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Archive for February, 2013

Instruments from India ― 6/ The sarod


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Above: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi and different types of veena. This month, we feature the sarod.

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Above: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

AFTER the sitar and tabla, the stringed instrument sarod is probably the most recognised among western audiences. And this was primarily because of the efforts made in the late 1950s and 1960s by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to popularise Indian music abroad, just as Pandit Ravi Shankar did with the sitar. Within India and mainly among the younger generation, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan has also played a major role in spreading the instrument’s reach.

The sarod is mainly used in Hindustani or north Indian classical music, and unlike the sitar which had become a craze among western musicians, its use in fusion and experimental music has been relatively limited.

What makes the sarod challenging to play is the fact that it doesn’t have any frets, and thus requires total mastery on the musician’s part to play notes with sheer practice. However, its ability to play meends, or continuous slides between notes, makes it delightful to hear.

Here, we shall look at the instrument’s origins and playing styles, how it is played, major players ― or sarodiyas ― and its use in other kinds of music.

Origins and playing styles: Generally, it is believed that the sarod has descended from the Afghan rabab, popular in Afghanistan and central Asia. It was said to be brought to India from Afghanistan by Amjad Ali Khan’s ancestor Mohammed Hashmi Khan Bangash and later adapted by his grandson Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash.

The schools largely practised today are the Gwalior-Bangash gharana, popularised by Amjad Ali Khan’s father Hafiz Ali Khan, and the Senia-Maihar gharana created by Ali Akbar Khan’s father Baba Alauddin Khan.

Besides them, Radhika Mohan Maitra has played a stellar role as a teacher and sarod exponent. There is also the Lucknow-Bulandshahr gharana, whose best-known exponent was Ustad Sakhawat Hussain Khan. This tradition was hugely influenced by the dhrupad vocal style.

How it is played: The conventional sarod can have 17 to 25 strings, including strings to play the main melody, drone strings and sympathetic strings. The strings are normally made of steel or phosphor bronze, and are plucked with a triangular plectrum called java.

The sarod is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments, mainly the sitar. The best-known jugalbandis were between Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.

After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the sarodiya demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.

Once this first raga is over, the sarodiya may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted.

Major players: We have already mentioned some of the greatest sarod players – Baba Alauddin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Radhika Mohan Maitra, Sakhawat Hussain Khan and Amjad Ali Khan.

Alauddin Khan’s nephew Ustad Bahadur Khan was also one of the stalwarts, till his death in 1989 at age 58. Well-known female sarod players are Zarin Daruwalla-Sharma, who learnt from many vocalists and adapted their style, and Sharan Rani Backliwal, who studied from Alauddin Khan and Ali Akbar Khan.

Other well-known practitioners are the late Vasant Rai, Kolkata-based Buddhadev Das Gupta, Biswajit Roy Chowdhury and Brij Narayan, son of sarangi maestro Pandit Ram Narayan.

Ali Akbar Khan groomed many talented sarod players. Besides his sons Aashish Khan, Dhyanesh Khan and Alam Khan, he has taught wonderful players like Ken Zuckerman, Rajeev Taranath and Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, who was earlier a disciple of Bahadur Khan. Partho Sarathy, another excellent sarod player, was under the direct guidance of Ravi Shankar.

Annapurna Devi, daughter of Alauddin Khan, is known as a surbahar player, but she has also groomed sarodiyas like Pradeep Barot, Basant Kabra and Suresh Vyas.

From the younger generation, Amjad Ali Khan’s sons Amaan and Ayaan have already made waves. Others in their 30s include Anupam Shobhakar, Arnab Chakravarthy and Apratim Majumdar. In Pakistan, Asad Qisilbash has established himself as a sarod player under the guidance of Amjad Ali Khan.

Some musicians have also created electric versions of the sarod. Pratyush Banerjee, adept at traditional sarod-playing too, has developed an electric sarod called Jyothi Dhwani. Amaan Ali Khan, with the help of instrument specialist, has developed an electric sarod called the Erod.

