Kirsty Pittman: ‘Samassin is inspired by all of the ethnic influences in Melbourne’

Samassin is a Melbourne-based world-jazz music ensemble, led by guitarist Kirsty Pittman; their music is rich in texture and references. It is influenced by rich modes and rhythms from India, the Middle East and the Balkans, with elements of jazz and classical seamlessly blending together with a wide array of folkloric themes. They were planning to present their music at the Kew Court House in March, but the performance was cancelled as a result of the restrictions to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, the concert will take place, as soon as the crisis is over. In the meantime, here’s Kirsty Pittman, presenting the Samassin story.

What is the Samassin story?
I formed this band in 2014 with my partner Daniel Hoban (who I had been already playing music with for 15 years), Justin Lim, our bass clarinettist, and Turkish flute player Volkan Susuzer. At the time I was studying music at university particularly exploring Indian vocal percussion: Konnakol, Carnatic vocal, Bulgarian music, middle eastern, jazz and composition. This was a huge influence on my guitar playing and I was also trying to recreate the sound of the oud on the guitar, as well as also dabbling with the oud. After recording our first album, we toured Turkey and Germany, both of which hugely developed us as a band. After Volkan left in 2015, we were joined by two fantastic players:Belinda Woods on flute and Colombian percussionist Gustavo Moreno. Since this time I studied contemporary classical compositional and we grew strongly as a band producing a second album.

Who is your ideal listener?
Open minded individuals, those with longer attention spans, often lovers of jazz, art music.

What is the significance of bringing music with melodic ideas from the Middle-East and India to Melbourne?

The significance is just that the beauty of these ancient rhythms and exotic modes speak to me strongly and have become part of my musical palette and who I am as a composer and improvisor. I am also influenced by much other music that I have experienced, but this has been a distinctive part. As a guitarist I have often been inspired by other stringed instruments such as the oud and sarod, and desired to replicated their sound. An example of this is the incredible guitarist Derek Gripper who I am extremely inspired by – he does the same, expertly, with the kora. It is so obvious that he speaks the language of music.

I am greatly inspired by all of these ethnic influences that are already here in Melbourne. This patchwork is inspiring and our music here is global.

What has your trajectory in music been like so far?

My trajectory has been steady and satisfying to me; I have benefitted hugely from the impressive music scene that is Melbourne. I was listening to a talk recently by Brian Eno who proposed that “scenius” was as important as individual genius: the scene you are surrounded by can be as beneficial to great music being made. I’m sure that has been a huge boost to my creativity.

What has been the most important highlight?

Samassin’s second studio recording felt like a huge achievement, I felt intensely satisfied with this creation. Playing big festivals, Port fairy, National Folk Festival and places such as MoNA and the Famous Speigeltent with my tango group have also been highlights. Playing huge venues is harder with Samassin’s original art/jazz music but we have played some great places including a famous jazz bar guitar cafe in Istanbul, a film festival in northern Germany, iconic bars in Berlin, the oratory at Abbotsford convent and Queen Victoria market.


What was greatest challenge that you had to face?

I don’t see any major challenges except perhaps living in the gig economy. I have to work hard to keep up with the amazing musicians I play with, finding mental space to compose and plenty if time to practice in this busy world!

What does jazz mean to you?

Labels are generally just a convenience and an expectation. However, the jazz label is somewhat accurate. Jazz has evolved in the 21st century to often mean music with a strong emphasis on grooves and rhythms which originate from many parts of the world, although of course originally Africa, plus a strong improvisatory element. It was when studying jazz that I was introduced to Indian rhythms and ways of subdividing that are not impeded by bar lines and the freedom of expression that that creates. Classical contemporary/art music in comparison – which I also studied – is less driven by these strong grooves. This is a principle reason why I describe the music sometimes as ethno jazz or world jazz or possibly folk jazz.

What inspires you?

Nature, forests, remote beaches, the night sky, warm sunshine, dusk and dawn, other artists, free spirits, risk takers, visual art, the sound of exotic instruments.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Maya, the invisible world’. This tune is about the seen and unseen, about illusion, possibility of other dimensions, unreality, the confusion of our reality versus that of others.

The piece is often playful, vibrant, elusive and mysterious.

Our newest piece ‘Agneya of the Ashes’ is about recent heat, the burning forest specifically in the SE of Australia. Agneya is a fire goddess and her direction is SE. This was my major preoccupation this summer and composing it has been cathartic, but it is not currently my state of mind.