Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda was an American jazz pianist, organist, harpist, singer, composer and the wife of John Coltrane, the most venerated and influential saxophonist in the history of jazz. Alice’s recording catalog dates back to 1957 and contains a number of critically acclaimed albums. In 1978, she stepped back from the limelight to devote herself to the Vedanta, one of the six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy.
This spiritual devotion included the founding of the Shanti Anantam Ashram (later renamed Sai Anantam Ashram) in Southern California. While there, she would perform solo chants, known as bhajans, and lead group chants, called kirtans. This led Coltrane to develop a unique form of music inspired by the gospel music of the Detroit churches she grew up in, mixed together with the Indian devotional music of her religious practice. Four cassette albums of this music were released in limited quantities during the 1980s. Although initially only available to members of the ashram, a compilation containing many of these pieces, The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, was released by Luaka Bop in May 2017.
To coincide with the release of that album and a series of performances of Alice’s devotional music by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers, journalist Andy Beta interviewed the group’s musical director, Surya Botofasina as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York 2017. In this edited extract from the live-streamed conversation, Botofasina remembers growing up in the ashram and the inspirational powers of the woman he knew not as Alice Coltrane, jazz legend, but simply Swamini.
You lived with the music Alice composed at her ashram for years before it was released on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda earlier this year. How do you feel about that music now?
I consider it sacred music. The devotional songs called “versions” have been sung for over three decades straight in the ashram that she founded, that I grew up on along with the rest of the kids and families who lived there. To be a part of taking that tradition and now trying to do our part to uphold it in a new medium, at a crucial time, has been an absolute blessing. It has been a labor of love and frankly a huge joy.
For many years, the music on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda was a closely-held secret. Everybody thought that Alice had retired from making music in 1978, but secretly she was making music for those at the ashram.
I love you mentioned that she was retired, which is the biggest misconception. When you look at her discography and you see this gap between her last released album on Warner Brothers and the final album she recorded, Translinear Light [in 2004], you would assume this level of inactivity. In reality it was the exact opposite.
I remember as a child and a youngster being able to count like clockwork every Sunday afternoon. You would hear Alice’s car first. Not because it was a loud car, but because of the music that she was playing in her car. They were devotional songs, some like these tapes [on The Ecstatic Music]. Then she would get out from her car in these wonderful, beautiful orange robes, which looked like the sun directly shining from the person as she exited her vehicle. From that moment each Sunday, time was not a factor. Every week she played the organ and we sang, sometimes more than once a week. That was the case from the moment the ashram opened in ’83. For me this was a daily and a weekly experience.
Truth is I don’t know a day without Swamini, which is what we call her on the ashram. That means “teacher,” for those looking to make an association to the term. It wasn’t performances that she was doing every Sunday. Let’s be very clear. This was chanting. This is devotional chanting. This is a commitment to the devotional music and to the devotion that she showed on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, to God.
As a child, you were first brought to the ashram by your mother. How did she come to know Swamini?
My mother is a musician herself, a vocalist and a harpist. She can play piano and other instruments, too. She grew up in New York. I think the distance that she had to travel to be exposed to the music of the Coltrane family, John Coltrane and obviously Alice Coltrane, wasn’t very far. It was exactly what many experiences are with Swamini’s music: life-changing. Not only just the music, but also the spirit of her devotion. That felt real to my mother. Eventually she moved out west to Sacramento, where I was born. Then we eventually made our way to Southern California.
What was life like as a child at the ashram in Agoura Hills? When did you have the realization that you were having a different experience to the other kids at school?
I knew that I was having a different experience than the rest of the kids at school from day one, because vegetarian stuff wasn’t at all popular back in ’82. You shopped at a different store. Also, growing up in Agoura, California, I do not look like the demographic that people find out there a lot.
We went to a public school. It allowed us to understand that what we had on the ashram was special. It was unique, and it’s also a safe haven for our souls, quite honestly. In terms of how that reflected itself in school and things like that, we had a bunch of names [that were different to the norm]. It would be funny to watch teachers try to pronounce all of our names.
There was obviously something about it that was unique on an outward level, but then even on an inward level, we knew we had it really good on the ashram as kids, because with almost 50 acres of land, you don’t need a playground. You have these mountains, this wonderful beauty just to explore in, to get dirty in. Then on top of all of that, it was all centered on a spiritual education that we realized that we were receiving. I didn’t understand the name Coltrane until after I had already taken my first piano lesson.
What was a typical Sunday at the ashram like?
