I grew up listening to it, but now I can understand what’s happening more. It opened this new door to different kind of beauty for me. You can take ten jazz standards and spend your whole life on them, like ten ragas. It keeps evolving as you mature.”

Ram’s mastery in Indian music influences how he approaches jazz. He applies the aesthetic and melodic philosophy of raga within the chord and harmonic changes of jazz. “When jazz students study ‘Giant Steps,’ they have certain patterns they study for each chord,” Ram reveals. “I looked at Coltrane’s transcriptions and thought ‘I can’t do this. If I do this, it’s not me.’ Also, I have to play within the limitations of this bamboo flute. So I did my own thing against the chords; I created my own counter melodies.” This marks a different approach than most Indian-jazz collaborations which are often done on the fly, without merging the philosophical underpinnings of the two improvisational styles.

Beyond this breakthrough, Steps is an opportunity to hear a profound new element to Ram’s playing, regardless of genre; an element well-suited to the human, breathiness of the bansuri. “If you listen to my playing for a long time, you will start to hear subliminal passages,” Ram explains reluctantly. “I’ll play a phrase more than once, but when it comes time to play that passage again, I might drop out half of it, but you will still hear it. It’s like coasting down a hill. You can’t hear it, but you do hear it because of what I played before.”

From Miles-inspired blues changes over an Indian 14-beat folk rhythm, to Coltrane’s India-inspired ‘Naima,’ Ram’s musical shading gently bridges the connection from ragas to jazz standards. Like any two notes in a musical scale, Ram shows that the seemingly disparate music styles are only steps away; even less so with the bent notes of the bansuri.

Deepak Ram Talks about the Tracks on Steps

1. Giant Steps – John Coltrane

Please see the above article on this album.

2. Madiba’s Dance – Deepak Ram

Madiba is a nickname for Nelson Mandela. It is his clan name and is used out of respect. This piece is dedicated to him. He is known for his own special dance. He’s one of the few presidents who will stand in front of a crowd and dance. Africa is so full of music. In South Africa there is rhythm everywhere. You might see it in the way a guy crosses the street. At political rallies during apartheid, 50,000 people might start singing as if they rehearsed together for years. Mandela would come on stage to speak and people would sing for him and he would dance.

I feel very lucky to have played for him at the Millennium concert where he was honored. I can think of no other loving leader like him. I was thinking of this powerful personality, his imprisonment, the struggle. People who wanted to kill him and tortured him and after 27 years in prison he comes out as this warm, loving, forgiving person. That’s what this piece is about to me.

This melody uses a kind of international folk scale, used in African music, but also in Japanese music.

3. Blues for Shyam Babu – Deepak Ram

Though it doesn’t sound like it, this is inspired by the blues changes in “All Blues” by Miles Davis. But it has a very strong Indian folk rhythm, a 14/8 rhythm. It also has little bit of a Bollywood or Hindi song flavor. I wrote this the first time I saw a child who was only a few minutes old. He is the child of a friend in Texas. Shyam is another name for Krishna, the Hindu god of the flute. I call this kid Shyam Babu. Babu is like mister.

4. Summertime – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward

A wonderful tune. Though I’ve known this since I was a kid, it was only about five years ago that I listened to the words. Somehow it resonated with a feeling from apartheid South Africa, knowing what people went through there. ‘Summertime and the loving is easy, fish are jumpin’, the cotton is high. Hush little baby…” This slave woman is singing to this little girl. The words are really poignant to me. South Africa and the American South are really the same you know. I am really surprised that Americans are surprised when they look at South African apartheid. It’s the same.

5. October – Darius Brubeck

This is a really beautiful tune written by one of my close friends, Darius Brubeck, who is the son of Dave Brubeck. I’ve played with almost all the Brubeck kids. Melodically, this piece is really beautiful. It lends itself really well to bansuri. I think it brings to mind the Fall in New England, with all those beautiful leaves.

6. Naima – John Coltrane

John Coltrane wrote this one really inspired by Indian music. His own description of Naima talks about it having these pedal tones, these overriding tones. He wanted it to reflect the tanpura. It’s a really involved tune. I still work on this tune every day. Coltrane talked about this tune having an inside channel and an outside channel. The outside is Indian music, and the inside are these really complex chords.

