Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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


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 Qyuki.com, 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.

The grace of Gwalior


lkpandit

Laxman Krishnarao Pandit

EVERY Sunday morning, the Karnataka Sangha auditorium in Matunga West, Mumbai, organises a concert. The hall is rarely packed, but those who attend are regulars with an immense knowledge of music.

On August 3, one may have expected a larger crowd, but that was not to be, despite the fact that the very senior vocalist Laxman Krishnarao Pandit was performing. Yet, there were many true rasikas, who had come to listen to some rare gems of the Gwalior gharana.

Grandson of the legendary Shankarrao Pandit and son of Krishnarao Pandit, LK Pandit has been one of the torchbearers of the gharana for years. His talented daughter Meeta Pandit provided vocal accompaniment, and what one heard was nothing short of pure magic. The singer turned 80 in March, and barring a couple of throat-clearing parts in the beginning, there wasn’t a moment when his voice wavered. And he sang for two hours, without showing any sign of fatigue or stress.

With tabla sangat by Omkar Gulvady and sarangi accompaniment by Farukh Latif, Pandit began with raga Lalit, and followed it with raga Alhaiya Bilawal (which featured a tarana in the drut section) and two compositions in Miyan Ki Malhar, specially chosen to celebrate the rains. The final piece was ‘Madhave sakhi Madhave’, a traditional ashtapadi, a hymn with eight lines in the composition.

The Gwalior style of khayal is in fact marked by a systematic eight-fold elaboration of the raga, consisting of the alaap-behlava, bol-alaap, taan, bol-taan, layakari, gamak, meend-soot and murki-khatka-jamjama. While these terms will be better understood by serious followers of Hindustani vocal music, let’s suffice it to say that Pandit’s rendition was a textbook demonstration of each of these facets.

While Pandit shone in the taans, bol-taans and gamaks, the coordination between father and daughter was excellent. Meeta is an accomplished singer in her own right, and it has been heartening to see how she has developed to represent the next generation of the gharana.

THE oldest school in Hindustani vocal music, the Gwalior gharana was said to have been inspired by Raja Mansingh Tomar of Gwalior in the early 16th century. He was a master at the dhrupad form of singing, but along with his court musicians, wrote compositions in Brijbhasha. This style was popular during the reign of Emperor Akbar later in that century. The great Miyan Tansen followed the Gwalior dhrupad style, and today, the Tansen Samaroh is held annually in his memory in that city.

Eventually, dhrupad made way for khayal, and though the latter form had been prevalent for a few years, the Gwalior singers played a major role in popularising it. Though there are different theories on the actual evolution of the gharana, it is generally believed its main innovator was Nathan Pir Baksh, who eventually passed on the art to his maternal grandsons Haddu, Hassan and Nathu Khan. It was during this time that the gharana developed the way we know it today.

Besides khayal, the Gwalior school is well known for styles like tappa, which is a very difficult form of singing, ashtapadi, thumri, tarana and pad. And over the years, it has boasted of a great line-up of vocalists.

From the older generation, the names of Nissar Hussain Khan, Rehmat Ali Khan, Balkrishnabuva Icchalkaranjikar, Shankarrao Pandit, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Mirashibuwa, Rajbhaiyya Poochwale, Omkarnath Thakur, Krishnarao Pandit, Eknath Pandit, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, Narayanrao Vyas, Sharatchandra Arolkar, Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Rajarambuva Paradkar, Yeshwantbuwa Joshi, Lakshmanrao Bodas, Abdul Rashid Khan, Shankarrao Bodas, Jal Balaporia and Dattareya Vishnu Paluskar come to mind.

The late Pt CR Vyas blended the Kirana, Gwalior and Agra styles, whereas Narayan Bodas mixed Gwalior with Agra. Though BR Deodhar was a disciple of VD Paluskar of the Gwalior gharana, he was trained in various other styles too.

Among current singers, LK Pandit, Malini Rajurkar, Veena Sahasrabudddhe, Neela Bhagwat, Vidyadhar Vyas and the young Meeta Pandit have carried forward the purer nuances of the gharana. Of late, Amarendra Nandu Dhaneshwar has been giving many concerts in Mumbai.

There are also many singers who have primarily learnt in the Gwalior style, but also added elements of other gharanas like Kirana and Atrauli-Jaipur. They include Padma Talwalkar, Ulhas Kashalkar, Vinayak Torvi and Kedar Bodas, and Kashalkar’s disciple Manjusha Patil-Kulkarni. Trained in other styles as well, Sawani Shende has imbibed elements of the gharana through guidance from Veena Sahasrabuddhe.

Clearly, the Gwalior gharana has had a huge wealth of singers. And what’s really remarkable about this style is its emphasis on swara and on simplicity. The bandish, or composition, comes at the heart of the presentation, and thus, one finds it easy on the ears.

