Catherine Potter Remembered
Note from the author: This is the original article containing the quotes from the many people who generously contributed their thoughts but that were cut for lack of print space in the Montreal Gazette (Dec 11, 2010). This, in light of the upcoming memorial service to be held in Montreal Saturday, January 22, 2011.
The flute is the symbol of the spiritual call – The call of the divine love (www.hariprasadchaurasia.com)
PLAYING FROM A FOREIGN MOTHER TONGUE
The worldbeat music community is reeling from the untimely death of a Canadian artist. Catherine Potter dedicated her life to the creation of a unique musical identity based on the fusion of classical Indian and Western music (Jazz). She lost her battle with breast cancer on Friday December 3rd, 2010, at the age of 52.
However, it can argued that Catherine was much more than a Canadian artist, as she struggled with identity and recognition. She created from another perspective altogether than that expected for a local girl: She created from outside the confines of her ethnic heritage. The question that begs an answer in retrospect: Was she an Indian or a Western musician?
Over a career that spanned 25 years, Catherine Potter became a world renowned bansuri flute player, trained in the classical tradition of Northern Indian music. She held degrees in Jazz from Concordia and in Ethnomusicology from Université de Montréal. However, she had already begun studying the bansuri flute, an ancient and rare Indian instrument, in the early 1980’s with world famous Indian flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia in Mumbaï, to which she returned many times. Her first CD, Bansuri, was recorded in India in 1997, and represented for her a confirmation that she was beginning to master classical Indian music.
She founded Duniya Project in 2002, an Indian Fusion project merging jazz and classical Indian music along the lines of improvisation (which constitutes the main structure in both genres). With her second CD, Duniya Project, released in 2006, she felt that she could bring people together. Duniya means “world” in various Asian and African languages.
Her third project, Convergence des continents, was the culmination of 25 years of research and collaborations, in an attempt to “marry Indian and African elements with a kora tuned to an early morning raga’s mode…” It was performed only two nights in front of sold-out crowds in January 2010 at the MAÏ. Composed with Zal Idrissa Cissokho on Mandingo kora, the project was meant as a tribute to her friend and collaborator, Senegalese griot Boubacar Diabate (deceased in 2006). The show had enormous potential and was booked from Quebec to Morocco and India. Unfortunately, the tour was cancelled once Catherine entered hospital in October.
A FORCE OF NATURE
Catherine’s vision was so all-inclusive, her drive to impose a form of music she loved so strong, and her resilience in light of difficulties so intense, that there can be no doubt as to force of this woman’s soul. Nicolas Caloia, who toured with her in India, stated it succinctly:
“Everything she realized was by sheer force of will. To try to make an international career out of playing the bansuri is a testament to her will power. These are not easy things to do, but she was determined. She has shown that things that were previously deemed impossible are now possible.”
Her resilience, convictions and determination were rock solid. She is credited to have succeeded in bringing classical Indian music to the ears of Canadians who would not otherwise know of its existence. She pushed hard so that she could tour, and record her music. She became an entrepreneur, yet always strained to improve her craft and learn new repertoires. She learned Indian music and embraced Indian culture. And she broke down the barriers of prejudice and misogynous discrimination.
Liette Gauthier who was at the head of Musique Multi-Montréal for 20 years, helped Catherine with grants and promotion.
“Catherine had a rare tenacity, yet she was very modest, unassuming, and very solitary. Her music was her soul. And her home was her music.”
Catherine also taught bansuri flute to a select few. It is said that if a student did not embrace the spiritual aspect of Indian music, she would simply not teach them.
Québécoise composer and silver flute player Marie Saintonge received classical bansuri training from Catherine over several years.
“She had a very high sense of precision. She was very meticulous, organized, professional and methodical.”
She was also looked up to by musicians that she encouraged to develop their careers in Indian music. Shawn Mativetsky, another Canadian-born Westerner, pursued his goal of learning to play the tabla after he met her. He qualifies her as a first generation Indian musician because she was the first Canadian Westerner to learn classical Indian music. Subir Dev, who was her tabla player since the beginnings of Duniya Project, mostly played pop Bollywood style music until then. Because of her great knowledge of the genre, she brought him to understand and play classical Indian music much more.