If you listen to tune, it has these regular jazz chords. But the bass is always playing the E and the B which is like the tanpura, and feels like a drone.

7. All Blues – Miles Davis

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album was really inspiring. For Indian musicians, that’s a nice album to start with because it does not have so many chord changes. It’s more modal, from that cool period in jazz. That lends itself to Indian playing.

8. My Funny Valentine – Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers

This is the first jazz tune I ever played with Darius Brubeck like ten years ago. It’s made for bansuri. It’s the kind of melody that has all this shading you can do. On the bansuri you play the melody line that everybody knows, but then around it you can do this shading, like a painting, but using the notes of the chord. There are certain notes that you hold where you can do all these things in between. The shading is crucial.

The Musicians

Vic Juris (guitar)

From the wilds of Manhattan to the shores of Japan and Germany, jazz guitarist Vic Juris has covered an impressive range of territory, musically as well as geographically. Inspired by rock and roll legend Chuck Berry, the Jersey City native first picked up a guitar at the age of ten. With no musicians in the family, he taught himself to play and was soon appearing with rock and R&B bands throughout the tri-state area. But the young rocker’s taste soon changed.

In his late teens Vic discovered jazz and classical music. He was hooked. From there it was on to a career with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Phil Woods, Jimmy Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Chico Hamilton, Dave Liebman, Richie Cole, Mel Torme, Eddie Jefferson and Nancy Wilson.

From the beginning Vic’s voracious appetite for new musical experiences led him to explore any and every jazz artist he could hope to learn from. He drew on other idioms as well: blues, swing, and bebop. In a less sensitive and technically accomplished musician this expansive vocabulary might descend into cacophony. But Vic’s highly developed sense of composition, his skill at fusing traditional jazz guitar with other forms of expression, has made him an eloquent and popular conversationalist. Eagerly sought out by his fellow musicians, he has provided accompaniment for numerous recordings.

In the mid eighties Vic teamed up with the phenomenally talented guitarist Bireli LaGrene during an engagement at Fat Tuesday’s, a New York City jazz club. Vic and LaGrene, a young gypsy whose spirited style recalls that of legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt, began playing together regularly. Their popular performances were charged with the intensity of two masters challenging each other to new heights. One thing led to another. Vic and LaGrene toured Europe together. They recorded Bireli LaGrene Live, featuring Vic Juris for the German label Jazzpoint.

It was during this time that Vic started spending a lot of time on the continent. He toured with alto saxophonist Richie Cole; pianist and composer Michel Legrand and then again as part of a guitar trio with Bireli LaGrene and Englishman John Etheridge.

Vic found a warm welcome in Europe, where audiences are somewhat more sophisticated in their appreciation of jazz. European promoters were quick to book him, confident that he would draw a crowd. While spending much of his time in Europe, Vic nevertheless managed to keep busy back in the states. He often teamed up with guitarist Larry Coryell playing festivals and Jazz Clubs throughout the country. He also traveled with Gary Peacock in duet throughout the European circuit.

Vic has been a member of the David Liebman group since 1991. This band has recorded 10 CDs, traveled throughout Europe, Japan, Israel, and the United States throughout the 1990s and is still going strong till this day. He was a member of the Gary Peacock Quartet and musical director of the Charles Mingus Guitar Quintet. Vic performed at George Wein’s J.V.C. Festival, in duets with John Abercrombie and Russell Malone. He performs with Jeremy Steig, James Moody, and Charlie Mariano to name a few.

As a leader Vic Juris is performing in the U.S. and in European venues. His own quartet includes saxophonist Dick Oatts. Vic’s band has recorded records on Steeple Chase, “Night Tripper”, “Pastels” 1997, “Moonscape” 1998, “Remembering Eric Dolphy” 2000. His CD “Songbook” hit top 10 pics in 2000. Vic has also recorded on Double Time Records "Music of Alec Wilder." Vic’s 2004 release of "Blue Horizon" listed him as top pics for the year 2004. Mr. Juris is currently recording for the Mel Bay label for release in the spring of 2005. Vic currently tours as a special guest, with his own band or in duo with vocalist Kate Baker.

