Sound of RAah – an interview with Ryan Ritchie of The RAah Project

The RAah Project Ryan Ritchie and Tamil Rogeon | pic by Laki Sideris

Hear the RAah Project live – Melbourne Recital Centre & Capital Jazz Project

Ryan Ritchie (vocals, beats) and Tamil Rogeon (violin) | The RAah Project | pic by Laki Sideris
Ryan Ritchie (vocals, beats) and Tamil Rogeon (violin) | The RAah Project | pic by Laki Sideris

Ryan Ritchie is the vocalist in the core duo that sits at the centre of the RAah project, an ensemble he formed with violinist and composer Tamil Rogeon that features a unique combination of beats, jazz, pop, strings, turntable and horns.

Listen to the music, and you might think you’re hearing samples, but they’re doing it all for real. These are real voices, real instruments, real sounds. Turns out, speaking to Ryan Ritchie on a rainy Melbourne afternoon, that the real is no accident.

The project’s music comes from both Ryan and Tamil.  ‘We write separately to one another. Tamil might come in and make suggestions about elements of the arrangement. He’ll often add violin parts and guide me through melody  – he has a real sense for it. He’ll often hear what I am trying to do before I can pull it off myself’

Ryan often writes lyrics or melody to go with Tamil’s arrangements. He does his own arranging and programs all the beats. Beats are his thing.

‘It’s a creative partnership, though we do fight like dogs sometimes.’

Hangin’ with the jazz dudes

The RAah project famously arose from a sense of frustration – trying to find musicians who could play the kinds of music the two were writing; music that crossed boundaries and draws on jazz, beats and classical ideas.  Perhaps inevitably, due to their ability to improvise and mess with boundaries, jazz musicians became a mainstay for the ensemble. You’ll see powerful local talent in the RAah Project lineup.  Asked how he and Tamil decide which musicians to work with, Ryan says ‘Part 1, creativity. Part 2, they have to be a good hang.’ When I laugh he explains… ‘Miles [Davis] used to say “You know how I judge a musician, I look at what they’re wearing. “‘  And aside from the vibe, he says ‘They have to be heavyweights. You could spend your whole fucken life wasting time with mediocre musicians. ‘

He speaks highly of Carlo Barbaro, Julien Wilson, Lachlan Mclean,  Luke Howard – a striking combination if only because they are all quite different from each other. ‘They just bring it; they bring it so well. They can fill the space with their voices, and their voices are so beautiful. Carlo Barbaro can do those sheets of sound… he’s a sax man, a true sax man, you know… he plays the shit out of his instrument.’

The music that the RAah Project creates is a long way from being just ‘sheets of sound’ and ‘playing the shit out of the instrument’.  Add someone like Luke Howard into the mix and the texture becomes more complex. The resonance with Luke’s music,  suggests Ryan, ‘is a Melbourne thing – maybe it’s something about the weather down here, that makes musicians do these tonal ambient puddles.’

Jazz meets beats

The RAah project was never one simple thing, with Tamil Rogeon and Ryan Ritchie coming together from very different sensibilities.

‘I have a love of a kind of modernism and I also from a punk rock and studio background … so if I’m going to engage with jazz, I need a partner who really understands it,’ says Ryan. ‘I’m drawn to Tamil because he’s such an extraordinary musician.

‘And I think what draws him to me, is probably that I bring that beats, R&B approach, through to modernist Hip Hop – the UK…’,  he pauses. ‘I’m going to say “alternative dance”; the drum and bass, the dubstep, the chill and techno and berlin minimal. He’s drawn to me because I understand that stuff .’

Ryan says he loves to create a ‘big fat busy harmony that is derivative of jazz’, while Tamil is ‘someone who sees jazz as an advanced music. So we kind of meet in the middle.’

Not singing jazz

As a vocalist, Ryan is more interested in working outside a strict jazz idiom. ‘ I don’t see jazz as being music for vocalists.’  He quotes his friend Thai Matus from the 12 Tone Diamonds, who said to him ‘jazz is not for singers.’