To come back to LK Pandit’s concert, one only wished more people had been there to enjoy its brilliance. This was the Gwalior gharana at its purest, and one really hoped more people had relished the experience.


haden

LEGENDARY BASSIST: Charlie Haden

LIKE many people from my generation, I first got attracted to jazz bass guitar through the magical fingers of Jaco Pastorius of the band Weather Report. Very soon, I started appreciating Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever, and most of my early listening focused around the electric bass.

As I got deeper into jazz and began attending concerts regularly, I started getting exposed to some really talented musicians who played the upright bass or double bass. The whole image of them standing with an instrument larger than them and yet playing with such control was fascinating.

Charlie Haden, who passed away last week, was one of the double bassists who had a major impact on my jazz listening. It began with his works with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, especially on the landmark 1959 album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. Then, I heard his collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny – with the latter, ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ remains a classic. Another favourite was Haden’s ‘Nocturne’, which won the 2002 Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

Haden’s death marks a huge loss to the world of bass-playing. Clearly, he was one of the most prolific and versatile practitioners of the instrument, literally making it sing.

Over the years, the world has heard numerous bass greats. It was because of these masters that bass playing earned a respect of its own, especially in a world where audiences are largely more attracted to the saxophone, trumpet, piano or guitar. While it would be difficult to draw a list of greatest bassists, I am listing 20 whom I have personally admired. While the first eight were masters of the double bass, the other 12 have specialised in the electric bass. Either way, they have been true champions.

1. Ray Brown – Known for his extensive work with pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Brown was a huge name from the late 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the cello

2. Charles Mingus – A highly influential composer, bandleader and double bassist, Mingus had a style that blended jazz with gospel and classical music. His album ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ remains a jazz classic

3. Charlie Haden – Besides his collaborations with Coleman, Jarrett and Metheny, mentioned above, Haden was known for his work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, a group he co-led with pianist Carla Bley

4. Scott LaFaro – Best known for his seminal work with pianist Bill Evans and his trio, LaFaro died tragically in a road accident at the age of 25. His professional career lasted only six years, but he redefined jazz bass-playing

5. Paul Chambers – Another genius who died young, of tuberculosis at 33, Chambers played with many greats including trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Wynton Kelly

6. Ron Carter - One of the most recorded bassists ever, Carter has appeared in 2,500 albums. His work with Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard have been hugely admired. He is an acclaimed cellist too

7. Dave Holland – A Britisher, Holland first earned a name playing at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, before he moved to the US. Besides many albums with Miles Davis, he has recorded with keyboardist Chick Corea and saxophonist Joe Henderson, among others

8. Christian McBride – One of those musicians who’s adept at both upright bass and electric bass, McBride has played with many artistes including guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist McCoy Tyner and singer Diana Krall

9. Marcus Miller – One of the foremost electric bass players, Miller has accompanied Miles Davis, Hancock, singer Luther Vandross, saxophonist David Sanborn and others. He also plays clarinet, keyboards, saxophone and guitar

10. Jaco Pastorius – The king of the electric bass, Pastorius was best known for his work with Weather Report, besides numerous solo projects. He died at the age of 35 after slipping into a coma following an altercation with a club bouncer

11. Stanley Clarke – Though adept at upright bass too, Clarke made his mark on the electric bass as part of the group Return to Forever with Chick Corea. A highlight of his career was the album ‘The Rite of Strings’, where he plays acoustic bass, with Al DiMeola on acoustic guitar and Jean Luc Ponty on acoustic violin

12. John Patitucci – Another musician who’s proficient at both double and electric bass. His best known stint was with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and Akoustic Band, and he’s also played with blues legend BB King, rock group Bon Jovi and popular artiste Sting

13. Victor Wooten – A hugely talented bassist, Wooten has played extensively with banjo maestro Bela Fleck and his group the Flecktones. He was also part of a bass supergroup with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller

14. Jonas Hellborg – The Swedish bassist was part of the reunited Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1980s. He has collaborated with Indian musicians like sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla player Fazal Qureshi and kanjira exponent V Selvaganesh

15. Steve Swallow – One of the first double bassists to shift entirely to the electric bass, Swallow has had some outstanding recordings with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Carla Bley and guitarist John Scofield

16. Kai Eckhardt – The German-born bassist is best known for his work with McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham. His style blends jazz, funk and world music, and he’s been hugely influenced by Marcus Miller

17. Dominique di Piazza – A master of the electric bass, this French-born musician was part of the John McLaughlin Trio, which also featured percussionist Trilok Gurtu in the early 1990s. He’s a huge influence on many younger players

18. Nathan East – A very versatile bass player, who has played jazz, rhythm n’ blues, and even rock. He was part of the smooth jazz quartet Fourplay, and has accompanied renowned musicians like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Joe Satriani