Swamini would be speaking, giving what is called a Satsang, or a discourse, for a word for some folks to associate with, and then the whole ashram community would chant afterwards. As kids, we had the equivalent of a Sunday school, which would start at around ten in the morning. We were taught by our parents and other members of the ashram. Then we would have our lesson plans, if you will, or the different lessons that we would be taught on various values. Values like right action, Dharma, non-violence, truth, Prema – love, and Shanti – peace. We would have different stories that we would listen to about Rama and Krishna. I really was into reading the Ramayana as a kid.
From that point, after our Sunday school was over at maybe eight or something like that, snack time would happen. Then our temple, the Mandir, would be a little bit quieter. Then at a point, Swamini would speak for a period of time. As a kid, it was hard to tell time. Maybe it could be a half-hour, it could be 45 minutes, it could be more, it could be less, but after she was done speaking and telling us that that was the Lord’s message for that day, there would be a small pause where she would get up and go to the altar. There would be some moments in between where she would allow us to reconfigure the chair that she was sitting in, because she would now take her place behind the organ. Then, when she sat down at the organ, it was take-off time.
Buckle your seatbelt.
Yeah, but buckling your seatbelt in a way that you’re like, “I can’t wait to go on this ride.” It was really wonderful to know that at a certain point of our day, this particular time on Sunday, we would truly feel happy. I think that’s something that we’re all looking for inside of our hearts, that devotion to happiness, however we term our worship as.
Once the chanting would start, it would be very calm and response-like. There were a lot of people during the most populated time of the ashram that had musical backgrounds themselves, like my mother, so there was a high level of chanting. Obviously, we had one of the world’s greatest musicians ever playing an organ and just creating these sounds and this aura that would make you feel like you were floating.
Different reactions would happen from different people during these chants. Some people would cry and some people would fall out. Everybody would chant their hearts out and then at the end of the chanting, after the closing prayer was done, that would be a time where we would gather as a community, eat a little something more, or Swamini would have conversations with folks in her personal interview room. Then at the end, whether the sun was down or the sun was still up, we’d all wait for her to get back in her car and watch her as she drove off.
When did you start studying music and playing piano?
I think for my eighth birthday I got my first piano lesson from my mom’s friend, her former roommate. Aunt Ellen is what I was told to call her, and that is what she is, my Aunt Ellen, so I took my first lesson with her. Then eventually, over time, after learning that you had to practice and being encouraged by my mom to practice, I started to see at more like 11, 12 years old, that I really wanted to play piano. Later, when I was a teenager, not only did I want to play piano, but I also got interested in jazz. In between those years is the first time I started to hear the name Coltrane.
How did you hear the name Coltrane and at what point did you connect it back to yourself and your situation?
Swamini started the John Coltrane Festival. At the first one, if I remember correctly, there was an outdoor event that was in a park in Southern California and then there was also a concert to follow the next evening. That’s when I started to see all these people show up to this park and this concert, and it was very clear that they knew something of her or her music. I didn’t understand that it was because of the incredible history and the incredible contribution that she had already made to the jazz music world.
As time went on, I started to see that John Coltrane was on this Mount Rushmore of jazz musicians. That’s when I said, “Oh, so this is really a big deal.” My uncle Roy played me A Love Supreme one day, which I’d never heard before.
How old were you then?
I wasn’t old enough to travel on the train by myself, that’s for sure. I want to say I was around 13 at the most. Hearing that changed how I understood this name “Coltrane” with music, but it still never hit me, because to me she was Swamini.
Did it change your perception of her? Was it tough to reconcile her position as Alice Coltrane, this public jazz figure, with her being Swamini, your teacher?
No, because she is – and I use is, not was, on purpose – the kindest and most generous individual, and the most devoted individual to her spirituality and the encouragement of all of our spirituality in connection with the divine. That was the light that shined from her the brightest, and to this day it continues. There was no feeling of, “Wow, I have to look at things differently.” The only thing that it did change is that it just made me want something inside of my soul. It provided an inspiration for me to disassociate myself with this desire to try and be like a certain kind of musician.
What was your impression on hearing the albums she made, like Journey in Satchidananda and stuff like that?
I probably heard that last. What I heard first was Divine Songs, Turiya Sings and Infinite Chants. That was enough for me. Hearing those and then seeing her play the organ every week meant that there was no need for me to delve into those [earlier] records at that time. It wasn’t until I started to really try to study the genre of jazz itself in a more formal manner that I started looking at her compositions.
At one of those previously mentioned John Coltrane festivals, Pharoah Sanders performed. My first reaction when I saw him play was awe. That is the look that stayed on my face the whole time that he played, and I didn’t know why I was so in awe of it. Maybe it was because he is such a vibrant, visual presence before he even plays one note. He’s a well-dressed cat. His sound was inspiring. That’s when I started to look at albums like Journey in Satchidananda and other things.
Since I was getting into jazz, the perception of Alice and her music has definitely changed over the years. What is it like to see her music gain respect on its own merits?
