Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Gene Simmons

IN a controversial interview recently published in Esquire magazine, Gene Simmons of the 70s band Kiss declared that rock music is dead. Besides talking of how technology-driven practices like downloading and file-sharing have had an adverse effect on the industry, he says that what’s lacking is the presence of iconic musicians in the newer generation.

On the one hand, Simmons points out, the period between 1958 and 1983 had numerous musicians who were “unanimously considered classic, timeless, revolutionary.” The examples he cites are Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Madonna, the classic Motown artistes, Prince, Pink Floyd, so on and so forth. In contrast, in the period after the 1990s, he thinks Nirvana is the notable exception. “Where’s the next Bob Dylan? Where’s the next Beatles? Where are the songwriters? Where are the creators?” he asks.

Obviously, the interview has generated extreme reactions. While the old-timers would tend to agree with his views, the younger audiences would find the statement far-fetched and old-school, and say that post-1985 bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dream Theater and Radiohead are legendary in their own right. To each his own.

But the truth is that as a general statement, what Simmons has said is not off the mark in the sense that the past three decades or so haven’t produced the kind of legends that the earlier period did. After all, most of the new bands just carried forward the sound created by earlier masters like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd.

At the same time, to declare that rock music is dead is preposterous, simply because one hears a whole bunch of younger, talented musicians these days – acts like Muse, Richard Hawley, Wilco, Jack White, the Black Keys and John Mayer. They may not be innovators or path-breakers like the 1960s brigade, but they do produce some great songs and highly listenable albums, and that matters more than anything else.

If one were to extend Simmons’ theory to other genres – both international and Indian – the same conclusion can be arrived at.

Let’s take western classical music, to begin with. Most of the innovation actually took place from the late 18th century to roughly 1950. Today, most concerts feature works of older composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, probably ending with early 20th century names like Stravinsky, Edward Elgar and Shostakovich. Though later-day composers like Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten and Karl Jenkins did some amazing work, a majority of the repertoire played belongs to the older creators.

Even among conductors, there is no one in the contemporary lot whose name carries the same weightage as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Clive Davis or Georg Solti. A violinist like Yehudi Menuhin, a cellist like Mtistlav Rostropovich, a pianist like Daniel Barenboim, a tenor like Luciano Pavarotti or a soprano like Maria Callas is hard to find today, even though there are scores of musicians who play these instruments brilliantly or have an equal depth in their voices.

In jazz, the biggest innovators thrived between 1930 and 1975 – singer-trumpeter Louis Armstrong, bandleader Duke Ellington, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, pianists Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock, saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Stan Getz, guitarists John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, and jazz-fusion band Weather Report, to name some.

Today, there are hundreds of jazz virtuosos, each of whom beats the other in terms of sheer technique and wizardry. But will they be able to set the standards of the past masters? Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Diana Krall are among the exceptions, rather than part of a recurring trend.

The blues has a similar story to tell. The game changers included Robert Johnson, Elmore James, BB King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy, who had all peaked before the 1970s began. In country music, when was the last time we had someone of the calibre of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn or John Denver? Or someone like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff in reggae?

A similar argument holds true with Indian music. In Hindi film music, the real path-breaking work was done between 1950 and 1975 by composers like Naushad, Anil Biswas, SD Burman, C Ramchandra, OP Nayyar, Shankar-Jaikishen, Madan Mohan, Ravi and Salil Chowdhury, to be followed by RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji. Most composers after the 1990s, from AR Rahman and Nadeem-Shravan to Jatin-Lalit and Amit Trivedi, have had their good phases, but those who have grown up on the earlier masters will know the real difference.

In singing, the contributions of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt and Talat Mahmood are admired even five or six decades later. Likewise with lyricists like Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Rajinder Krishan, Harsat Jaipuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Anand Bakshi and Gulzar.

Move over to Hindustani classical music, and one can safely argue that among vocalists, it’s difficult or even impossible to produce another Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kesarbai Kerkar, Kishori Amonkar, Jasraj or Parveen Sultana. Yes, there are some really outstanding singers today, like Rashid Khan, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Jayateerth Mevundi, Shubha Mudgal, Ulhas Kashalkar, Venkatesh Kumar, Kaushiki Chakraborty and Sawani Shende, but despite their brilliance, it would be unrealistic to say they will replace the older legends.

