Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for July, 2013

Impressions of JJ Cale, the Lord of Lilt


JJ Cale (top) and the LP of Eric Clapton’s ‘Just One Night’, giving Cale the songwriting credit for ‘Cocaine’

A tribute to legendary musician, guitarist and songwriter JJ Cale, who passed away on July 26

FOR many years, I adored his songs without knowing they were his. Let me begin with one example.

Back in the early 1980s, many youngsters of my generation, born between 1960 and 1965, suddenly ditched our favourite Abba pop and Cerrone disco to enter the exciting and energy-packed world of rock music. Artistes like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Doors, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull, Santana and Eric Clapton became overnight idols. We became part of the hip crowd at Delhi University, and looked down at those who didn’t think like us. And to be certified as a diehard rock fan, one compulsorily had to know six songs – Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, the Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’.

Yes, most of us identified ‘Cocaine’ with Clapton. We heard it everywhere — at home, in parties and at local college festivals, with various campus bands playing their own, totally mangled-up versions of that famous guitar riff. Clapton was God, but none of us had heard of JJ Cale. The man who wrote that song.

Though I owned a few LPs at that time, Clapton wasn’t in my vinyl collection. Whatever I had, including his famous live double album ‘Just One Night’, was on specially recorded cassettes, where I wrote down the song names in my own handwriting. And I never knew Cale had also written ‘After Midnight’, the other masterpiece which Clapton played on that album.

A few years later, a friend told me about the actual writer of ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight’. I said no, nothing doing, but he quickly took out his double LP and proved his point. My myth was broken.

Clapton wasn’t the only instance. For some time, I associated ‘Call Me The Breeze’ with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ‘Sensitive Kind’ with Santana, who played it on that classic album ‘Zebop!’. The former was even covered by the Allman Brothers Band and superstar Johnny Cash, and in the case of both songs. I was surprised to later discover they were written by JJ Cale.

The question was: Who on earth was this guy? How could someone writing such huge hits for such known artistes be so unknown himself? Unfortunately, there was no Wikipedia or Google to find out, and I still hadn’t bought my first rock encyclopaedia.

WHO was JJ Cale? My first exposure to his actual music must have come in 1991 or 1992, over a decade since I first heard ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight’.

His album ‘Travel-Log’ was doing the rounds, and the songs to hit me instantly were ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Tijuana’. My first instinct was that he sounded like a more country-rock version of Dire Straits, mainly in the way the songs were structured and the way the guitar was played. Of course, I discovered later that Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler was hugely influenced by him.

Over the next few years, I listened to his albums sporadically. A lot of them weren’t available in India, so one had to depend on collections of those who possessed them. And one didn’t meet such people too often.

On closer listening, it became obvious that Cale used a neat blend of rock, jazz, blues and country, in what came to be known as the Tulsa Sound, which was pioneered by him and Leon Russell in the group The Starlighters back in the mid-1960s. It was a distinct sound, which had its own beauty and flavour.

Slowly, I heard Cale albums like ‘Naturally’, ‘Okie’, ‘No 5’, ‘Grasshopper’ and ‘No 10’. Much later, ‘To Tulsa and Back’ and ‘Roll On’ became favourites. The songs that totally fascinated me included ‘Don’t Cry Sister’, ‘Crazy Mama’, ‘Cajun Moon’, ‘Mama Don’t’, ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Carry On’, ‘Roll On’, ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’, ‘Passion’, ‘Digital Blues’, ‘Fate of a Fool’, ‘Stone River’, ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’ and ‘Clyde’, popularised by country star Waylon Jennings.

In 2006, while working at EMI Music, we got the news that Cale and Clapton were collaborating on an album. ‘The Road to Escondido’ was being released by Reprise Records, which was part of Warner Music, whose music EMI was marketing and distributing through a licensing agreement.

Though I knew I would get to hear the album much before the others, I was still impatient, waiting for the arrival of the master copy. This was like a dream come true. And for weeks, ‘Escondido’ would be played in office. ‘Don’t Cry Sister’, ‘Dead End Road’ and ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’ would be on repeat loop.

Very recently, I heard an amazing version of ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and his band Rhythm Kings, who’ve done total justice to the song. I realised it was quite some time since I heard Cale, but even before I did so, news of his death came.

