Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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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