The same is the case with Hindustani instrumental music and percussion, where sitar maestros Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan, sarod monarch Ali Akbar Khan, flautists Pannalal Ghosh and Hariprasad Chaurasia, shehnai king Bismillah Khan, santoor genius Shivkumar Sharma, and tabla greats Allarakha and Zakir Hussain have all done wonders. In Carnatic music, there can never be another MS Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman, flautist N Ramani, saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath or the relatively younger mandolin master U Shrinivas. In ghazals, can we have another Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh, Begum Akhtar or Ghulam Ali? Today, Pankaj Udhas is the only ghazal singer who regularly draws a full house.

KEEPING Simmons’ ‘rock is dead’ theory in mind, one can easily declare that classical is dead, jazz is dead, blues is dead, country is dead, reggae is dead, Hindi film music is dead, Hindustani classical is dead, Carnatic is dead and ghazals are dead. All these genres are as affected by downloading and file-sharing as rock music, and none of them produce the kind of icons that one heard 40 or 50 years ago.

Yet, that approach would be rather pessimistic and unfair. After all, in the past two decades or so, there have been various changes in the field of music, right from the kinds of sound created by musicians to the tastes of the audiences to the technological platforms on which the music is available to the way the music is marketed and promoted.

Like in other fields, supply in music is dependent on the demand. Over the years, there has been a drastic fall in the number of serious listeners, and in the number of listeners who are truly passionate about music.

To appreciate in-depth genres like western classical, jazz, Hindustani, Carnatic and ghazals, audiences should be clued in to the nuances. Unfortunately, relatively fewer people today understand the harmonies used in a western symphony, the improvisational technicalities of jazz, the intricacies of a Hindustani or Carnatic raga or the meaning of high-quality Urdu poetry. Overall, music appreciation has become superficial.

To cater to the newer audiences, artistes are forced to adapt or make sacrifices which try to impress with gimmickry or dilute the purity of the art form. In the world of jazz, Indi-fusion and even Indian classical, there has been an increasing emphasis on showmanship, which today’s listeners are sadly relating to and applauding.

These days, people have entertainment alternatives beside music. Many youngsters prefer to spend their time on television, gaming, computers, movies or even window-shopping at malls, as compared to music. Peer pressure also plays an important role. So even if they attend concerts, they will go for a happening rock show, dance music marathon, Bollywood nite or club gig than have a serious auditorium experience.

Unlike in the past, when music lovers collected physical copies of vinyl records, cassettes or compact discs, they store the music digitally on computers and mobile devices today. No matter how hard one tries, these newer avenues just don’t result in the same feel.

Finally, most music that works today does so because it is part of a trend. Electronic dance music (EDM) is the current rage, but the people who listen to that go more for the experience and the ambience than to understand what is being played. The disc jockeys have become superstars, though the crowd cannot often tell the difference of one from the other. Hip-hop grew as a street language and a form of rebellion, but today, people listen to it just because everyone else is listening to it. In India, we have so many fans of Sufi music, when 95 per cent of them don’t understand what the great poets Amir Khusro, Baba Bulleh Shah or Hazrat Shah Hussain talked about.

In contrast to a majority of today’s music, a large percentage of older music had the right feel and emotion. Whether it was rock, classical, jazz or country, Hindi film music, Hindustani, Carnatic or ghazals, it struck a chord and caressed your heart. And because of that, it has had longevity. Even today, we still listen to ‘Aradhana’ or ‘Abhimaan’, when we have almost stopped hearing last year’s biggest hit ‘Aashiqui 2’.

DESPITE the fact that everything goes in favour of the older music, would it be fair to say that rock – or any other genre – is dead? Maybe it isn’t as charming as it once used to be, but it still has its moments.

Iconic or not, path-breaking or not, every generation has its own set of highly talented musicians. If today’s lot hasn’t been able to create the same kind of revolution, it’s because their predecessors practically did everything. Over the years, whatever needed to be innovated in music, has already been done. Today, there is hardly any scope for creating a new sound or sub-genre, without being in some form influenced by the past.