Vic Juris is also one of the leading jazz educators throughout the world. He has written two books published by Mel Bay, “Vic Juris Inside/Outside: Original Play-Along Modern Jazz Guitar Solos” and “Modern Chords: Advanced Harmony for Guitar”. Both books are highly regarded by up and coming guitarists. He currently teaches at The New School for Social Research, Rutgers University, and Lehigh University. He has conducted clinics throughout the US and Europe.

Tony Marino (bass)

Bassist Tony Marino originally studied guitar at an early age switching to acoustic and electric bass during high school so that he might participate in the music curriculum. He began his musical career as the house bass player at clubs and resorts in the Pocono and Catskill Mountains providing back-up to a myriad of well-known entertainers.

Marino has accompanied such greats as the late Al Cohn & Zoot Sims, Mose Allison, Phil Woods, Urbie Green and John Coates Jr., among others. His talents have been heard on recordings with drummer Bill Goodwin’s group Solar Energy on the Network label and also with saxophonist George Young’s group Low Profile on the Chant label. He performs regularly with Broadway star Betty Buckley and jazz pianist Kenny Werner as well as performing, recording and touring internationally with the Dave Liebman group.

Marino is well known for his versatility and wide range of musicality as he’s accompanied and recorded with numerous artists from folk to pop. He can be heard on several cuts of Bob Dorough’s CD, Too Much Coffee Man. Also, he joined Billy Mintz for Hal Galper’s record, “Agents of Change”. With Ellery Eskelin, Jim Black, and Dave Liebman (Different But The Same), he has two recordings to date. They also have done several European tours.

Jamey Haddad (percussion & drums)

Born in Cleveland Ohio, Percussionist/Drummer Jamey Haddad holds a unique position in the world of Jazz and Contemporary Music. Since 1991 Jamey has performed in the working bands of Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Alan Farnham, The Paul Winter Consort, Carly Simon and Betty Buckley. Performing with the great oud players/composers, Rabih Abou Khalil and Simon Shaheen in the Mid East. Haddad’s musical voice transcends styles and trends, and the universal quality of his playing has attracted many international collaborations.

Most recently Haddad performed with long time musical associate saxophonist Joe Lovano for a duet concert in New York City, followed by a trip to the Mideast with oud and violinist Simon Shaheen. For over ten years fellow percussionist / composer Steve Shehan has invited Haddad to collaborate on numerous projects most recently to Paris and Caracas with the great Touareg musician Baly Othmani.

In 1992 Haddad was invited by composer Richard Horowitz and the Moroccan Government to help develop and perform compositions with 10 different Berber and Ganawan groups for a Crown Performance at the 1992 Worlds Fair in Seville, Spain. Haddad was also one of two Americans to perform in "World Drums" at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada and again at the 1988 Worlds Fair in Brisbane Australia, over 250 Percussionist from 25 Countries were invited. Other recent performances include touring Austria with bassist Peter Herbert.

Haddad is the Recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to South India, four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two in Jazz Performance and two in International Music Studies/Collaborations. The Ohio and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts also awarded Haddad jazz performance grants.

Internationally in demand for his seminars, master classes, and written essays on music, Haddad chooses to talk about the more eternal and universal qualities of a musical life. He has developed two extremely popular courses in “World Music” and teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New School in New York City. Recent seminar / performances include the 1996 – 97 and 98 Percussive Arts Society Conventions, performing with hand drumming virtuoso, Glen Velez; The Berklee Percussion Seminar, performing with South Indian Master Drummer Trichy Sankaran and most recently returned from a performance and seminar at a World Percussion Conference in Mexico City.

Haddad has been the co-creator of many musical instruments and playing techniques that are finding their way into the hands of percussionist worldwide. These are the Hadgini, the Hadjira, the Hadjenga, and the Kohabata Drums.
In the jazz and contemporary music scene Haddad has appearing on over 75 recordings in addition to hundreds of performance credits as leader and sideman worldwide.

Haddad has recently completed a Book and supporting Video on the subject of internalizing your personal rhythm. The observations and lessons found in “Global Standard Time” are addressed to any musician looking to strengthen their perceptions of levels of time and rhythms, and the grooves they dance in.