19. Etienne M’bappe – From Cameroon, M’bappe is one of the most popular bassists on the scene today, with a style that blends jazz, classical and world music. He has played with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and Carlos Santana, and is currently part of McLaughlin’s band The 4th Dimension

20. Richard Bona – Also from Cameroon, Bona stayed in Germany and France before settling in the US. He has played with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarists Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and George Benson, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis

Others: Besides these 20, the other names that immediately come to mind are Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Phil Upchurch, Oscar Pettiford, Wilbur Ware, Victor Bailey of Weather Report, Rick Laird and Ralphe Armstrong of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Reuben Rogers. One must also mention Bootsy Collins, who revolutionised bass-playing in the funk field as part of singer James Brown’s band and later the group Parliament-Funkadelic.

There are many others who’ve contributed to the glorious world of bass-playing. Like the drums, the bass strengthens the rhythm section and acts as a backbone to most songs. Without a good bass line, a song is often empty.


mevundibhate

Jayateerth Mevundi (left) and Anand Bhate

BEFORE this week, my exposure to the Marathi devotional music form of ‘abhang’ was limited to some immortal songs by three of India’s most legendary singers. My favourites were Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of ‘Teerth Vitthal’, ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’ and ‘Arambhi vandeen Ayodhyecha raja’, Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Pail to ge kau koktahe’ and Kishori Amonkar’s ‘Bolava Vitthal’ and ‘Avagha rang ek zhala’.

Then, on Wednesday evening, I was tempted to attend the concert ‘Bolava Vitthal’ at the Shanmukhanda Hall for two reasons. One, I had heard of the immense popularity of this event organised by Pancham-Nishad every year to celebrate Aashadhi Ekadashi. Second, it was to feature Jayateerth Mevundi, whose singing I have admired for well over a decade.

Clearly, the concert was an ear-opener of sorts. There are occasions in one’s life when one suddenly feels like exploring a new form of music more deeply, and for me, this was one of them. From around 6.15 pm to 10.30 pm, save a 15-minute break, I was mesmerised by the power of the songs which took me to another world.

I would like to clarify here that my knowledge of Marathi is very basic — passable in the market or while giving directions to rickshaw-wallahs. Hence, I did not get into the depths of the song meanings, though this is something I would love to do so in future. At the concert, I tried to sense which songs were popular by looking around for the reactions of those sitting around me. And though I took rough notes on my phone, I had to check the internet and YouTube for the exact titles.

The evening had four acts – Rahul Deshpande, Mevundi, Ranjani-Gayatri and Anand Bhate, in that order. It began with a bhajan featuring all of them. Then, each singer was to do four abhangs each.

Rahul Deshpande, grandson of the great vocalist Pt Vasantrao Deshpande, excelled on ‘Jatha Vaishnavacha’ and ‘Kaanada Raja Pandharicha’. I later discovered that the latter was known for its duet version by Sudhir Phadke and Vasantrao, and that song has been playing on a loop for the past two days.

With his extremely mellifluous voice, Mevundi rendered the popular ‘Visava Vitthal’, ‘Akaar ukaar makaar’ and ‘Rajas Sukumar’ rather well, but the highlight of his presentation was the Kannada bhajan ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi baarama’, whose Bhimsen-ji version I have grown up on. Before the break, Deshpande and Mevundi did a jugalbandi of ‘Taal bole chipalila’, coming up with an ethereal ‘Pandurang Pandurang’ climax.

Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri, sisters who have also made a mark in the world of abhangs, impressed on ‘Je kan ranjale gaanjale’ and ‘Bolava Vitthal’. Finally, Anand Bhate, a disciple of Bhimsen-ji, enthralled the audience with ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’, ‘Johar mai baap johar’ and the Bal Gandharva-popularised Bhairavi bhajan ‘Aga Vaikunthicha raaya’. His rendition of intricate taans and ability to move from one octave to another were delightful.

The regret, if any, was that nobody performed ‘Teerth Vitthal’, and one has heard both Mevundi and Bhate do it so well in the past. Though some people might have felt that this would be a very predictable choice, one can never tire of that song. Yet, despite that, this was one of those lengthy evenings that one wished had lasted even longer.

So far, I had normally heard abhangs at the end of a khayal-dominated classical concert, sometimes on popular demand. This was the first time I had attended a full-fledged abhang concert, and I hope more are organised in Mumbai at regular intervals.

Besides Pancham-Nishad, the organisation Saptasur organises an annual festival called ‘Teerth Vitthal’. In fact, it is taking place at Thane’s Kashinath Ghanekar Natyagraha this Saturday (July 12) and will feature Bhate, Rahul Deshpande, Manjusha Patil and Sayalee Talwalkar. Yet, most of these concerts are held towards Aashadhi Ekadashi in June-July, and hence one wishes there are some shows at other times of the year.