As such, it would be ridiculous to expect contemporary musicians to have the same kind of landmark achievements as the previous lot did. As long as they produce good music, it shouldn’t be matter. If they don’t, one always has the option to listen to someone else. With the right ear and approach, one will always find a lot of good things to hear. It’s important to have an open, progressive mind and give today’s music a chance.


Turn Blue/ The Black Keys

Genre: Rock/ alternative

Label: Nonesuch Records

Rating: *** 1/2

CALL them garage rock, blues-rock or alternative rock, it doesn’t matter. The truth is that American duo The Black Keys are on top of the circuit, specially after being twice successful at the Grammy awards. Earlier this year, vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney released their eighth album ‘Turn Blue’, much awaited by fans after a two-plus-year gap.

Yes, the band has been around for over 13 years, first attaining a cult following with the albums ‘Rubber Factory’, ‘Magic Potion’ and ‘Attack & Release’. The 2010 effort ‘Brothers’ helped them get mainstream success, thanks to the tracks ‘Tighten up’ and ‘Howlin’ for you’, and 2011’s ‘El Camino’ boasted of their biggest hit ‘Lonely boy’. Between the last two albums, they grabbed seven Grammys in the rock and alternative categories.

Like ‘Attack & Release’ and ‘El Camino’, ‘Turn Blue’ has been co-produced by the famous Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame. Overall, it uses less of a blues-rock element compared to the earlier albums, as some songs here get into ballad mode and more soulful territory, ostensibly because the songwriting was inspired by the rough marriages and break-ups both band members went through. And though the Keys freely experiment with their sound, the songs range from the outstanding to the insipid, making this quite a mixed bag.

The album kicks off with the six-minute, 50-second epic ‘Weight of Love’, which is a brilliant presentation of Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelic rock. A lengthy, guitar-driven intro is followed by the lines “I used to think, darlin’, you never did nothin’, But you were always up to somethin’, Always had a run in, yeah.” Heartfelt female choruses and the wailing riffs in the coda make this number a sonic treat.

‘In time’, with its melodic intro and plenty of choruses, impresses with the lines “You’ve got a worried mind, I’ve got a worried heart, You don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to start.” However, the fizz comes down on the next three numbers.

The title track sounds more like standard 1980s pop, and ‘Fever’ has shades of European synth-pop, and both songs seem aimed more at commercially-inclined tastes. ‘Year in review’ is the most unimpressive tune here, as it just doesn’t hit you.

Luckily, barring the namby-pamby and ordinary ’10 lovers’, the rest of the album contains some amazing stuff, beginning with ‘Bullet in the brain’. A song about a failed relationship, it boasts of moody guitars, a steady beat and words like “Looking back on where we used to be, Everything was clear, still I refuse to see, Hearts began to burst, The diamond turned to dust, You made me talk the pain all out of me.”

‘It’s up to you now’ steps up the tempo, has a neat rhythm guitar back-up and contains a smart electric guitar stretch. ‘Waiting on words’ is one of the more hummable tunes here, with its retro-pop feel and a farewell emotion on the lines, “Oh, goodbye, I heard you were leaving, Won’t try changing your mind, Goodbye, Don’t know where you’re going, The only thing I really know, My love for you is real, I.”

The last two tracks are delightful. ‘In our prime’ starts with soft keyboards, has a charming guitar climax and brims with nostalgia-ridden lyrics like “Like every lover hovers in my mind, We made our mark when we were in our prime. The house had burned, but nothing there was mine, We had it all when we were in our prime.” Finally, ‘Gotta get away’ is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, with its rock ‘n’ roll flavour and Mick Jagger influence.

The end result is an album that has many highs, but sadly meanders in parts, moreso when the emphasis shifts from trademark garage rock to market-driven pop. The good news is that some of the songs – namely ‘Weight of love’, ‘In time’, ‘Bullet in the brain’ and ‘Waiting on words’ – deserve regular replays. The moment one tires of them, one can always return to the earlier albums ‘Brothers’ and ‘El Camino’.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


Naye Manzar/ Anurag Sharma

Genre: Ghazal

Label: Saregama HMV

Price: Rs 170

Rating: *** 1/2

I HAD heard ghazal singer Anurag Sharma at a private mehfil about 11 years ago, and then a year later at the Khazana festival organised by Pankaj Udhas. When I met him about a month ago, he mentioned that he had released his first album ‘Naye Manzar’ last year.

