Meera Maharaj - a flute player embracing and enhancing Manchester's music diversity
Meera Maharaj is a flute player in the western classical tradition, whose family background is a combination of Cumbria and Trinidad. She studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the Royal Academy of Music in London. In her performing she is interested in drawing on the diverse musical traditions to enrich western classical practices, and benefits from the musical diversity of Manchester, where she has lived for over a decade. She is also active as a musician in a number of Special Educational Needs schools and care homes.
“There's a lot going on musically in Manchester. It's, it's quite incredible actually…. you just have these absolutely incredible musicians literally on your doorstep.”
Meera’s musical influences
Meera’s mother was born in Cumbria, UK, and her father’s parents came from Trinidad to London in the late 1950s. But this heritage didn’t set her in specific musical directions.
“My kind of musical involvement … I wouldn't say that was as a result of ethnicity or being mixed race. I was lucky at my primary school, we had peripatetic teachers coming in. My teacher was great, and we had a musical evening, and that's how I came to choose the flute. But if that isn't going on, I wouldn't, I don't think… I would have come to music if it hadn't been for that.”
When she studied at the RNCM in Manchester the diversity of the students was very inspiring.
“There are lots of people who come from all over the world and at the Royal Northern. And that's one of the brilliant things- the people you come into contact with, and people here who've had very different experiences from you, but it's brilliant to learn from friends and share different music in that way”.
Although she works in the western classical field, her listening interests are broad.
“I'm ashamed to say I don't listen to a huge amount of classical music. [laughs] So, when I was little, my parents, as I say, my parents listened to a wide variety of music. So, um, I listen to a lot of jazz and particularly contemporary jazz nowadays. But yeah really, we listen to all kinds of stuff- I can say we listen to a lot of soca music, so this is music from Trinidad. And, that was kind of a big part of our musical upbringing. But yeah, we listen to a huge amount of Soul, Motown, House, all really everything.”
The purpose and motivations of Meera’s music-making
Meera is interested in how music allows us ways of communicating that are on a different wavelength from talking.
“These days I do a lot of work in Special Educational Needs schools and care homes. And so I think in that context, music, it… I think it can reach people in a way that other, other aspects can’t, or other treatments, if it's kind of in a health setting, so that I think music has a really special purpose there. But then maybe that's not so different from a more formal concert setting. Because I think you're still, you're still connecting with people on a different level. And having, I don't know expressing something that you couldn't through words or something else.”
She is also interested in diversifying western classical music, partly for musical reasons.
“It's no shock to any of us that there's very little diversity in the classical music world … with players, but also in terms of the repertoire itself. … in my flute and guitar duo we do play a lot of kind of “non-white” music. But that doesn't have any particular like, political or particularly ideological drive. It's just the music that we like. Yeah, we play a lot of Brazilian music and Afro-Cuban all this kind of stuff, we just, we just like it.”
Meera’s musical identity
As a child Meera listened to a wide range of music.
“I think there’s something in if you are from a mixed background, when you’re exposed to music of the two cultures, but more widely, and maybe just my parents listened to a wide variety of music that are generally more open and kind of, yeah, culturally, I guess.”
Meera hasn’t taken her musicianship to Trinidad in any formal way, but she’s shared it more informally.
“…I played for family and in kind of informal settings- and bless them, they've all been tuning into the livestreams because everything's been on the internet. That's been a really nice thing actually, about- that's been one positive aspect of things being online, that people from all over the world are tuning in. Erm, and everyone's been commenting on the live chat, listening from Australia, listening from Trinidad, listening from America, all these kind of things. So that's one positive aspect of all this business.”
With the rise of the BLM movement, Meera found herself thinking about the immigration of her Trinidadian grandparents, and the struggles they had on arriving.
“With everything that's been going on when you actually look at the lyrics, it's quite sad, when you think that these Caribbean people were promised they looked up to the ‘Mother Country’, and they thought they were going to get this grand welcome. And as I know, from my own grandparents- my dad's parents- that erm… that was not the reality at all. They were greeted by erm… trying to rent they'd be greeted by signs, “No blacks, No Irish, No Dogs”… it was really quite a hostile environment.”
She made some arrangements for flute and piano including a calypso, London is the Place for Me, knowing that calypsonian Aldwyn Roberts [stage name Lord Kitchener], sang it on arrival at Tilbury Docks.
“There were a lot of feelings and quite a lot of anger floating around … so I thought it would, it would be a good idea to arrange the music by African composers or African origin musicians. But to be performed in a in a more classical setting, whatever that is. And so we, we arranged erm, a spiritual- Deep River, and … Malaika by Miriam Makeba. The third was London is the Place for Me, the Lord Kitchener Calypso … as I explained that that was quite a personal one."
"I can't claim any link to African music other than like interest, but it's, it's come from more, more from a place of, I'm trying to include my own musical interest with who I am as a musician, and trying to kind of get this representation of black music, erm into a more mainstream setting. … There's always scope to do more, and push that further.”