Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for February, 2012

CD review/ Crossing – Ravi Chary

Crossing/ Ravi Chary

Indo-jazz  fusion/ EMI Music/ Rs 295

Rating: ****

OVER the past 15 years or so, I’ve seen sitar player Ravi Chary live in concert off and on, primarily in Indo-jazz fusion outings by percussionists Trilok Gurtu and Taufiq Qureshi. Abroad, of course, he’s played with well-known vocalists Angelique Kidjo and Salif Keita, drummer Paco Sery, bassist Kai Eckhardt and electronica giant Robert Miles.

Though one has heard contributions from him on many Trilok Gurtu albums and the Miles Davis multi-artiste tribute ‘Miles From India’, , it’s on the new release ‘Crossing’ that one gets a complete feel of his class. Giving him company is an A-class guest list that includes Indian keyboardists Louiz Banks and Harmeet Manseta, drummers Ranjit Barot, Sivamani and Gino Banks, percussionists Fazal Qureshi, Taufiq Qureshi and Sridhar Parthasarathy, guitarists Dhruv Ghanekar and Amit Heri, bassist Sheldon D’Silva, pianist Merlin D’Souza and saxophonist Rhys Sebastian.

The nine-track album has a good blend of Indian classical, jazz, rock and world music, with distinct influences of pioneering band Weather Report on some portions. The first two pieces ‘Yogi’ and ‘5.5’ have been arranged by Gino Banks, who’s also the album’s creative director. Good sitar passages played to a striking drum and tabla rhythm line.

‘Sadguru’, dedicated to Trilok Gurtu, has some brilliant keyboard stretches by Harmeet Manseta and crisp guitaring by Amit Heri. ‘Tree Of Souls’ is a Weather Report-styled masterpiece arranged by Sheldon, whereas Chary plays fabulously on the melodic ‘Synergy’, catchy ‘Divine Sphere’ and soulful ‘Myra’ ― the latter featuring an upright bass.

The album concludes with ‘Funk Jog’, a wonderfully-improvised piece featuring young saxophonist Rhys Sebastian, and ‘Twilight’, in which raag Puriya Dhanashree is given a jazz touch, with some smart contribution by drummer Ranjit Barot and pianist Louiz Banks.

Throughout the album, Chary’s playing is effortless and majestic. Among the lay-listeners, he may not be as well-known as the younger players Niladri Kumar and Anoushka Shankar, but as a fusion and world music player, he’s definitely making waves. ‘Crossing’ is clearly a class apart and a cross apart.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic


Sweet Home Mumbai Blues

THE blues anthems ‘Boom Boom’, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ filled the air. And yes, there was the right mix of legendary names, the younger talented lot and Indian bands, playing two days of scintillating blues in an absolutely festive atmosphere.

The great bluesmen Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal were the star attractions at the second instalment of the Mahindra Blues Festival, held at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios on February 11 and 12. Add names like John Lee Hooker Jr (son of the legendary John Lee Hooker), pedal steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph, Serbian singer-guitarist Ana Popovic, and the Indian bands Soulmate, Blackstratblues and Overdrive Trio, and what you had was a perfect setting for the blues lover.

Ah, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal! The former has been on the scene for some 55 years now, and the latter for 45. Two contrasting styles —with Buddy playing electrifying electric blues and Taj amalgamating an array of world music influences into his sound. It was Buddy’s fourth concert tour of India, and Taj’s first, even though he takes his name from the famous mausoleum in Agra.

Of the two, Buddy attracted the larger crowd — and probably more rare reviews. He played well-known numbers like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’, his own ‘Slippin’ In’ and ‘Love Her With A Feeling’, and even walked into the crowd to everyone’s delight. The thing is: barring his new song ‘I’m 74 Years Old’, he’s done pretty much the same thing on his previous three visits. The first time I saw him at the Jamshed Bhabha Hall in 2005, I was totally floored. A couple of years later, he did an action replay at the One Tree Festival, which he repeated at last year’s Mahindra Bluesfest.

This time too, he used the same formula, the only difference being the guest appearance by the brilliant Robert Randolph an hour into his gig. Surely, 95 per cent of the crowd loved him, and he’s also been a personal favourite all along. But then, why should an artiste of his stature, ability, showmanship and following keep playing the same set again and again? In the end, it never really mattered.

Taj had a comparatively smaller audience, and probably didn’t create the same kind of hysteria —in fact, there were a few who were just not impressed. But he played his own brand of blues soulfully enough to delight the purist. With his unique infusion of folk, country, Caribbean, African and Latin American influences, he was brilliant on the songs ‘Fishing Blues’, ‘Corrina’, ‘Going Up To The Country Paint My Mailbox Blue’ and ‘Lovin In My Baby’s Eyes’. He didn’t compromise by playing to the gallery, and yet, impressed with his sheer feel.