The collection has eight songs, six of which have been written by Anurag himself. Composed by him, most of the songs are in ‘chhoti behr’ (short metre), and the words are simple. Anurag has a pleasant voice and good enunciation, though one feels a few more classical nuances and a couple of songs with complex structures would have added depth. While one hears live presentation of the sitar, sarangi, bansuri, guitar and rabab, the percussion instruments have been programmed, and here too, a live rendition would have enhanced the feel and improvisation.

The highlight is the nazm ‘Tum mujhe yoon na pukaaro’, which concludes the album. Meant to be a tribute to the late Jagjit Singh and other departed legends, it echoes the feelings of a deceased artiste, especially on lines like “Main wahaan hoon jahaan sab kuchh nazar aata hai mujhe, roz hoti hai farishton se bhi baatein meri, aur bichde hue kuchh dost bhi mil jaate hain.”

Anurag also impresses on “Mujhko kaisi sazaayein detaa hai, zindagi ki duwaayein deta hai”, which has the sher “Husn toh khud hi ek qayaamat hai, husn ko kyon adaayein deta hai.” With its bansuri intro and melodic sarangi, ‘Bechaini ka aalam hai, tum aa jaao’ grows on repeated hearing.

‘Umr se lambi bojhal raatein sannata’, whose composition has been credited to Nirmal Daftary and lyrics to Mehshar Afridi, has been arranged subtly and sung with feel. ‘Is tarah se gham ka nasha aur badhaaya jaaye’, penned by Haider Najmi, has a Middle Eastern aura and makes effective use of Chintoo Singh’s rabab.

On a couple of songs, the Jagjit influence is obvious. The title track, for instance, has a starting similar to ‘Hoshwalon ko khabar kya’, and even the singing style seems inspired by the master. With the simple matla “Tumhe dekhe zamaane ho gaye hain, naye manzar puraane ho gaye hain” and some soothing sitar parts, this is the kind of song that would attract the masses more than purists.

The slightly uptempo, folk-influenced “Har pal chalta rehta hai, waqt bhi kaisa pagla hai” boasts of the words “Khamoshi ka barson se, dil ke shor se rishta hai.” It has an infectious tune, though here too, one notes a Jagjit inspiration. On the flip slide, one wonders why Anurag had to use a predictable alcohol song, that too with unimpressive lines like ‘Shaam ka waqt ho sharaab na ho, waqt itna kabhi kharaab na ho’.

Overall, of course, this is a commendable debut whose biggest forte is its simplicity. The words are accessible, the tunes catchy and the arrangements simple. I hear from Anurag that he is preparing songs for his next album, and one looks forward to it.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


Glenn Cornick

IT might not be far-fetched to say that only hardcore fans of legendary progressive rock group Jethro Tull would be aware of the role of bassist Glenn Cornick. Most people identify the band with its charismatic vocalist and flautist Ian Anderson, and many of them recognise its long-standing guitarist Martin Barre.

Cornick, who passed away at age 67 on Thursday, August 28, certainly had an important role to play in the band’s early development. After all, he was with the band since its inception in December 1967, and stayed with them for three years, before leaving or being asked to leave, depending on which story one may have heard. He formed Wild Turkey in 1971, and later played with the groups Karthago and Paris.

With Tull, Cornick appeared on the albums ‘This Was’, ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Benefit’, was part of what was later released as the ‘Living In The Past’ compilation, and appeared on the famous Isle of Wight festival concert in 1970. Along with drummer Clive Bunker, who left after the 1971 album ‘Aqualung’, he’s played important portions of such classic Tull numbers as ‘Bouree’, ‘Teacher’, ‘A New Day Yesterday’, ‘A Song For Jeffrey’, ‘Nothing Is Easy’, ‘To Cry You A Song’, ‘Living In The Past’, ‘Sweet Dream’, ‘We Used To Know’, ‘Witch’s Promise’ and ‘Nothing to Say’. He even played concert versions of the famous song ‘My God’, but had quit by the time its studio version was released in ‘Aqualung’, where he was replaced by Jeffrey Hammond.

