I spoke on the phone with Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda protégé and spiritual student Surya Botofasina about how Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda touched his life as his guru and musical teacher. Botofasina grew up on the Sai Anantam Ashram, a spiritual haven where he continues to reside. He was commissioned to work as the musical director for the May 21 reverential concert of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda music that stands as the closing event of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in New York City at the Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Ave., Queens.
The concert will feature an all-star band led by Ravi Coltrane, the son of Alice and John Coltrane. There are a limited number of full-day passes still available. Ravi will be joined by harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and pianist Courtney Bryan, as well as David Virelles and Dezron Dougless of his own quartet.
AmNews: What were your earliest memories of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda?
Botofasina: My family moved to the ashram [Alice had established the 48-acre Sai Anantam Ashram outside of Los Angeles] in 1983 when I was about 6 years old and entering the first grade. For me it was just very, very natural to be around her. I had no idea who Alice Coltrane was.
AmNews: What is Alice’s role
at the ashram?
Botofasina: If you’re familiar with hindu-lore and that particular ideology and practice, families have a guru. A guru is their spiritual leader, and revered highly and quite often can lead others to greater spiritual understanding. Not only can they help with spiritual development, but they can help with other questions as well like, “What is the best school for my kid?” The role that she had for my immediate family and our ashram family was that she was our guru.
When she stepped in a building, when she stepped out of a car, it was a game-changer. Things became different. People stood up straighter and got a lot more reverent, like they were in the presence of a great. They were in the presence of an elder.
AmNews: What is your principal instrument and how did you learn her compositions early on?
Botofasina: If we’re going to be honest about this, I’m still learning [laughs].
AmNews: As music director, is her music written down and you just direct the mood and cadences of her music, or did you have to transcribe and write her music down?
Botofasina: That’s a very interesting question because the traditional way we chanted here at the ashram was that we would have our lyric books and there would be an understanding of how the song was sung. The music was overwhelmingly oral. A hymn book would have the chords and the parts, but you never saw that with our tradition. The tradition was carried on by ashram members, family members and extended family members. This is the first time I can recall transcribing it down in a way where someone could play the music in the future.
AmNews: Are you using Eastern or Western scales?
Botofasina: They’re in Western scales, but there are certainly influences from Eastern musical sensibility.
AmNews: Did you have to get a blessing to do this concert at the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, on a spiritual level but also on the more mundane level, like with copyrights?
Botofasina: For the Red Bull concert, conversation and permission certainly had to happen. Especially as a person who is a child of the ashram, who grew up and looked up to Ravi [Coltrane] as an older brother type, and knowing that he gave permission to Luaka Bop [record label] and in conjunction with the Red Bull Music Academy concert offering and representing this music, everything was looking to be on the up and up. The first thing that I asked when I met the gentleman who ran the day to day operations of Luaka Bop was why are they doing this because I recognize the power of this music and her spirituality can change things in a lot of different realms in a lot of different ways. I won’t judge a person on how the music affects them, but I wanted to know if we were coming from a place of wanting to represent what I consider to be sacred music. That was confirmed with me, so after that I had to make a point to meet with Ravi on a face to face level, just to let him know that I really wanted to put my best foot forward with this project. Above everything, I want to be respectful because it’s his mother.
AmNews: Are you trained in music? If so, where did you go to school?
Botofasina: I went to New School University. I took private piano lessons, and when it began to look like I was not challenging myself, I was directed to go to New York. I went thinking, “Hey, I’m going to be a rap star!” but soon realized everyone was really talented, so it was suggested by Ravi to audition with Reggie Workman, the dean of the Jazz department at New School. I was there alongside some amazing musicians like Robert Glasper and Marcus Strickland who are leading players in jazz right now. I found myself in awe at all the talent and threw myself in the practice room to become proficient. I love jazz and the discipline, but I realized it wasn’t where my heart was at. What I also love about it was that it led me to want to reconnect with my roots on this ashram, where I am talking to you from right now. I wanted to get a deeper understand of what she was playing.
AmNews: Does any of Alice’s more traditional jazz work influence your music compared to her spiritual compositions?
Botofasina: Everything she did informs. I happen to be listening to her most recent release that she and Ravi did called “Translinear Light.” It was the most piano I’ve had a chance to hear her play. I was blown away by that record because one very underrated layer of her was her absolute chops on the piano. That is a small percentage of how I understand her as a family guru, and not to compartmentalize her, but her chops were out of this world.
For more information, visit nyc.redbullmusicacademy.com.