Yet, the majority went home remembering Buddy’s act more, even though it was repeat bluescast. The reason was simple: today’s audiences, whether in India or probably anywhere else, prefer the more uptempo type of blues. Crackling guitar solos and pounding drums are what drive away your blues. A high-pitched falsetto is an advantage. Roots music is for the traditional, or rather old-fashioned listener.

It may be safe to say that unlike the previous generation which grew up on the blues, today’s lot has been exposed to the genre more through rock music, after listening to blues-influenced bands like the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, Jeff Beck and certain songs of Led Zeppelin, or to specific blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. So at blues concerts, they look for something more energetic and electric.

In this festival, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker Jr and Ana Popovic provided precisely that. Hooker Jr played his father’s songs ‘Boom Boom’, ‘I’m In The Mood’ and ‘I Got My Eyes On You’, but added his own contemporary twist to them.  Popovic played a lot of contemporary and original material, but also did a modern medley of songs by female greats Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Sugar Pie DeSanto.

Compared to the old-school listeners, the following for great masters like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Elmore James is now restricted to a select few, who are passionate about the genre and interested in getting into the depths.  So when it comes to selecting a line-up for a festival, organisers will naturally go for the more rocking blues acts.

The heartening thing, of course, is that the blues is finally getting recognition in India — the latest positive sign being Brian Tellis’ blues show on Mumbai’s Radio One on Sunday nights. While the Jazz Yatra began in the late ’70s and catered to the jazz fans, the number of blues concerts has been few and far between. Fleetwood Mac’s slide guitar virtuoso Jeremy Spencer came a few times, and dazzled with blues favourites like ‘Dust My Broom’ and ‘Telephone Blues’. 

A few years ago, the One Tree Music festival attracted artistes like Buddy, Robert Cray, Walter Trout and Bernard Allison, though it wasn’t strictly a blues event, but showcased other genres too. Managed by Oranjuice Entertainment, the first Mahindra Blues Festival in 2011 featured Buddy, Jonny Lang, Matt Schofield and Shemekia Copeland. It clearly filled a much-needed gap, and also gave exposure to Indian blues bands, Soulmate being simply fabulous.

After the successful turn-out and fabulous music one heard this year, one can truly hope for many more fantastic blues experiences in future. The only hitch, and a very important one: by pricing it pretty high, the organisers are not making it accessible to some of the genuine blues lovers, but instead catering mainly to those who can pay through their blue-blooded noses, even if they think Muddy Waters is some brand of premium whisky.

Of ‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’

SOME five to six hundred people were present at the St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai, on Saturday night to attend a concert called ‘Thumri Funk’. Now, that’s an interesting and new title.

Presented by vocalist Ajay Pohankar and his son, keyboardist Abhijit Pohankar, the event sought to present the Indian semi-classical devotional-romantic genre of thumri in a more contemporary and pepped-up fashion. An album of the same name was released, and at the EMI Music stall, one could see quite a few people do their bit of impulse purchase.

Of course, this wasn’t the first attempt to blend traditional Indian music with modern elements. The entire Indo-fusion movement, which began in the ’70s, revolves around the principle of amalgamating Indian and western elements.

In various collaborations, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar has created musical conversations between Indian and western classical music. The ’70s group Shakti fused the south Indian Carnatic genre, north Indian Hindustani music and jazz. Many other musicians followed with different permutations and combinations of experiments.

However, while this trend is not new, what’s interesting is the number of new  and innovative names that are being thrown up to describe specific forms of fusion — ‘Thumri Funk’ being the latest example.

Just a few days ago, this blogger was listening to ‘The Rebel’, the latest album by Rahul Sharma, who plays the santoor, a stringed instrument similar to a hammered dulcimer. First played in Sufiana (Islamic devotional music), this instrument soon found a place in Indian classical music, thanks to the efforts and innovation of Rahul’s father Shivkumar Sharma. The santoor has a pleasant, romantic and easy-listening sound, and one wouldn’t normally associate it with rock music.

Yet, Rahul’s Times Music album has been branded ‘Santoor Rock’, as the instrumentalist has used a more upbeat orchestration. ‘The Rebel’ has some wonderful compositions like ‘Free’, ‘Gurudeva’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Rising’, but someone who reads its categorisation and begins expecting some hard-rocking guitars,  pounding drums and Robert Plant-like eagle-screeches may be disappointed. After all, this ‘Santoor Rock’ is a pleasant and mid-tempo mix of classical music and soft rock.