Use in other music: The sarod has been often used in Indian film music. Ali Akbar Khan has composed music for films in which he prominently used the sarod. These include Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan, Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder and Satyajit Ray’s Devi, besides playing for composers Shankar-Jaikishen in the film Seema.

His son Aashish has played a major role in Indo-western collaborations and world music, and has performed with western musicians like George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, saxophonists Charles Lloyd and John Handy, pianist Alice Coltrane, the world music group Strunz and Farah, and the Philadelphia String Quartet.

For his part, Amjad Ali Khan has played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, whereas Amaan and Ayaan have released the fusion albums Reincarnation and Mystic Dunes. In the first week of March, Amjad Ali and his sons will team up with the Avignon Orchestra in France on a four-city series in India that will blend Indian classical, western symphonic and electronic music.

Vasant Rai, who died prematurely at age 43, has jammed often with jazz flautist Herbie Mann and also taught western musicians like George Harrison and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

Among the younger musicians, Anupam Shobhakar has released the fusion album Wine of the Mystic and is also working on the album Way of the Warrior, besides doing a project with guitar-composer Joel Harrison. London-based Gurdev Singh, a student of Amjad Ali Khan, has played on Fate of Nations, the 1993 album released by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.

The fusion projects and international collaborations notwithstanding, the sarod is an absolute delight when heard in traditional Hindustani classical music. With its wonderful tone and ability to relax minds of listeners, it’s a sound that grows on you. And for those new to the instrument, an ideal way to begin is to hear Ali Akbar Khan’s raga Chandranandan, composed by him in the 1950s. It’s simply beautiful.

CD review/ Bends ― VRavi Guitar Fusion


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Bends/ VRavi Guitar Fusion

Genre: Fusion

Live & Direct Entertainment and Media, under license from Ravi Iyer/ Rs 200

Rating: ****

WHEN one thinks of guitarist Ravi Iyer, one would normally visualise him playing a crackling solo once popularised by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore or blues-rock hero Gary Moore. As a crucial member of the bands Witchhammer, Vayu and Para Vayu, Ravi has made a mark as one of India’s most talented rock guitarists.

Rock is only one side to him, of course. Having had an early exposure to Indian classical music through his family, and learnt the tabla at an early age, Ravi has always wanted to do music blending Indian music with western forms. Back in 2003, he released the album ‘Rocking Ragas’ and last year, he came out with the really likeable ‘Bends’ under the group name VRavi Guitar Fusion.

Though there have been very few practitioners, the guitar has been used in Indian classical music for around half a century. Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt have modified it and used it like a lap slide, sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing it in pure Hindustani classical style, moving from alaap to jod to jhala to compositions set to rhythm.

Ravi’s style, in contrast, is not classical but fusion music. Yes, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin has used a lot of Indian music patterns while playing with Shakti and Remember Shakti, but there, his guitar always interacted with another melody instrument like L Shankar’s violin or U Shrinivas’ mandolin, or even with Shankar Mahadevan’s voice.

What Ravi does differently, besides sitting on a chair, is that his tunes concentrate totally on the guitar ― hence the name VRavi Guitar Fusion. He doesn’t play entire ragas, but tunes based on well-known ragas, and yet combines both Indian and western styles.

As such, though ‘Bends’ is an experimental fusion album, the effect these tunes provide is that of easy and relaxed listening. You find Hindustani meends (glides from one note to another) and Carnatic gamakas (ornamentations) on the one hand, and arpeggio patterns and jazz or blues progressions on the other.

While Ravi’s guitar is the obvious backbone of the album, he is supported by a team of talented musicians, comprising Clio Karabelias on harp, Pelle Kruse on blues mouth-harp, the well-known Sridar Parthasarathy on mridangam (a double-sided south Indian percussion instrument), tabla players Rupak Dhamankar and Rahul Pophali, bassists Crosby Fernandes and Sonu Sangameswaran, and drummer Jake Bloch. What’s interesting is that the album was recorded live at Mumbai’s Blue Frog in front of an audience, so one hears clapping at the end of some pieces.