Again, only a true-blue Tull fan will understand the true value of each song mentioned. Because of them, the band evolved into a sound that they later successfully endorsed in the albums ‘Aqualung’, ‘Thick As A Brick’, ‘Songs from the Wood’ and ‘Heavy Horses’. Of course, Anderson was singularly responsible in creating and singing those songs, besides giving them a unique flute voice, and that’s why the world by and large equates Jethro Tull with him.

In the history of rock music, there have been quite a few bands where the frontman hogged most of the attention and fame. Jim Morrison of the Doors, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Steve Winwood of Traffic and Paul Rodgers of Bad Company are four examples. But all these bands have had steady line-ups, and the other musicians had their cult following too. Guitarists like Queen’s Brian May, Doors’ Robbie Krieger and Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs have had their set of admirers, whereas Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek has always been considered to be the man who gave the Doors sound its own distinct flavour.

With Tull, it was different. Anderson has been there from the beginning, and Barre for most of the time. But otherwise, musicians came and went, with many playing only on an album or two. Guitarist Mick Abrahams appeared on the debut album ‘This Was’, only to be replaced by Barre subsequently. Cornick and Bunker played on the early albums, but eventually made way for Jeffrey Hammond and drummer Barriemore Barlow.

Later bassists have comprised John Glasscock, Dave Pegg, Jonanthan Noyce and David Goodier. Drummers have included Mark Craney, Gerry Conway, Paul Burgess, the long-standing Doane Perry, Dave Mattacks and Anderson’s son James Duncan. And the list of keyboardists consisted of John Evan, David Palmer, Eddie Jobson, Peter John Vetesse, Don Airey, Martin Allcock, Andrew Giddings and John O’Hara.

These are besides numerous musicians who have played with Anderson on his solo projects, or have been guests with the band on tours – like guitarists Tony Iommi and Joe Bonamassa in 1968 and 2011 respectively, and drummer Phil Collins, who played only one gig with Tull in 1982.

Needless to say, the constant alterations in line-up haven’t affected the group’s sound a bit, as it was all the brainchild of Anderson. So while Barre had his distinct guitar, even the ever-changing bassist, keyboardist and drummer had a sound that went well with the band’s overall music. And that music has primarily been Anderson’s flute driven blend of rock, blues, folk, classical, you name it. So much so that Anderson recently gave a hint that he would release all future albums under his own name, hinting that the name ‘Jethro Tull’ is now a part of history.

Though Cornick has played in only three of the 21 studio albums released by Tull, he has played in those three that shaped the band’s sound. The 1968 debut ‘This Was’, which had the songs ‘A Song for Jeffrey’, ‘My Sunday Feeling’ and ‘Some Day The Sun Won’t Shine For You’, had more of a blues flavour.

The follow-up ‘Stand Up’, with the tracks ‘Bouree’, ‘Reasons for Waiting’, ‘A New Day Yesterday’, ‘We Used To Know’, ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Nothing Is Easy’, marked the beginning of the Tull sound as one later recognised it. The instrumental ‘Bouree’, based on a piece by German classical composer JS Bach, is primarily known for Anderson’s flute, but here, Cornick’s bass is a song by itself.

The third album ‘Benefit’, released in 1970, is considered by the more serious fans as one of the best Tull albums. It featured keyboardist John Evan, and had the songs ‘To Cry You A Song’, ‘Inside’, ‘Nothing To Say’, ‘Sossity, You’re A Woman’ and ‘With You There To Help Me’. While the UK release had ‘Alive and Well and Living In’, the US record featured ‘Teacher’, a concert favourite which had a trademark bass back-up by Cornick.

‘Living In The Past’, released in 1972, had many early singles featuring Cornick. These included the title song, which used a distinct 5/4 rhythm structure, ‘Love Story’, ‘Christmas Song’, ‘Sweet Dream’, ‘Witch’s Promise’ and ‘Teacher’.

In a 1996 tribute album ‘To Cry You A Song – A Collection of Tull Tales’, Cornick was joined by former Tull musicians Clive Bunker, Mick Abrahams and Dave Pegg, on the songs ‘Nothing Is Easy’, ‘To Cry You A Song’, ‘A New Day Yesterday’, ‘Teacher’ and ‘Living In The Past’. One doesn’t know whether the album was released in India.

