Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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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