The album begins with ‘Aum’, composed in raga Yaman. It starts off slowly, building up the mood, and suddenly increases tempo after four and a half minutes.  Besides smooth guitar passages, the highlight of this piece is Clio’s harp, which bubbles with melody.

Next comes an adaptation of the popular English folk tune ‘Greensleeves’, with charming use of Carnatic gamakas and a nice backdrop of maracas. ‘Hamsadhwani’, based on the raga of the same name, has a nice percussion backdrop and more maracas, with the guitar improvising over six minutes. The piece uses the typical ‘tihai’ movement (phrases being repeated thrice) smartly.

‘Todi Jaldi’, based on raga Todi, impresses with its layakari (rhythm-play) and a vibrant bass portion by Crosby, played against a repeated guitar phrase in the backdrop. ‘The Rain Song’ in raga Brindabani Sarang builds up with vibrant percussions, and boasts of stunning guitar improvisations, and an energetic climax in the classical jhala style.

The nearly-12-minute ‘Durganaad’, based on raga Durga, uses the western drums and even a guitar overdrive, with the main solo having a perfect jazz feel. For variety, ‘Perc It’ is a percussion duet between Sridar’s mridangam and Rupak’s tabla.

Two tunes are used in reprise versions. The ‘Todi Jaldi Reprise’ uses drums in place of mridangam, and doesn’t change much from the original otherwise. As such, one may feel it need not have been used as it just makes the album lengthier, without really adding value. But ‘The Rain Song Reprise’ is a marvellous changeover with heavy guitar distortion and Pelle’s improvisational blues mouth-harp, ending the album on a raw and bluesy note.

A note on the guitars. On the album, Ravi used a Greg Bennett hollowbody single-neck jazz guitar. But more, recently for his fusion concerts, he has got a custom-made double neck guitar designed by Sunil Shinde. Both necks have six strings. The top neck is tuned to play Indian classical scales and ragas, and the bottom one is adjusted to play western chords and jazz or blues progressions.

What makes ‘Bends’ special is that in spite of the jazz and blues elements, all the pieces have a distinct and pronounced Indianness to them. As such, it should appeal to both Indian and western audiences, besides those who like to experiment with their music. Needless to say, those who are strictly fans of only Ravi’s rock music should be willing to open their minds. If one looks at the broader skill of instrument-playing, ‘Bends’ is one of the most important guitar albums released in India.

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

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Donald Byrd and the other great jazz trumpeters


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FOR jazz fans, this month began on a rather sad note, following the demise of ace trumpeter Donald Byrd at age 80 on February 4. As his family took time to confirm the news, the media obituaries have been appearing only over the past four days or so, with each writer remembering the enormous contribution made by him.

Byrd had a rich tone, clear phrasing and distinct style, which old-timers initially admired on his work with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He released some remarkable albums with Blue Note Records, including ‘Byrd in Hand’, ‘A New Perspective’, ‘Kofi’, ‘Electric Byrd’ and ‘Places and Spaces’, besides venturing into rhythm and blues. And though his biggest seller ‘Black Byrd’ was sadly criticised by purists for being too pop, he actually introduced jazz to younger audiences through that 1973 effort.

Personally, I began listening to Byrd around 10 or 11 years after I became a jazz fan. Nobody had specifically recommended him to me, but I found his cassette ‘Caricatures’ at a record store. It had no liner notes, but seeing a trumpet on the cover, I picked it up. I heard him closely later, though there are still many albums from his enormous catalogue I am yet to hear. And while I have had many favourite trumpeters, Byrd’s style has always been special.

The news of Byrd’s demise also prompts me to recall my own fascination with the trumpet and think of some of the greatest trumpeters who have graced the world of jazz. After all, when one asks me about my favourite jazz instrument, I always say it is a toss-up between the trumpet and saxophone. But the former has a nostalgic advantage because I first got into jazz more by listening to some fabulous trumpet players.

