Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement, heard about Ram Kaundinya ’15 and his newly released song and immediately wanted to know more. The song, "Gridlock," centers around Ram’s journey of balancing culture, tradition, and his individuality. Keep reading to learn about the many talents of Ram Kaundinya!
Ram, it has been more than five years since you graduated from MA. What have you been up to?
It’s crazy connecting and checking in with the MA community. Even though I graduated almost six years ago, there’s still a lot of me that finds a home in MA.
Well, I think the short answer is I’ve been making games for the last two years! I studied Cognitive Science at UCLA, played lots of music in my time there, graduated in 2019, and went on to continue making games and experiences in Virtual Reality, mobile game prototypes, and now for the last half-year working with an amazing new game studio called Deviation Games. My work there is pretty under wraps right now, but all I can say is once we get the word out about what we’re making, you’ll absolutely know about it.
You play the tabla and are also a multi-percussionist. When did you become so interested in instruments, and did playing them always come naturally to you?
I was around music since I was a kid. In the womb, I was going to Indian Classical music classes in San Rafael near MA at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Funny story—between the time MA was a military academy and an educational academy it actually hosted the Ali Akbar College of Music for some time!
My first experience with tablas was when I was a kid. I loved the percussion room of the music school, and I used to get my mom into trouble by going and banging on everybody’s drums. The fun thing about tablas—they’re tuned with a hammer. And a little kid with a hammer and a drum, well you can imagine what happens. I smashed open somebody’s tabla when I was a toddler, and that’s when the director decided to give me my own pair.
Growing up as an Indian-American, I was always in the middle of two very different cultures. One year in middle school I took part in the San Francisco World Music Festival where I played with musicians from Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Uganda, Brazil, China, and so many others. That was the start of a revolution for me. A revolution of thought.
My experience with new cultures, ideas, and traditions in the US along with my exposure to a classical music form from India instilled in me a deep interest in perspective. As John Danaher said, "Give a man a point of view, and you can change him.“
I grew to appreciate, understand, and learn from perspectives from around the world. Around my senior year at Marin Academy, I grew deeply interested in the work, art, and philosophy of Bruce Lee. Right around the time of Vision Quest (now known as Wilderness Quest), I got myself a book called Striking Thoughts by Bruce Lee. His life inspired me very deeply, and so much of what Bruce talked about resonated with me.
Three Bruce quotes that particularly ring in my ears are:
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water in a cup, it BECOMES the cup; you put water in a bottle, it BECOMES the bottle; put it in a teapot, it BECOMES the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”
"Know the principle, follow the principle, dissolve the principle.”
From Bruce’s actions and words and applying/testing them for myself, I realized that no form, no style, could truly encompass the total and whole expression of who I am. As Jiddu Krishnamurti asks, “Can you hold the sea in your hand? If you can, it is no longer the sea.” You cannot contain what is, and a simple dedication to one form of music, one style of percussion, simply was not the full expression of who I was. I was an Indian-American kid with a singular reality of my own. And that’s what I wanted to express through my music, through my multi-instrumental approach, and through my being.
You just released your first single, “Gridlock,” in December. Tell us more about your music and how “Gridlock” was created.
I addressed much of this in my answer to the last question, but to apply it directly to “Gridlock”—first off, why the title “Gridlock?”
It’s because I was experiencing this struggle, this conflict, between tradition and my NOW. I felt in many ways trapped by a mindset, a classical mindset, which said this thing invented hundreds of years ago done this particular way is the pinnacle of what can be and nothing can exceed it. We must follow it and not ask questions.
But what I experienced and knew for myself differed from that mentality. I knew that, “Life is a continuous process of relation” (Bruce Lee). Tradition and somebody else’s way of doing things could not be my own. My life in the US taught me something very different. The relationship I had with the world in my own life taught me something very different.
A mind which is hampered by thought and memory cannot be fresh and aware. For those things are of time. And the present moment is not of time. It is here and now. To be fully aware and create in the moment you CANNOT be shackled by what once was. Because you are then no longer truly relating to the moment.
But I valued deeply the perspective I gained from my training with Indian Classical drums, and I wanted to express this conflict between a past and a NOW. “Gridlock” came from this. It was to me an expression of what you can create if you find the essence, the nucleus, of something like classical music or tabla. Do not be blinded by the ideas and dogmas around it, but simply see it for what it is. Then, as Bruce said, “Know the principle, follow the principle, dissolve the principle,” and “absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”
From here—create! And that’s what I did. That is “Gridlock.”
Who or what inspires you in your music and life, and did MA have a role in your musical aspirations and where you are today?
Marin Academy’s music program was a big part of why I could even do something like make a single. I had a phenomenal experience with Bob Schleeter in my time there and in my last year with Chris Detrick! Getting the freedom, trust, and space to find something of your own and create something of your own with your peers is something that the music program at Marin Academy was unique and pioneering in doing.
There are few if any people I’ve met in the music community who have had that kind of background in their high school music programs. I hope that that framework lives on for the students there today.
Marin Academy was crucial in helping me understand that I must take complete responsibility for my education and that learning is not about facts, but about exploring ourselves as people. In my time there, I felt like it was always emphasized to first take care of yourself as a human being. And then comes your education. But if you do not take care of yourself, you won’t learn anything.
What is on the horizon for you? What is the best way for the MA community to follow you and to hear your talent?
Well, right now it’s this big project we have going at Deviation Games. To keep in touch with us there, follow Deviation Games on LinkedIn. But I guarantee you, even without that you’ll find out what we’re up to.
I am on Instagram at @timeisnowstudios and my website is www.timeisnowstudios.com. My website needs to be updated (as everyone always says), but you’ll find more stuff of mine on there for sure!
I’ve been thinking about a percussion ensemble for this coming year and perhaps recording another composition of mine, but that’s to be determined. Regardless, stay tuned because there will be something coming!
Thank you Ram for sharing your story with us. You are a very talented human being and we are so proud of you! Everyone please takes some time to listen to “Gridlock” and really feel the percussion. You can find it on Spotify!
What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons at email@example.com.