OLIVER RAJAMANI: Well I started playing music in India where I grew up and I started really young—probably when I was about 5 or 6. My family was really into music–my uncle had a band–so I used to play in the band and I was just surrounded by music. In India, especially back in those days, there was just a lot more live music on the streets. You don’t find it as much today. It is still there but you don’t find it as much.
Then I went to an International American School in India–that’s why my English is without a thick India accent—where I studied western classical music and theory as well as jazz. I was in a rock and roll band. So this was another side to my Indian music. Also, my father was really into country music—it was a big thing over there back then. A lot of people think that I grew up listening to the kind of music that I play but I actually grew up listening to a lot more country because my dad listened to it all the time at home. Sometimes I play a country song at my shows and they think it’s weird but they don’t realize that is what I grew up on.
AD: You started playing at 5. When did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living?
OR: For a long time I didn’t want to do music as a profession. I wanted to keep it as a side thing because I knew it was a hard life. I knew you wouldn’t get paid well enough unless you hit big. Being an immigrant in this country, in the beginning I tried not to do music because of that. I tried and I tried as much as I could to avoid music. I got all sorts of jobs working front desk and offices but music kept coming back to me. It was the only thing I did really well. I was not very good at working in offices. It became more of a living not very long ago—probably 8 or 9 years ago—when I realized I could also teach music to children and adults and use it as a means to not just make money but educate kids; educate people about other cultures. I could show people that everywhere in the world there are children and adults who like to listen to good music and be cared for and loved and eat good food—all that good stuff.
AD: Do you teach different kinds of music?
OR: I do various forms of teaching. One of the main things that I do is I teach a world music course at a high school. They have given me the freedom to construct the course myself so I use world music as a spiritual means. I take the kids through different cultures. We study Indian music; we study African music; we study American folk music. We try to see the history of that culture and how that music came about. Where did the spiritual value of that music come from? Did it come from struggles, did it come from joy? All these kinds of things. I try to help kids see a different side to music than just becoming famous and popular.
AD: How did the live music scene in India compare to Austin’s live music scene?
OR: The live music there is slightly different in the sense that they aren’t playing in venues and they aren’t getting paid. The music is on the streets and people are begging for money. This is an old tradition where different tribes and different castes would play music and this was their family tradition for generations and generations. So I grew up around the music.
AD: Why Austin?
OR: Why Austin. Well I lived in New York for about 6 years. I was born in India and came here when I was 20 years old. I lived in Israel for close to a year then also Greece. I picked Austin because Austin is a very different kind of place. I’ve been around the globe and there isn’t really any place like Austin. It’s a small city, you can drive out of Austin into the country and it’s beautiful, people are not so competitive here, they help each other out, there is music all the time. There is support for artists here, not only from people but from the city of Austin. They provide health care for working musicians. There are so many things for musicians that you just don’t get anywhere else. When I go to the hospital I pay $5 to get all kinds of check-ups done that I would be paying hundreds of dollars for. There is just something about Austin that is very laid back and very artsy. I feel safe here.
AD: How did you find out about Austin?
OR: I was working for the Roma Federation for the Gypsies. They represent the Roma Gypsies at the UN. The history of the Gypsy goes back originally to India where they are said to have migrated around the 10th century or so. When they arrived in Europe in the 14th century, people thought they were from Egypt. So in Old English, supposedly, “Gypsy” meant “Egyptian”. The term comes from a Greek term, “Aegyptos”, which means Egyptian. They call themselves Roma. They speak a language called Romani which is kind of a dialect of India. In recent times they have done research on the language and the genetics of the people. I was involved in this Federation and the guy who is the UN representative, his name is Ian Hancock and he teaches Romani studies at UT, he told me I should come here; that it was a great place and I could work with the Federation. I had a lot of friends here who told me about it as well.
I didn’t know anything about this place. I thought there would be cowboys riding on horses. When I came here I was kind of shocked. There were a lot of New Yorkers and Californians.
AD: We have a pretty eclectic world music scene here in town. Why do you think it can exist in the middle of Texas?
OR: I think it can exist in the middle of Texas mainly because Austin is such a unique place and the people that have settled here are very open minded. It’s a very progressive place.
AD: Who have been your influences?
OR: My influences have been quite a lot. Going back to India, definitely my family influenced me in many ways. Musically speaking, I’ve had so many that I can’t really put my finger on the one. I thought about that awhile ago because there was a website that my music is on and they ask you for your influences and I realized I had so many. What I feel now is that there are so many great artists and people that musically have influenced me but the moment I saw music as something to understand the self I started to realize that it wasn’t only musicians that influenced me but even people that aren’t musicians–animals, nature, when I take a walk. Everything in this world influences me as long as my heart is open to it. When I start to focus myself only on music and I box myself in then I start to categorize it and I say, “Well this guy influenced me.” Really, honestly, truthfully, musically speaking, everyone that has come into contact with me has influenced me in one way or the other. I really do believe that.