In fact, rather than the trumpet, my jazz journey actually began in 1983 with Chuck Mangione’s rendition of the similar but somewhat sweeter-sounding flugelhorn. Mangione played more melodic pop-jazz, but tunes like ‘Feels So Good’, ‘Children of Sanchez’ and ‘Memories of Sirocco’ had me hooked.

The first trumpeter I saw live was the remarkable Woody Shaw at the 1984 Jazz Yatra in Delhi. He played with the great trombonist Steve Turre, and the show still buzzes in my brain. After that concert, I wanted to hear the trumpet more than anything else. And the LP I picked up next was ‘In Flagranti Delicto’ by trumpeter Ian Carr and his band Nucleus. Its sound was very much in keeping with the jazz-rock trend of the day.

Soon, there was a conscious effort to discover more trumpeters. The three biggest names came first. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Each had a different style, and each of them was a pioneer. I always loved Armstrong’s voice and his trumpet-playing, especially in those recordings with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. But it was Miles who initially created a bigger impact on me with albums like ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Sketches of Spain’ and ‘Bitches Brew’, even though I admired the last one more for its amalgamation of various instruments.

Much later, there was a long Dizzy Gillespie phase, after I heard his recordings with saxophonists Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and also some of his early recordings. Simultaneously, I got into Chet Baker, and besides his trumpet, I simply loved the way he sang, especially on the album ‘Chet Baker Sings’. His version of the Rodgers-Hart standard ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a classic.

Over the years, other trumpeters to attract my attention were Freddie Hubbard, Herb Albert, Maynard Ferguson, Randy Brecker, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove and Clark Terry, besides old-timers like Roy Eldridge, Clifford Brown and Cat Anderson of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I heard Don Cherry primarily for his fusion work rather than his jazz. And there was Bix Beiderbecke on the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet.

Interestingly, I first heard neo-classicist Wynton Marsalis a few months after I got into Byrd. But I was already so impressed by Byrd’s style that I found Marsalis dry, an opinion which thankfully changed later, on hearing his album ‘Hothouse Flowers’.

My later favourites include Arturo Sandoval, Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas. Sandoval has a distinct style, blending Afro-Cuban music with jazz.  Payton did a marvellous dedication to Louis Armstrong on ‘Dear Louis’, whereas Douglas did a superb show in Mumbai at the Jazz Yatra over a decade ago. Chris Botti had a smooth tone but concentrated mainly on smooth jazz, rather than the rapidfire improvisation I always prefer. In a more relaxed mood, I would hear him.

There are some who I have heard sparingly or not at all. I saw South African concert great Hugh Masekela at a memorable concert in Mumbai, and on a DVD with Paul Simon, but haven’t heard his recordings. Doc Cheatham, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer are some well-known names whose records I haven’t found in Indian stores.

Obviously, the field of jazz trumpet has been filled with extraordinary talent. I may have missed some names because I wasn’t exposed to them, or by sheer oversight. And with so many great artistes, it’s always difficult to pinpoint one’s favourite. But Donald Byrd was always somewhere at the top. He shall be missed.

Three Indian rock albums you should check out


OVER the past few years, there’s been an increase in the number of album releases by English-singing Indian rock acts. If the field was earlier restricted to a select few like Indus Creed, Gary Lawyer, Pentagram, Brahma, Millennium, Agni and Skinny Alley, one has seen many others get into the record release space, either through well-known labels or private distribution.

One of the highlights of 2012 was the recording return of Indus Creed, which released an album after a 17-year gap. ‘Evolve’, which had three earlier members and two new ones, was reviewed earlier in this blog last May.

The past 12 months have seen hectic activity in both mainstream Indian rock and metal. Here, we review three albums that particularly impressed us, with the sheer quality of their musicianship. Interestingly, one is an eight-song single album of 30 minutes, one is a three-CD set of 28 songs, and one is a four-song EP. Here they go:

element

Element of Surprise ― Babu N Friends (Manta Records): A senior guitarist, Babu Choudhary is well-known on the Mumbai musical scene. Over the past few years, he has collaborated with many other musicians, and released the albums ‘The Electric Sky’ and ‘Somewhere Out There’ under the name Babu N Friends.