Today, one can check some of Cornick’s appearances with Tull on YouTube. What strikes one most is his appearance of a hippie showman. Bearded and slim, he had an animated stage presence, matching Anderson’s movements perfectly. And yes, he formed part of what many consider the classic Tull line-up that also had Anderson, Barre, Bunker and for some time Evan. Rest in peace, Glenn Cornick.


Parveen Sultana

I clearly remember the first time I heard Begum Parveen Sultana on stage. It was at an open-air venue in Mahalakshmi in the early 1970s, and I must have been just eight or nine years old. I didn’t understand the nuances, but I remember the huge applause she got. The next performer, the seasoned Kirana gharana vocalist Hirabai Barodekar, received a standing ovation too.

Parveen was in her early 20s then, and was already a star in the world of Hindustani classical music. Though established vocalists like Barodekar, Gangubai Hangal, Kersarbai Kerkar and Kishori Amonkar ruled the female scenario, the young singer from Assam was considered the next big name. The fact that she represented the Patiala gharana, which over the years was dominated by male singers, added to her exclusivity.

Over four decades later, Parveen continues to get a tumultuous applause every time she sings. I saw her on Saturday, August 23, at the first anniversary concert of InSync channel, and her performance was nothing short of breath-taking. Though she had been allotted limited time, and came after tabla maestro Suresh Talwalkar and his troupe, vocalist Venkatesh Kumar and santoor player Rahul Sharma, she charmed the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice and range of her singing.

Parveen is now 64. And having heard her closely over the years, one must admire how she has maintained the purity of her voice, and her ability to repetitively alternate between the higher and lower registers so effortlessly. Over time, she has also added elements of the Kirana gharana style, after training under Ustad Dilshad Khan, whom she married.

There are only a few concerts which stay with you much after they’ve ended, and this was one of them. Beginning with raag Puriya Dhanashree, Parveen was bang on target from the very first note, with the talented Ojas Adhiya giving tabla sangat. The vilambit part ‘Laagi mori laagan’ was built up beautifully, displaying some perfect taans and sargams, and the drut comprising the popular bandish ‘Paayaliya jhankaar’ had feet tapping.

After the khayal, Parveen asked the crowd what they wanted next. While some requested a thumri, others asked for ‘Bhawaani Dayaani’, her signature piece in Bhairavi. Though she joked that the fusion musicians who were to play after her would not her appreciate her singing Bhairavi at that time, she fulfilled both requests, first singing the thumri ‘Rasiya mohe bulaye’ in Khamaj, and concluding with the bhajan.

Most people in the hall had their gooseflesh moments. This was one recital which was memorable in every respect.

TALKING of the Patiala gharana, one was privileged to attend a private mehfil featuring Lahore-based singer Ustad Hamid Ali Khan on August 7. Coordinated by Rajiv Sethi, it was held at a mini-auditorium in a residential complex in Prabhadevi, Mumbai.

The youngest brother of renowned singers Bade Fateh Ali Khan and Amaanat Ali Khan, Hamid Ali Khan sings a wide cross-section of styles, ranging from khayal, thumri, ghazal and geet. He began with ‘Ghan garajat baadar aaye’, a composition in raag Malhar, after which he rendered the famous Amanat Ali Khan thumri ‘Kab aaoge tum aaoge’ and the light ghazal ‘Mere dil mein samaa gayee thi woh’.

The Mehdi Hasan-popularised ‘Pyaar bhare do sharmiley nain’ and the intricate ghazal ‘Guzar gaya jo zamaana usey bhulaa hi do, jo naqsh nahin ban sakta usey mitaa hi do’ were highlights of the first half. After the break, he rendered the famous folk song ‘Laagi re tosey laagi’, and presented rare compositions of the Patiala gharana. He had announced he would conclude with Khusro’s ‘Chaap tilak’, but it was already past 1 am, and this blogger didn’t stay till the end.

Khan has a mellifluous voice, and remarkable control. However, this being an informal session, he chose to talk a lot in the middle of the songs, and that somehow affected their overall feel, specially when one was just getting into the mood of a composition.

That flaw apart, it was another great evening. One got a true jhalak of Patiala gharana charm from across the border.