‘I kind of think he’s right. At least that world of modern jazz that people like Jamie Oehlers, Danny Fischer, Paul Grabowsky excel in. For me jazz is about the melody being carried by an instrumentalist, and the solos, the improvisation… I don’t see a place for what I do in that. I am moving more and more towards popular music. Tamil tries to steer me towards the jazz side of things… he makes me rap like I’m playing the lead on ‘So What’!

This departure from the idea of a traditional jazz ensemble – a departure from a commitment to any single genre or tradition – is a hallmark of The RAah Project and is also present in their name.

‘The feeling of the word describes what it is. Whether it’s the Egyptian sun god Ra, or the Sun Ra  Arkestra, or the 2005 or 2006 album called the Sa-Ra Creative Partners out of Detroit – a big record that was so sexy and groovy and R&B, with really slick harmonies.  Whatever it is, the name allows us to exist without particularly being anything…

Another planet

The jazz fusion explosion in the late sixties and early seventies provides a solid source of inspiration.

‘There’s a quote from a documentary on Sun Ra [Don Letts doco Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet ] “Fuck the ghetto,  look to space!”

‘I love what was going on for jazz at that time – it was a kind of launch into space, with Miles Davis Bitches Brew, On The Corner, In a Silent Way, and  Panthalassa [Mix album Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974]. I’m a huge fan of the music that led up to that too, but at that time, they were electric. They really did feel like they were from another planet. A higher creativity.’

Post modern

He insists he is not a jazz man. ‘Seriously, I don’t think I’d be capable of making a genre specific album – I think of the people who shine in those genres and they define themselves in their own way. I think that in our post-modern state those boundaries mean less. I love Puccini, Ravel, Bach, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Charlie Parker, David Bowie… I just love great music.

‘I understand that popular culture is rehashing everything and I understand those people who say to stick with a theory and roll with it, but the answers are all so easy to find now. It’s so easy to make your own music that crosses the boundaries of jazz, R&B, Hip Hop, soul, noise, rock – they are all beautiful and you can find a space for all of them if you work hard on your arrangements.’

Upcoming concerts

19 July 2013 Melbourne Recital Centre CD Launch

The RAah project is launching the new CD at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 19 July, with The Johann Strauss Ensemble (Vienna).

10 August 2013 – Capital Jazz Project (Canberra)

Then on 10 August, The RAah project is mounting a new version of the show in collaboration with ANU in Canberra, for the Capital Jazz Project.

‘We’re going into the uni for a week or so and infiltrate the minds of these students to get them to mount this work. The thing is they’re great players – they can definitely carry it. The performance is going to be something else. It’s always a thrill to work with that many players – a true show band with a bunch of horns and strings and drums, bass, the whole rhythm section.’

‘This project with the ANU students is so cool… I really believe in that idea that even for students at uni, that they have a voice of their own; their own creativity. I think getting that point across is what makes for great musicians. This country can support great musicians

‘When you mature, things start to shift around. You start thinking about what you want from life and what you actually want from music. A lot of people are in a band when they’re in their twenties and they love what they’re doing. Then they hit that age and they go get a job and become a roofer or a painter or an accountant. I wanted to continue to be a musician. I work as a producer so my day to day job is being a musician. I got into music when I was young, because I loved music and not for any reasons to do with fame or money. And I reckon if I can see a young Ryan in that group of musicians; if someone in that group of young musicians is inspired by the music we’ll be performing, there’s really nothing better than that. It isn’t about selling out stadiums… it’s about the joy, it’s about rehearsing. I get up and play for an hour every morning and it’s the best hour of my day. ‘

More information and buy tickets

Melbourne Recital Centre with The Johann Strauss Ensemble (Vienna) >

The Street Theatre, Canberra for the Capital Jazz Project, with ANU School of Music students >


The RAah Project – Will You Be There

Thanks to Gerald Arabit for the title of this post.