Choudhary’s latest album ‘Element of Surprise’, released last year, has appearances by guitarists Ehsaan Noorani, Arjun Sen and Kolkata veteran Amyt Datta, slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke, bassists Storms and Mohini Dey, drummer Ranjit Barot, keyboardist Zubin Balaporia, saxophonist Carl Clements and singer Shefali Alvarez, among others. And the great thing about this eight-track collection is that it has plenty of variety, as the songs smoothly blend rock, jazz, the blues, funk and fusion.

The four instrumental pieces are first-rate. ‘Shanti (for Amma’), which fuses a Yanniesque New Age sound with a Floyd-like ambience, has some moody keyboards by Jarviz Menezes and slide guitar by Sontakke. ‘Bablues’ starts off with a vocal  chant, but settles down with some impeccable guitaring by Arjun Sen, Amyt Datta and Chaudhary himself, with a neat keyboard interlude by Jarvis Menezes and tight drumming by Barot and basswork by Storms.

‘Boogie Hill’ has a smart jazz-rock groove, with Arjun Sen and Chaudhury on guitars, Sontakke on slide, Barot on drums and a marvellous bass stretch by Mohini Dey. Though one feels the end is a bit abrupt, this is an awesome number. Also on the instrumental list is the final number ‘Song for Shama’, which has charming tenor saxophone by Carl Clements, neat keyboards by Balaporia and marvellous guitaring by Ehsaan Noorani, Arjun Sen and Chaudhary. The song is very reminiscent of the 70s jazz-rock-funk fusion era, and this is the kind of piece you’ll play on repeat mode.

Of the vocal tracks, the opener ‘I Like IT Ruff’ features singer Jarvis Marcedo, and has a funk-meets-smooth jazz feel and a Santanaesque guitar solo by Chaudhary. ‘Walk’, which uses cello and strings, has vocals and guitar by Gerson D’Souza, who sounds particularly expressive on the lines “Screaming lungs make no sound.”  ‘Mr Preacher’, which has Marcedo again on vocals, has ironic lines like “Mr Preacher, made of flaws, Mr Preacher, breaking laws,” and a well-constructed horn section.

One of the clear winners is ‘Les Gurugiri’, which sees singer Shefali Alvares in prime form. Dedicated to music teachers, the song has lines like ‘O Guruji, give me your learning to feed my yearning, so I can become me.” The song has some masterly guitaring by Amyt Datta and Chaudhary.

Besides the variety, what’s welcome is that each song has been superbly produced and arranged. As such, ‘Element of Surprise’ never ceases to surprise.

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3 Wheels 9 Lives – Thermal and a Quarter (EMI Music): Thermal and a Quarter, or TAAQ, is a three-piece band from Bangalore, comprising Bruce Lee Mani on vocals and guitar, Rajeev Rajagopal on drums and Prakash K N on bass. With brilliant solos, plenty of improvisation and a sound that amalgamates rock with jazz and the blues, the band has always been a treat to hear at live gigs.

This time, the band takes the risk of releasing a three-CD set, which includes two CDs of new songs and one containing singles created between 2010 and 2012. That makes it 28 songs in all ― a gutsy thing to do at a time when people are not going in for more than 10 or 12 songs at a time. The negative side to this is that it also requires a bit of patience to listen to each single CD at a stretch, especially when some songs or five or six minutes long.

The title ‘3 Wheels 9 Lives’ is dedicated to Bangalore’s autorickshaw (public three-wheeler) drivers, and the second song ‘Metre Mele One-and-a-Half’ actually talks of how they always charge one and a half times the fare.  In fact, one finds a few references to Bangalore, like in the song ‘Bangalore Flower’, which has the lines: “She’s a flower, a Bangalore flower, she’s got me in the zone.”

The highlight of the album is Mani’s consistent guitaring, and one hears some fabulous work on the numbers ‘Surrender’, ‘De-arranged’ and ‘Origami’. Other winners are ‘Terrible Trouble’, with its infectious hook, the peppy ‘If Them Blues’ and ‘For The Cat’, dedicated to singer Cat Stevens (check the lines, “A quiet calm in a wild world”).