On July 26, the legend died of a heart attack at the age of 74. Interestingly, his last released song was ‘Angel’, a collaboration with Clapton on the latter’s latest album ‘Old Sock’. I first heard this song today, before writing this blog, and it’s a beauty.

IF one were to analyse the immense contribution of JJ Cale, the first thing that would obviously come to mind is that he was a hit-maker. Though he himself stayed in the background, he created hits for some of the biggest artistes of the 1970s. Even artistes like Freddie King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, John Mayall, Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, Captain Beefheart, Cissy Houston and jazzmen Herbie Mann and Larry Carlton covered his songs. Musicians from genres as diverse as rock, blues, jazz and country played his compositions.

Then, there was the Tulsa Sound, pioneered by him and the equally-underrated genius Leon Russell. Named after the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma, US, it broadly fell under the classification of bluesy country rock, using minor chords, simple lyrics and a shuffling beat, but helped define a decade of roots-based rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly, David Gates of the soft rock group Bread also hailed from Tulsa, and was influenced by both Cale and Russell.

Besides Clapton, Knopfler and Gates, other giants inspired by Cale included Neil Young and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry. An outstanding guitarist himself, and the biggest influence behind the late 1980s and early 1990s grunge sound, Young often said his two favourite guitarists were Jimi Hendrix and Cale.

Both, of course, would represent opposite spectrums of guitaring styles. If Hendrix was all pyrotechincs and hyper-energy, Cale’s style has been described as laidback, smooth and cool. By subtly finger-picking his guitar, he created a completely different army of followers.

Cale often described his own music as ‘front porch noodling’, because compared to the instruments, the vocals were subdued. He often wanted the voice mixed down. But in his albums, he’d use a variety of instruments. For the country flavour, he would have musicians playing the violin, mandolin, dobro and pedal steel guitar. For the blues, bottleneck slide guitar and blues-styled piano passages would come in. For the jazz effect, he’d have the saxophone, trumpet and trombone. To give them a Latin American flavour, some songs would use bongos and congadrums. And the electric guitar, organ and drums would lend the rock atmosphere.

One may debate whether Cale would achieve any fame at all, if it were not for the fact that his songs were covered by the likes of Clapton, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Freddie King, Bland, Mayall, Johnny Cash and Jennings. But then, it was obviously his sheer brilliance that attracted such great musicians to his songs.

Cale defined the cult musician as well as the musician’s musician. What George Gershwin was to jazz, or Willie Dixon was to the blues, Cale was to eclectic roots-rock. They all created some outstanding music for themselves, but were known more for versions popularised by others. They all helped define the sound of future styles of music through their sheer genius. In their own different ways, they were all game-changers.

There have been many ways to describe Cale’s music. ‘Laidback’ and ‘cool’ are some of the common phrases used. Allow me to chip in my two bits here. The word I’d normally associate with Cale is ‘lilt’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has three meanings for it. One, a spirited and usually cheerful song or tune. Two, a rhythmical swing, flow or cadence. And three, a springy, buoyant movement.

All three meanings fit in perfectly with Cale’s music. For me, he was the Lord of Lilt.


Instruments from India — 11/ The western connection

kadri u srinivas

Kadri Gopalnath (left) and U Srinivas

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, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram, harmonium and Indian adaptations of the guitar. This month, we feature other western instruments adapted by Indian musicians.

Just to note, some readers have requested a piece on the tabla, India’s most popular percussion instrument. However, this series aims to complete the melody instruments first, before going on to types of drums. Hence, that wish will be fulfilled sooner than later.

LAST month, we talked of how a western instrument like the guitar has been adapted in Indian music, and played in Indian classical, Carnatic, film music, ghazals and fusion. And last September, we spoke about the adaptation of the violin, another western instrument.

While these two instruments have found prominent use in Indian music, there have been other western melodic instruments which have been played by Indian classical musicians, and also find place in film music, fusion and ghazals.

Let’s look at a few of them.

Saxophone: This woodwind instrument is used in many western genres, and has played a major role in jazz, and also in the western classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Made of brass, it is played with a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of a clarinet. Though there are different types of saxophones, the most common are the tenor and alto saxophone, followed by the soprano sax. For those interested in trivia, the name saxophone comes from its inventor Adolphe Sax.