It’s still a little bit surreal right now, especially with this music and these bhajans, which are so personal to my heart. It very much confirmed something that I’ve always thought about her, which is that she’s ahead of her time. I feel very, very fortunate that we’re able to have this conversation about this music. Not only about the music, but also the spirit of inclusion, the spirit of humanity, the spirit of love and the spirit of absolute happiness that I feel when listen to this music. I feel like these bhajans make your soul smile.
Can you talk a little bit about the bhajans themselves: What their history is, what purpose they serve and what their role is?
I don’t consider myself a theological expert at all, but my experience of the bhajans in these devotional songs is that they can be sung at any time and for a lot of different purposes. They can be sung in a worship setting when we’re chanting on a Sunday, or just around the house to keep the good vibes in the air.
There are various aspects of God that are highlighted with the bhajans, such as there’s a Ganesh bhajan that is typically sung at the very beginning of the service. This is because of the aspect of Ganesh as a remover of obstacles, and that obstacle being mainly like our egos, and those kinds of things. These obstacles are blocking us from our soul within. There are bhajans that celebrate Rama, Krishna and Shiva. Basically, all the paths or names that we were taught as kids, it doesn’t matter how you worship. They might be many but the source is always the same, which is what she continued to highlight for us, at least in my heart, with every bhajan that was played. In that particular context, that’s what the bhajans were used for – deep meditation and connection.
I know these bhajans more than I would know anything else, but they do sound like what you would hear in India. Is that the case, or was there a very specific cast to the bhajans as Swamini performed them?
The bhajans of Sai Anantam Ashram are unique. You’ll never hear music like that anywhere else in the world. Now, that is not taking away from anything in India. The times I was fortunate enough to be in India in Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram, we would be chanting over there. It did sound different. There were not some of the vocal stylings, if you will, or vocal melodic inflections that you hear sometimes in the Sai Anantam Ashram in California.
However, what you would also hear in India is clapping. It’s like they were born with a metronome. They’re really so incredible. People would stop and clap. I’m like, “How did everybody know to do this at the same time? This is amazing.” It was a different experience. As that became a part of the education going back to the ashram in California, it just opened my eyes even more.
Did you travel to India with Swamini?
I did have the great fortune of being in India at the same time as she was at various points in my life. The first time I remember was when I was 15. That was phenomenal. There were some other times in there as well. We happened to go to India a lot for about ten years straight.
I remember being told by Flying Lotus about times when he was with Alice – Swamini – who was his great aunt. People would come up and throw themselves at her feet. He was taken aback by it. Was she perceived in that kind of way in India or at ashrams?
It is typical for a family member or somebody who has a guru to offer pranama, which is to hold hands and bow out of respect or to the feet of your guru. That’s very traditional. So yes, we would also do that at the ashram in California. An interesting thing about India, at least my personal experience, would be to see how her incredible devotion to God was recognized by what I perceived to be complete strangers. Some people with the orange robes – that’s high level as far as understanding. If somebody’s walking around and made the commitment to wear these orange robes, they’ve committed to the spirituality and connection with God.
Did you take any music lessons with Swamini? What was your musical education with her?
I smile because it wasn’t like there were weekly sessions where I would sit down and have piano lessons, if you will. There were a few times when I was fortunate enough to get personal instruction from her, or pointers, or goals. When I started playing piano, she gave me this piece by Frédéric Chopin, the Polonaise in A-flat Major, and said, “You need to learn that.” It took me forever, but that was one lesson, if you will.
We had the great fortune of learning verses from the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred language of self-realization spoken by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. There were verses in the Bhagavad Gita, which feels like a poem, that Swamini taught us. She would teach us the Sanskrit pronunciation and lead us through a question-and-answer session. When answering we mostly guessed wrong answers to the questions she would give us. During a certain time, we then went from reading this particular text to singing the actual melody.
There was a keyboard set up there. She would say, “Play in this key, this is what it is.” I would sit down at the keyboard and I’d try to play whatever she said. If I was lucky, she would get up from her chair, lean over and play and that was my lesson. Whatever she was showing me at that particular time it only ever came by once. So I learned very, very quickly. Catch what’s happening or it’s too late, which was great because it made the value of that moment of brief instruction so high.
After that, my crew and I were able to lead some bhajans in the Mandir while she was there. A couple of times when we were leading the bhajans, she would sit and she’d have the little percussion bells everybody would be chanting along with. One time she got up and came to the organ and I very, very much thought, “This is great, time to go.” She indicated that I should stay at the keyboard and we would replay the bhajans. I say we; she played the bhajan and I tried to do my best to follow. At one point, I’m looking over like, “What chord is coming next?” I’m ready and I’m feeling confident. And then she said, “Just play.” And that was the lesson.