The Breeze ― An Appreciation of JJ Cale/ Eric Clapton & Friends

Genre: Rock/ blues/ roots

Label: Universal Music

Price: Rs 395

Rating: *** 1/2

ONE of the most influential American musicians, the late JJ Cale created what came to be known as the ‘Tulsa sound’, a smooth and rootsy blend of rock, jazz, blues and country. His followers have included greats like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and Bread’s David Gates.

Interestingly, while Cale maintained a low profile throughout his career, some of his songs were popularised by others. In fact, two of Clapton’s biggest hits ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’ were originally Cale tunes, and Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd covered his ‘Sensitive kind’ and ‘Call me the breeze’, respectively.

Appropriately, a year after the singer-songwriter’s demise, Clapton teams up with a few seasoned musicians to release the tribute album “The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale’. Containing 16 songs, the record features Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, former Cale bandmate Don White and Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland.

The selection mostly features songs from the earlier part of Cale’s recording career, with six tracks from the 1974 album ‘Okie’. Not surprisingly, Clapton avoids ‘After midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’, though one wonders why popular Cale tunes like ‘Crazy mama’, ‘Shady grove’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Clyde’ are not used either.

The album opens with Clapton himself playing ‘Call me the breeze’, using the trademark 12-bar blues shuffle and laidback rhythm. Other Clapton tunes that don’t feature celebrity guests are the popular ‘Cajun moon’ and ‘Since you said goodbye’, which features an immaculate, wailing slide guitar stretch.

Knopfler is on great form on his very Dire Straits-ish take of ‘Someday’, where he sings, “When she left with no goodbye, I was stuck with those lonely nights, You know what I mean, it’s always the same, Ain’t no medicine for that kind of pain, Someday comes and goes away, Bringing me a better day”. His ‘Train to nowhere’ has one of the most infectious hooks on the album and is the kind of number that’ll keep your feet tapping.

Petty, who’s recently released his own album ‘Hypnotic eye’, has a winner in ‘Rock ‘n’ roll records’, where he renders Cale’s lines, “I make rock ‘n’ roll records, I sell them for a dime, I make my living and feed my children, all in good time.” He also appears on ‘The old man and me’, where Clapton chips in with some moody electric guitar, and the fan favourite ‘I got the same old blues’, another Cale track covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The brilliant John Mayer appears on ‘Lies’, a vicious tune about a failed relationship, ‘Magnolia’, which is also known for its Poco version, and the uptempo ‘Don’t wait’, which has the Cale stamp written all over. Country legend Willie Nelson gives ‘Songbird’ his own touch but sadly, his appearance with Clapton and blues wizard Derek Trucks on ‘Starbound’ falls flat, with Trucks seeming totally wasted.

The famous ‘Sensitive kind’ is rendered by Don White, a regular at Cale’s shows. This versions cuts down on the tempo but one misses the charm of the original, which had some intricate strings and horns, or the fizz of the Santana cover.

White, however, does an excellent job on ‘I’ll be there (if you ever want me)’, a country hit popularised in the 1950s by Ray Price. As an apt conclusion, Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland appears on ‘Crying eyes’, first featured on his debut album ‘Naturally’ in 1972.

Though one misses, as mentioned earlier, some of the more obvious favourites, what’s noteworthy is that this is a heartfelt tribute from a group of musicians who have all been inspired by Cale. Clapton’s guitaring is consistently stylish and forms the backbone of this effort, which is a must for all his fans, and that of the genius of JJ Cale.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

See also: ‘Impressions of JJ Cale, the Lord of Lilt’, blog dated July 29, 2013

Taking the ‘cool’ route


Purbayan Chatterjee

DURING informal conversations with many Hindustani classical musicians, one has often heard them talk about how fewer youngsters are appreciating the genre, and how many of them do not have the patience to listen to full-length ragas. Keeping that in mind, many artistes have tried to use different methods to attract these younger audiences.

The concept of ClassiCool, initiated by sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee in association with digital media agency, is aimed primarily at such audiences, who have either not been exposed to or not have had the right ear for traditional music. Thus, the musicians involved have played shorter compositions, retaining the basic elements of the ragas, and yet adding modern effects using bass, drums or keyboards to make them sound ‘cool’.