AD: That’s the best answer to that question we’ve ever heard.
OR: If you had asked me 10 years ago I would have said this guy and that guy. But really it was their music that influenced me. Music has to do with community, it has to do with nature and it has to do with breathing– what you look at; what you eat. It’s not just one person or one thing. It’s the universe.
That was a hard thing for me for awhile because I was boxed into certain things and so I saw myself as this kind of musician or that kind of musician. But the moment I was able to come out of that box and realize everything affects you and you can take it and structure it anyway you like I was free. My music has influence of not just India but everywhere–even Texas. I might take a traditional song from India and sing it and you’ll never hear that version there. It will have a certain Texas cultural influence to it as well as other countries I’ve been to.
AD: Things have changed in our little oasis. Tell us what you miss most.
OR: I miss the old Rutamaya. When I came to Austin that was the place I started playing and people would come see me.
AD: That’s where the paper was born.
OR: I miss the old kind of ways.
AD: What’s an addition in Austin that has affected you personally or professionally?
OR: I like the no smoking thing in music venues. It’s great for me because people that never used to come see me in certain places now come see me. It’s helped me. I really enjoy that whole aspect of it. For me, I’ve never smoked in my life so it was always a very hard to go to a place where there was a lot of smoke. That is something I definitely like.
AD: Is Rajamani your given name and what does it mean?
OR: It’s my last name. In the beginning I went by Oliver Rajamani and then we shortened it because it was fitting to my music and it was shorter. So I’ve kind of taken it on. People just call me Rajamani. More people call me Rajamani than Oliver. It wasn’t something that I told people to call me, they just did. I like it because it is my family’s name and it’s different–it stands out–and it relates to the music. “Raja” means “king” and “mani” means jewel. It can also mean “pearl”. I take it as “King of Pearls” which is also my birthstone. So my email address is kindofpearls.com.
AD: Any new recordings?
OR: I just released 10 new recordings at the One World Theater recently in May. It went really well. I did two shows. I’ve been trying to live day to day. A couple of years ago, about 6 or 7 years ago I tried to figure out what would be new for me and it drove me crazy. I started to look into the future and I wanted my life to be like this and I wanted that but it wasn’t happening fast. I got a little depressed because I wanted to be signed and touring and I wanted it now. I got a little depressed about it and I went back home. The music industry has their own criteria and the way they operate has a lot to do with money and politics and that’s just the way that it is. Getting myself stuck in it and my mind stuck in it drove me crazy. When I went home I realized I always grew up waking up every morning and went to bed every night singing devotional songs with my family. I played music when they sang. This is my first memory of music. This is what I grew up with and this is music. I was so happy to just be playing and not having to show off in front of people or signing my name off for anything. Ever since then I came back and I have no plans. I really don’t. My main thing is that I’m trying to enjoy as much of this beautiful life as possible. Sometimes still I do it, where I gripe about things–I don’t have this, or this. It’s really ridiculous. Life is just way too beautiful and way too mysterious for us to understand. The thing that I really do now is to try and listen to my values in my heart. I do a lot of meditating everyday and so my music has kind of taken that path. I came to this country with very little money and I don’t have a lot of money now but I’m comfortable. Yet my mind still goes crazy when I think about that I don’t have this or that. But when you sit down and think about I have to realize, wow, I’m doing fine; I’m happy. I realized that all these worries that we created are totally in our heads—it’s not real. My life has become that way. It’s more about trying to take away the illusions that are in my life.
The funny thing is no matter how much you have the mind is never happy. I’ve realized that my job is to keep my mind focused. Through that my music will come the way it is supposed to come and whatever will happen, will happen. It took a lot of troublesome times to get there.
AD: Can you give us some wisdom in the music business for hopeful musicians who might be reading this?
OR: There is quite a lot. The main wisdom I really learned is to really believe in yourself. We are easily lead to believe in a certain kind of music because people hang out with that kind of music or certain kinds of places or foods or whatever. What I found was that I tried all these different things, I even tried different kinds of music because I wanted to make myself fit in to this society. I had a hard time when I first came to this country because I was from such a different culture and really at the end what it came down to was that I had to really believe in myself and who I was and what I was meant to be here for. I had to really search for that. There were a lot of times people would come in and say, “Well you’ve got to do this this way and you have to do that that way”. And now it’s not that I don’t listen to them, it’s that I let them speak to me but still follow my heart. It’s a hard thing in this culture today. There is so much coming at us. So really the best thing I can say is listen to your heart and believe in that. It’s a struggle but the amazing thing is when you see through all these struggles you find this happiness. I’ve been able to experience that in my life. And all of a sudden you feel like you are part of everybody and everything but you are also yourself.