In Carnatic music, it was popularised by Kadri Gopalnath, who modified the alto sax after learning the basic rudiments from Gopalkrishna Iyer. As a child, he had learnt the nadaswaram, a double-reed instrument used in Carnatic music.

While a large part of Gopalnath’s repertoire revolves around pure Carnatic ragas, he has also made a name in fusion. In Mumbai in 1980, he played with American musician John Handy, where both used their individual styles to create a unique blend. Soon, he got a chance to play in major jazz festivals around the world, and also recorded the album ‘Southern Brothers’ with jazz flautist James Newton.

Besides playing saxophone for many movies with composer A R Rahman, Gopalnath has collaborated with jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa abroad, and Hindustani flautist Pravin Godkhindi within India.

Of the other Carnatic saxophone players, Aditya Viswanathan and Prasant Radhakrishnan are gaining in popularity. But when you talk of the instrument in this style of music, Gopalnath has single-handedly taken it into another sphere.

Though Hindustani musicians have largely stayed away from the saxophone, American player Phil Scarff has adapted the soprano saxophone to play north Indian ragas. Fascinated by the music of shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and even jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who used Indian phrasings on some compositions, Phil regularly visited India to learn Hindustani music, while also playing with his world-jazz ensemble Natraj. With intense research, he picked up the ornamentations typical of Indian music, and used them on his saxophone.

Besides classical music, the saxophone has played an extensive part of film music. Popular exponents are Manohari Singh, who played a lot with music director RD Burman, Mickey Correa, Shyamraj and Suresh Yadhav. Many Indo-jazz fusion ensembles also use the saxophone, and western artistes like Jan Garbarek, George Brooks and Bendik Hofseth have played with flautists Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ronu Majumdar. Mumbai-based youngster Rhys Sebastian has played with sarangi player Sabir Khan.

Mandolin: Originating from Italy, the mandolin is a member of the lute family and has been popular in European folk music, classical music, country music and bluegrass. It would take the prodigious talents of U Srinivas to make it well-known on the Carnatic circuit.

Both Srinivas and his brother U Rajesh picked up the instrument from their father Satyanarayana. At the age of nine, he gave his first concert at the Thyagharaja Aradhana festival in Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh, and at 14, he played at JazzFest Berlin, where the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis was also performing.

Srinivas has toured around the world with Indo-jazz fusion band Remember Shakti, also comprising guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, singer Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira player Selva Ganesh. His album ‘Dream’ with producer Michael Brook is a career highlight.

Besides Carnatic music, the mandolin is played in film music and ghazals too. In the 1940s and 1950s, film composer Sajjad Hussain not only played it in the movies, but also played Hindustani classical music using the instrument. Film composer Laxmikant excelled in the mandolin, and other well-known film players were Isaac David and Kishore Desai.

Western instruments in Hindustani music: While the saxophone and mandolin have been adapted and popularised in Carnatic music, there have been some attempts to play western instruments in Hindustani music.

Nancy Lesh, who was principal cellist of western classical orchestras in Italy, was so attracted to the dhrupad form of Hindustani music that she decided to adapt the cello, by modifying her tuning and adding a drone string. Abhijit Pohankar, son of classical vocalist Pandit Ajay Pohankar, plays Hindustani music on the keyboards, and has used a similar style in albums like ‘Piya Bawari’, ‘Thumri Funk’ and ‘Ghazal Lounge’.

Other instruments in film music: While many western instruments have been used in film music, special mention must be made of the accordion. A free-reed aerophone also known as the squeezebox, the instrument was very popular in the folk music of Europe and South America and in country music, and was also used in some western classical compositions.

In Hindi film music, Shankar-Jaikishan used the accordion in ‘Sab kuch seekha humne’ (from ‘Anadi’) and ‘Awara hoon’ (‘Awara’) among other songs. Over the years, the popular accordion players have been Goodi Seervai, Enoch Daniels and the great Kersi Lord, who played it in the ‘Aradhana’ song ‘Roop tera mastana’. Many people, would have, of course seen the instrument picturised on Raj Kapoor.

Some of the other western melody instruments to be played in film music are the trumpet, trombone, mouth organ, bass guitar and of course the grand piano. Pianist Brian Silas is known for releasing instrumental versions of Hindi film songs, and Arijit Mukherji does a similar thing on the mouth organ.