On initial hearing, one may sense a certain sameness on many songs. But for variety, we have ‘Sad Moon’, which has vocals by the talented Priya Mendens, the instrumental ‘Ho-hum’ and the well-produced ‘Birthday’, which has a slight Beatles influence.

The bonus tracks include popular numbers like ‘Something You Said’ and ‘Kickbackistan’, but the real treats come from the live versions of ‘Mighty Strange’, with its tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and keyboards, and ‘One Small Love’, which has amazing Carnatic flute by Ravi Kulur.

Though the sheer length may irk some, the truth is that the songs grow on regular listening. TAAQ has been around since 1996, releasing four albums before. ‘3 Wheels 9 Lives’ is one of their obvious career highlights.

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Attention, Please (EP) Spud in the Box (Asli Music): Mumbai-based Spud in the Box is a relatively new band which has been regular on the live circuit. It’s being described as an alternative pop-rock band, and the good thing is that it’s pretty eclectic, drawing influences from rock, jazz, the blues, pop, folk and even a bit of Indian and western classical.

The EP, launched last month at Mumbai’s Blue Frog, has four tracks, and comes at a very affordable ₹ 60. Besides the tight instrumentation and excellent production, what’s really impressive is the quality of lyrics. For instance, the opening song, ‘Lens Life’ begins with the lines: “Lens life, I’ve been leading a lens life, I see the world through my filtered eyes; Lens life, I’ve been living a lens life, I know the world isn’t black and white.”

‘Lens Life’, which starts slowly and picks up tempo with a strong bassline and keyboards, is the kind of song that will grow on you. The next number ‘Attention, Please’ has a gorgeous guitar part, strong harmonies, and the lines: “You fall down on your homeground, you got your bruised knees; but nothing can hurt you like kisses and sympathy.”

‘Train of thought’ begins with a percussion beat, followed by keyboards and guitars, and the lines: “I can’t seem to recognise this face in the mirror, this familiar stranger.” The vocals in the higher register are rendered charmingly. Finally, ‘More than Once’ is very peppy for a couple of minutes and starts with the superb lines: “Once in a while I’ve been alone, once every night.” It changes direction after that with a short piano stretch and vibrant classical sargams, but somehow seems a bit stretched with an additional piano solo after a pause.

All in all, a very commendable effort by the band, which comprises Rohan Rajadhyaksha on keyboards and vocals, Ankit Dayal on vocals and guitar, Siddharth Talwar, Hartej Sawhney and session member Arjun Tandon on guitars, Zubin Bhatena on bass and Vivaan Kapoor on drums and percussion. Of particular note is the way the lead vocals have been accompanied by harmonies and back-ups. Among the younger bands, Spud In The Box really thinks out of the box.

Back at the Barsi


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ON February 3 every year, a section of Mumbai’s music lovers religiously heads to the Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion East to attend the day-long Allarakha Barsi concert. Many officegoers even apply for leave in advance, though that wasn’t necessary this year as the event fell on a Sunday.

‘A Homage to Abbaji’, as it’s formally named, is held on this day to mark the great tabla maestro Ustad Allarakha’s death anniversary. The first Barsi in 2001 was in fact held at the Tata Theatre in Nariman Point, and later in the evening, at the Kala Ghoda festival. But for many years now, Shanmukhananda has been the fixed venue, with Allarakha’s son Ustad Zakir Hussain spearheading the planning and organising.

For those who haven’t attended it, the format is the same each time. The day begins at 6.30 am with Taal Pranam, first featuring a tabla ensemble consisting of students of the Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music and then moving on to purely Indian classical recitals, both in Hindustani and Carnatic music.

The afternoon session, Taal Tapasya, features solo or duet recitals by percussionists. This again showcases the pure form of percussion playing, and is primarily attended by musicians and hardcore drumming fans.

