In a single week, I tuned into WCFM, heard Zambezi play and saw the band, Homebrew, live at a WCFM party, and all these things had been influenced by Mano Sundaresan ’19 in one way or another. Sundaresan is unlike many musicians, who are drawn into and master a specific musical genre. Instead, he came into the College from central Mass., with a jazz piano background. He quickly expanded into joining Zambezi, the Williams Jazz Ensemble, WCFM as a DJ and board member, and a founding member of Homebrew, a student band that combines hip hop, jazz and rap. Sundaresan has sought to explore his interest in music by not being bound by genre, medium or instrument.
What pops out as maybe the most distinct from his jazz background is Zambezi, a group he spontaneously decided to try out for and hasn’t regretted joining since. “It’s a bond I haven’t experienced with other music groups here,” he said. “I think it’s a really tightly knit group of friends and the music we play is from all over the world. It’s a very collaborative way of making and arranging music. We actually don’t use sheet music when we play, all of it is in our heads. That seems daunting, right? It actually makes for a lot more organic sound. I think it’s a really good way to compose.” While this is not quite improvisation, this style of music allows Sundaresan to use chord progressions he learned when he took jazz piano in high school.
“Improvisation isn’t just playing random notes. You have a core progression and then you can play through the chords. I can’t remember the analogy we use in jazz, but it really is playing two different themes. I did play classical piano for a long period in my life, and I have so much respect for the classical technique. I stopped not because I didn’t like it but because I just got burnt out. I just started playing jazz piano in high school out of a need my school had for a jazz pianist. I kind of taught myself the basic chords, and I just fell in love with it. It’s just such a different feel.”
Sundaresan’s ability to understand chord progression and synthesize it in radically different ways is shared with his fellow band members in Homebrew. The story of Homebrew also parallels Sundaresan’s musical story, with its explorations and fusions of soul, jazz and hip hop.
“Homebrew really came out of the jazz community here. A lot of my friends, Josh Greenzeig [’20], Rachel Porter [’20] and many others, were people who were already in my jazz band and had this common passion for a wide variety of genres. With our jazz background, it made our improvisation very easy. We began jamming out and making music. It’s now such a big community on campus I’m so proud of.”
The other side of Sundaresan’s relationship with music becomes immediately evident when you take a quick listen to his radio show on WCFM, The Purple Tape (Saturdays at 10 p.m. on WCFM 91.9).
“I get asked a lot why the show is called The Purple Tape,” Sundaresan said. “Basically, there’s this album from the 90s by a Wu Tang Clan member, Raekwon. He’s one of the all-time best rappers. He released this album called Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. But it was very colloquially referred to as ‘The Purple Tape’ because the cassette version of that was this solid purple tape, that with the fact that our school color is purple, well you get where I’m going. The show is centered on the newest hip hop. I think the problem with going with the average hip hop radio is that they’ll just play whatever distributors are wanting to push. I try to cultivate not only what is new but what I think it’s really worth of consideration.”
Sitting in the show is a journey into the history and diverse modern landscape of hip hop. Sundaresan can explain artistic development, lyrical composition, rhythmic patterns, creative processes and much more of almost every major and up-and-coming hip hop artist. It is no surprise to anyone who remembers Sundaresan’s Free University course this past Winter Study, “The Yeezus Effect,” that Sundaresan feels closest to the work of Kanye West himself.
“The first ‘real’ album I bought was during sixth grade because I had a project for English class where I had to hear a song and analyze the lyrics, identify the similes, the metaphors. At the time, all that was playing on the radio was “Heartless” by Kanye. I think that was the first song I really fell in love with. I loved it so much that I downloaded the rest of the album. I had gotten an iPod touch for Christmas, [so] I uploaded the album on it and I heard that album from beginning to end so many times; it was 808s and Heartbreak. I just fell in love with Kanye. I became obsessed with understanding what makes a rapper ‘good.’ How do they sound? What do they talk about? That pushed me to understand more and be more active on the sociological movements seen through the lens of hip hop.”