ClassiCool was launched at a concert at St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai, a fortnight ago. This blogger could not attend that show, but heard the compositions on a CD sent by the organisers. Here, Amaan Ali Khan plays raga Desh on sarod, Rakesh Chaurasia renders Bihag on bamboo flute and Purbayan presents Shree on sitar. Drummer Gino Banks and tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee, who accompany the instrumentalists on all numbers, also perform a percussion duet. And Suchismita Das chips in with vocals on Bhairavi and Khan’s Desh.

In keeping with the concept, the pieces are five or six minutes in length, and use effects to sound contemporary. As Purbayan said in a recent interview: “As youngsters have a lower attention span these days, classical music needs to be fed in shorter doses of a few minutes in a song-like format. Also, youngsters are used to a certain bass-drum soundscape which they think is cool. We will retain the sanctity of the raga, and yet sound contemporary.”

Of course, this is not the first time musicians are making efforts to reach out to newer audiences. Back in the 1960s, sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar and sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan popularised the concert of instrumental jugalbandis (duets) to add some variety to the traditional solo form. Of course, they played the raga in its entirety, and barring from a section of purists who insisted that classical music had to be played alone, got a good response, specially among youngsters.

Those days, Ravi Shankar also collaborated with western musicians like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composers Andre Previn and Philip Glass, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Mumbai-born conductor Zubin Mehta in what were the early instances of fusion. More than anything else, such experiments helped more foreigners get exposed to Indian music.

As a genre, fusion took off in the mid-1970s. The Indo-jazz group Shakti, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, became a craze among younger audiences, most of who normally listened to western music. Later, over the years, artistes like tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, violinist L Subramaniam, keyboardist Louiz Banks, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Mohan veena exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and mandolin player U Srinivas helped spread the reach of fusion music, and later, the style was used in vocal music too by groups like Indian Ocean and Colonial Cousins in India, and Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon in Pakistan.

One of the aims of fusion was to help new audiences, specially the youth, get exposed to Hindustani classical music. By and large, however, it did not succeed, as fusion fans remained fusion fans who got fascinated more by the star power of the artistes, the on-stage energy and gimmicks, and the virtuosity of instruments than by the intricacies or depth of the compositions. Very few of them actually shifted totally towards Hindustani classical music.

Unlike in south India and specially Tamil Nadu, where youngsters are normally exposed to Carnatic music from an early age, Hindustani music is followed by a smaller percentage of younger people in north India, where the emphasis is more towards Hindi film music or western pop. Though places like Pune, Gwalior and Kolkata have many young audiences, the same is not the case in most of the country.

In such a scenario, a concept like ClassiCool can play a role. Of course, it’s not the first time that musicians have played shorter ragas or added western effects. But most earlier efforts, often marketed as ‘lounge’ music, have been one-off cases by individual musicians, and not by a collective, as it is in this case.

Needless to say, such a format will have its critics. Those who have heard the real thing might complain about how the whole approach to a raga has been diluted, and may crib about the absence of the alaap-jod-jhala method under which ragas are traditionally built. The presence of western instruments may force people to think of this music as an east-west dialogue, when the truth is that unlike in fusion, the guitar, bass and drums have only been used to add some flavour.

While all those points may be justified, the truth is that in the current situation of declining audiences, such methods can help build a newer audience base. With most youngsters today tuned in to the latest Bollywood songs, electronic dance music or even Yo Yo Honey Singh, one way of getting them close to the classical form is by keeping things simpler and shorter. Moreover, the ClassiCool compositions are pleasant to the ear, and in no way jarring or unnecessarily flashy.

In the West, the similar concept of ‘classical crossover music’ has become a full-fledged genre. There too, young musicians play the compositions of legendary composers like Bach, Mozart and Debussy in a contemporary setting, adding a few keyboards and drum passages. While the majority of purists slam them because in western classical music, one is not supposed to tamper with even a single note, the fact is that this newer form has its own set of followers, many of whom actually got converted to pure classical symphonies and concertos.

In India, we are lucky to have such great and rich forms of music like Hindustani, Carnatic, ghazals and folk. Each form has an amazing history of tradition, and a huge amount of talent. Sadly, because of the Bollywood craze, and the obsession to keep up with the latest trends or be guided by peer pressure, many youngsters miss out on such great art.

Only time will tell whether ClassiCool will succeed in its mission. But given the sorry state of affairs today, it seems like a move in the right direction. The purists can always listen to something much deeper.

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