The evening session, Celebrate Abbaji, has special international guests joining Zakir and other Indian musicians on fusion music, and a multi-artiste jam session. The global musicians to have performed here include guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz saxophonist-flautist Charles Lloyd, saxophonist George Brooks, banjo great Bela Fleck, classical bassist Edgar Meyer, bassist-producer Bill Laswell, drummers Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio, Pete Lockett and Eric Harland, conga genius Giovanni Hidalgo, African talking drum expert Sikiru Adepoju and Japanese taiko drummer Leonard Eto.

This year, the early morning tabla ensemble tribute was conducted by Zakir’s brother Fazal Qureshi. Mid-way, Zakir, Yogesh Samsi and Aditya Kalyanpur joined in. What needs to be noted ― and this is something that one has observed each year ― is that while Zakir did introduce them as students of the institute, it would have been a far better gesture if each student , as well as the harmonium player providing the lehera accompaniment, was introduced by name. That would have added to their spirit. On the contrary, what one sees at such shows is that only the famous names are repeated ad nauseam.

This performance was followed by a surbahar recital by sitar exponent Pandit Kartick Kumar, who paid tribute to his guru, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Mandolin wizard U Shrinivas then came on stage for a Carnatic recital, accompanied by Zakir on tabla. A Thyagaraja kriti, a ragam tanam pallavi and a bhajan were played with immense control.

The afternoon session featured Abbos Kosimov of Uzbekistan on the doira frame drum, a performance by Fazal Qureshi on tabla and mridangam exponents Palghat Rajamani Iyer and Kamalakar Rao, who paid homage to the great Carnatic mridangist Palghat Mani Iyer.

The evening session featured a trio comprising Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir. Fleck and Meyer have played at the Barsi before, and this time, the trio played tunes from their 2009 album ‘The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto’, including ‘Cadence’ and ‘Bahar’ (mis-spelt on the CD as ‘Babar’). Meyer also did a wonderful adaptation of Bach’s ‘Second Suite for Unaccompanied Cello’.

Solos by Fleck and Zakir were played immaculately, and U Shrinivas, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and sarangi player Sabir Khan made guest appearances on some numbers. One closely heard the interactions between Fleck and Shrinivas, and while both of them were technically brilliant, the Carnatic gamakas played by the mandolin maestro provided a distinct tone.

In the concluding jam session headed by Zakir, Trilok Gurtu mainly played the cajon, in which one sits on the percussion instrument while playing it, and Taufiq Qureshi played Indian rhythms on the African djembe. Drummer Ranjit Barot and Kosimov completed the percussion section.

Interestingly, the jam session was orderly and well-structured, unlike many times in the past, when it has become more of a tamasha filled with pyrotechnics just aimed at pleasing the gallery. With jam session regulars like singers Shankar Mahadevan and Roopkumar Rathod, sitar player Niladri Kumar, drummer Sivamani and kanjira champion Selvaganesh absent this time, one got to hear something different.

The jam session as such had the right build-up, some excellent percussion solos and no unwanted gimmickry. In fact, the entire day showcased a good combination of improvisation and restraint.

Finally, a word about the entry conditions. As the concert is free for the public, many people are relieved, moreso in these days when concert prices have shot up tremendously. However, for many, it becomes difficult or even impossible to get hold of passes.

The Shanmukhananda Hall has a huge capacity of over 2,750 seats. It has three levels ― main auditorium, first balcony and second balcony. For the main auditorium, passes with seat numbers are normally given to invitees, which consist of celebrities, musicians, the media, sponsors and other guests of the organisers.

The others get seating in the two balconies, and for this, advertisements are placed in the local dailies. This year, they could collect two passes per person from either Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, the Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar or the venue from February 1 onwards.

However, around 11 am on February 1, all three venues had run out of passes. Whether they went to the first lot of people who visited the venues or were deliberately kept back, nobody knows. But a lot of interested people and true music fans had to miss the concert because passes were unavailable. And strangely, the ads appeared on February 2 too, disappointing even more people.

Such a thing happens every year, and it’s time the organisers pay serious attention to this. For such a huge hall, it’s sad that quite a few people are forced to miss out.

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