COLOUR, GENDER, AND RECOGNITION
However accomplished, Catherine felt that she was not recognized for her efforts, or more precisely, that she was not taken seriously as an Indian musician because she was a Westerner and a woman. It was so very important to her that she be recognized as an authentic Indian musician. The issue of recognition caused her much pain.
Joy Anandasivam played guitar with her in Duniya Project.
“She was like a tiger. Indian classical music is very difficult to learn. But these days there is no reverence for masters. There is no tradition of learning from a master for many years then becoming a master yourself to teach others. Catherine had that vision.”
Born in Guelph, Ontario, Catherine Potter looked like the North American girl next door, with auburn hair, blue eyes, and freckles. Because she is White, it is widely believed, even in the artistic community that knows her well, that she started from Western music and aimed to merge Eastern influences into it.
But it may have been the other way around! In some of her biographical notes, she concludes to needing Western music to balance her knowledge. She writes:
“For me, it was important to have a western musical education alongside the traditional Indian one; somehow I knew that it would help in being taken seriously if I ever decided to pursue non-western music as a career.”
That is when she came back to Canada, from India, and decided to enroll in the Jazz program at Concordia.
It seems clear then that her professional designs always came from an Indian perspective and not from Jazz. Yet in an interview given to an Indian newspaper during the Duniya tour in 2008, she said that she did not want her music to be considered purely Indian:
“I would prefer to call it contemporary Canadian music as it reflects the interculturalism of where I come from: Montreal.”
Nicolas Caloia understood Catherine’s dichotomy well:
“Catherine’s music was not so much about merging Jazz and Indian music, but about finding a means to express her own voice. Indian music was in many ways her mother tongue, so what we did with Duniya only ended up being Indian Fusion. Catherine was not really from a Jazz background, she learned to play music in India. She played Jazz coming from a foreign musical mother tongue, which is very unusual.”
To Thom Gossage who also toured with Duniya Project, it was obvious that Catherine wanted to be considered as an Indian musician.
“She started Duniya to keep a connection with the West. It was a mix of both Jazz and classical Indian but she was first and foremost a true lover of Indian music, of which she had tremendous knowledge.”
Catherine said that in her next life she wanted to be reincarnated as a tabla player, and be reborn in India, as an Indian, Subir Dev recalls.
“But to me, Catherine was already more Indian than any Indian out there.”
Catherine gave her life to learn a musical art form and a spiritual connection that was hers alone. She fought through the misconceptions associated with her colour and gender and struggled with ferocious integrity to express a spirit that had to come from her own heart, through her own spirit, in true Indian tradition. The bansuri was her voice.
Yet she was considered in funding circles as “Canada’s master bansuri flautist.” And the Canadian Indian community often invited her to perform. One such event, Montreal Constellations, produced by the Kabir Cultural Center, included her as one of the top 5 living stars of Hindustani Classical music. It was held in late 2010 but she could not participate, as she was already in hospital.
And what better recognition than the words of her own teacher, guru and friend of 25 years, the great Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia who saw her as a daughter:
“It is artists like Catherine Potter who contribute to the richness of our Indian music and who blur the boundaries of different identities and cultures.”
After her passing he wrote:
“She was a true daughter of Maa Saraswati, learnt sincerely and imbibed all the teachings along with the tradition of India.”
And in the words of Senegalese singer-songwriter and film-maker Musa Dieng Kala, who collaborated with Catherine in 2007:
“As the African proverb goes, ‘the dead are never dead’. That is the hope that we, as artists, have: That history will be the judge of our successes despite the difficulties and predjudice we faced along the way. The music Catherine made was very rare. She was an extraordinary musician, who persevered for more than 20 years in what she believed. It will be a long time until we see that again.”
Catherine’s passing represents a huge loss for the Indian community, for Canada and for World music. She will be remembered for her passion for Indian music, her resilience, and her relentless efforts to get it into our ears and hearts.
Click here to listen to a radio interview by Peter Nerenberg that aired December 30, 2010, on CBC Radio, featuring Catherine and her music. (7 mins.)
Click here to listen to a round table discussion on Catherine Potter that aired on CIBL Radio’s L’entremuse with Yves Bernard on January 18, 2011, including interviews with Catherine and musical excerpts. (Unedited, 1’30”, in French)