From my first experience of attending an abhang concert, I have a few other observations. Let’s take them one by one:

1) The obvious one is that this music is not only spiritually uplifting, but sublime and ethereal enough to mesmerise you mentally. The songs often begin in a medium tempo, but
the climax in most cases is so energetic, one is left asking for more.

2) Singers of this style not only require a supreme command over the classical nuances, but also great power and range. To excel at this form, one must have that X-factor, that ability to transcend beyond limits. For that, plenty of ‘taiyyari’ is required.

3) This music is very strong on rhythm, and that makes it vibrant. While the harmonium provided the melodic accompaniment, the tabla, pakhawaj and manjira pepped up the rhythm section, adding to the energy of the singing. Songs with a more vibrant climax concluded with the blowing of the ‘shankh’, or conch shell, giving a temple-like effect.

4) The huge Shanmukhananda Hall was nearly packed, and one didn’t get tickets for the ground floor. This just shows that there is a large audience for this form, a sizeable chunk belonging to the Maharashtrian community. Since these shows are held in other parts of India too, one should make extra effort to spread awareness about abhangs to non-Maharashtrian audiences too.

5) This was missing at Wednesday’s show, but it’s extremely important to recognise the poets. Most of these gems have been written in praise of the god Vitthala by such great personalities as Sant Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and Namdeo. Though the poets normally take their names within the song, the lay listener may tend to skip them. As such, it would be ideal if the singers mention the poets and say a few words about the composition before reciting it.

Though the show was hugely successful and the quality of music was extraordinary, the singers sang with an approach that they felt the audience may have been 100 per cent knowledgeable. Yes, a majority of those attending would have been diehard abhang fans, but I am sure there were quite a few lay listeners who wanted to know more about the form.

A few words to address their needs would have been helpful. I am sure there would have been many other first-timers like me.


mekaal2

Andholan/ Mekaal Hasan Band

Genre: Fusion-rock

Rating: ****

IN its first two albums ‘Sampooran’ and ‘Saptak’, the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) wonderfully mixed classical bandishes and traditional Sufi compositions with western elements like rock and jazz. The Lahore-based group uses the same mix on its latest album ‘Andholan’, but there is one major difference.

With popular vocalist Javed Bashir leaving the band, MHB has now gone in for a female vocalist in Indian singer Sharmistha Chatterjee. Considering that fans were bound to compare any male replacement with the incomparable Javed, that’s an intelligent move. For her part, Sharmistha has a strong Hindustani classical base, a good command over the ragas, and blends well with the energetic rock and jazz backdrop that embellishes most tunes. She also sings harkats and murkis freely, though there are occasions when one wishes the compositions had used less of them.

Besides her, the album features the supremely talented Mekaal on guitars, the brilliant Mohammed Ahsan Papu on flute, Amir Azhar on bass and Louis Pinto ‘Gumby’ on drums. In their forthcoming live projects, the rhythm section will comprise Mumbai-based drummer Gino Banks and bassist Sheldon D’Silva.

The album contains eight tracks, and the highlights are the innovative song structures, and the masterly coordination between guitars and flute. Interestingly, the band had a song called ‘Andholan’ on its album ‘Saptak’, but that’s not featured here.

The opener ‘Ghunghat’ is a version of poet Baba Bulleh Shah’s well-known Sufi kaafi ‘Ghunghat ohley na luk sajna, mein mushtaq deedaar de haan’. With its crisp guitars, flute and drumming, it sets the pace. Next, the band presents ‘Champakali’, based on the raga of that name. Papu’s flute is mesmerising, and a wailing guitar stretch glitters at the end.

‘Bheem’ is an adaptation of the traditional raga Bhimpalasi bandish ‘Ja ja re apni mandirwa, sun paave morey saas nanadiya’. The composition has earlier been rendered by classical vocalists Pandit Jasraj and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, and by Delhi fusion band Advaita, but MHB lends its own touch.

‘Sayon’, also based on Bulleh Shah’s poetry, is one of the strong points of the album. Slower than the other tunes, it has a soothing flute portion, with Sharmistha showing her vocal prowess on the lines ‘Aao sayon ral deyon ni vadhai, main var paaya raanjha maahi’.

‘Malkauns’, based on raga Malkauns, uses the composition ‘Aaj more ghar aayela balma’, once sung by the great Ustad Amir Khan. Mekaal is in great guitar form on ‘Sindhi’, producing a couple of crackling solos. ‘Megh’ starts with a folksy flavour, and picks up tempo. The final piece ‘Kinarey’ cuts down the pace, and is a simple, sing-along charmer.

All in all, this is another feather in MHB’s cap. The band has a distinct sound, and the tunes are strong enough to merit repeated hearing.

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

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