A similar case is ‘Thumri Funk’. The brainchild of Abhijit Pohankar, who has experimented with traditional music in earlier instances like ‘Piya Bawari’, the latest album’s name and its sub-title ‘Traditional Thumris In A Contemporary Style’ clearly indicate a fusion of semi-classical music with modern elements. The problem comes when someone takes the word ‘funk’ too seriously.

Going by the Wikipedia definition, funk is a “music genre that originated in the mid-late ’60s when African-American musicians blended soul music, jazz and rhythm-‘n’-blues into a rhythmic, danceable new form of music. Funk de-emphasises melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground.”

Well, in ‘Thumri Funk’, Ajay Pohankar has done some excellent renditions of well-known traditional thumris like ‘Naina more’, ‘Yaad piya ki aaye’, ‘Ras ke bhare tore nain’ and ‘Ab ke saawan ghar aaja’, which have been earlier popularised in their traditional avatar by singers like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Rasoolan Bai, Heera Devi Mishra and Begum Akhtar.

The album also ensures that the orchestrations are pretty modern, with a good mix of keyboard programming and live Indian instruments. The question is: where’s the ‘funk’, as the term is normally understood? Where’s that slapping bassline?

Never mind, the album sounds wonderful — even though it’s actually old wine in a new bottle. And in an era where marketing and promotion are as important as the quality of the music, ‘Thumri Funk’ is an ideal marketing term. Moreover, how many people would actually know the exact meaning of ‘funk’? Today, the word ‘funky’ is used to describe anything ‘jazzy’ or ‘rocking’ — something trendy, unusual, out-of-the-box, cool.

As we said, ‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’ are not the first such brainwaves in musical labelling, categorisation, classification, nomenclature, taxonomy or genre-description — to use six terms that mean more or less the same thing but yet create an impression of being different.

Here’s a quick look at some past examples seen in the Indian sub-continent:

Sitar Funk and Zitar: A group formed by sitar player Niladri Kumar who also plays the ‘zitar’, a modified, electric version of the sitar which can create a rock sound. Luckily, this group has a bass player.

Hind-rock: Coined by the music industry to describe the presentation of rock music sung by Hindi, this term gained popularity with the release of Euphoria’s ‘Dhoom’ in 1998.

Sufi Rock: Used by various bands like Pakistan’s Junoon, Fuzon and Mekaal Hassan Band, and India’s Kailasa, to describe a genre where Islamic Sufiana influences are blended with rock and jazz. Of late, the term ‘Sufi’ has become fashionable in Hindi film music for anything that uses specific Urdu words — irrespective of whether the songs have the purity and depth of actual Sufi music.

Mohan Veena: Basically, it’s an Archtop guitar. But when Vishwa Mohan Bhatt added 12 sympathetic strings on the side of the neck to enable it play Indian classical music in an easier way, he gave it this name.

Urdu Blues: Used to market Hariharan’s 2000 album ‘Kaash’, where he blended the light classical, poetry-filled Indian form of ghazals with a jazz flavour. Of course, if one takes the term ‘blues’ seriously, one may wonder where the 12-bar chord progressions associated with the genre are.

Goa Trance: Essentially a form of electronic music which got its name because it originated in the Indian state of Goa in the late ’80s.

Tablatronic: A sub-genre where the Indian percussion instrument tabla is played with an electronic music background.

Dynamic Fusion: A series of concerts initiated by singer Talat Aziz, where different genres of Indian music were played with contemporary orchestration.

Global Fusion: The name of an album by violinist L Subramaniam, who later used the term regularly to describe a more eclectic form of fusion music. It’s also very similar to ‘World Music’ — which in itself is a very loose term.

Come to think of it, the music world is filled with various such terms and sub-genres. Within rock itself, we have ‘classic’ rock, pop-rock, psychedelic rock, progressive rock, folk-rock, country-rock, soft rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock (which is more a jazz sub-genre, actually), southern rock, Latino-rock, glam rock, punk rock, funk rock, acid rock, hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, garage rock, grunge, Britpop, progressive metal, death metal, thrash metal, industrial metal, nu metal, rap metal, Gothic metal, grindcore and even something called Wagnerian rock which will surely make classical composer Richard Wagner turn in his grave.

‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’ are interesting additions to the list of sub-classifications in Indian music. In the purely literal sense, both of them may not be as ‘rocking’ and ‘funky’ as the purist may expect. But as long as the music sounds good, it doesn’t really matter.

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