Of the western instruments, the saxophone and mandolin have been specially popular in Carnatic music, thanks to the two people who revolutionised their use. When you listen to either of them, you just can’t believe they are playing western instruments.

The candid autobiography of a seasonal one-song wonder


Taher Shah (left) and Keith Meisner, who have both become YouTube hits

Hey everybody,

Let me introduce myself. They call me SS, which is short for Seasonal Sensation. I’m not a fruit, flower or fashion fad as many of you may think, but a singer who’s made a mark with only one hit. A one-song wonder.

I change my name regularly, using that of the artiste who’s behind the hit. I’ve existed for years, but currently I’m in the news for two reasons.

The first one is in the form of British amateur singer Keith Meisner, who performed this song ‘Under the lights’ as a tribute to tennis star Andy Murray. He created it some time last year. And luckily for him, Murray won this year’s Wimbledon, and the song became an overnight YouTube hit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the singer had blared the song repeatedly in opponent Novak Djokovic’s ears just before the final. No wonder he couldn’t hear the referee.

My second avatar comes in the form of Pakistani singer Taher Shah. In April, this businessman-cum-chief executive-cum-singer-cum-composer-cum-lyricist-cum-writer-cum-model-cum-actor-cum-producer-cum-director-cum-white suit ambassador-cum-hairstyle trendsetter (I think I forgot something) released an English song called ‘Eye to eye’. It became a viral sensation in June. The media hailed him as a ‘sensation’ and ‘musical genius’. Yippee! Once again, I became famous. What’s interesting is that Taher says he took some 15 years to write lines like “Substantial love is heaven for precise eyes. Spectacular eyes, our eyes, my eyes and your eyes, eye to eye, eye to eye.” Eye, eye, yo!

I’m sure you folks are getting the drift of how I function. Every few months, I appear in the mind, body and soul of some wannabe singer. I appear as a hit song, and make sure it is a rage for a few months. I see how the egos of these singers get inflated suddenly, and that’s when I step in again. Quickly, I ensure this singer’s next song is a commercial disaster, and that he or she is forgotten forever, so that I reappear in the form of another target. He becomes rich and famous, and suddenly disappears. So on and so forth. I’ve been doing this for years.

I don’t know when I began this job of mine. I’ve become old and my memory fails me. But what I can assure you is that I’ve been equally prolific in Indian music and international music. I know where and when the grass is greener.

My earliest memory would probably be the music group Archies, who are known for only one song — the 1969 hit ‘Sugar Sugar’. Closer home, I came in the shape of Vijay Benedict in ‘I am a disco dancer’, Pakistani singer Hasan Jehangir in ‘Hawa hawa’, Altaf Raja in ‘Tum toh thehre pardesi’, Sapna Awasthi in ‘Chaiyya chaiyya’, and barely two years ago, in Dhanush in ‘Why this kolaveri di’. Why? Why? Why?

There were also Sapna Mukherjee’s ‘Tridev’ song ‘Oye Oye’ and Baba Sehgal’s ‘Thanda thanda paani’, and though both these singers would send out a long bio-data of 20 other projects they’ve done, you and me know that these were their only hits, and that Baba had lifted it from another one-song wonder – Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice ice baby’.

Abroad, I’ve appeared as frequently as possible. To cite just a few examples, there were Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung fu fighting’, Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky town’, Anita Ward’s ‘Ring my bell’, the Buggles’ ‘Video killed the radio star’, Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted love’, Patrick Hernandes’ ‘Born to be alive’, Survivor’s ‘Eye of the tiger’, Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No 5’, Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’, Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’, Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘Achy breaky heart’, Rednex’s ‘Cotton eyed Joe’ and Baha Men’s ‘Who let the dogs out?’. I haven’t spared the Koreans either, as I let PSY have one worldwide hit in ‘Gangnam style’, before he released the utterly forgettable and Seoul-less ‘Gentleman’.

I could go on and on, and write an encyclopaedia. But which publisher in his right senses will publish a book on one-song wonders? My talent in books is nothing in comparison to my talent in music, and I denitely don’t want to be remembered as a one-book wonder. So, based on my experiences, I would like to share a few things in the next few paragraphs.

To begin with, how do I choose my latest avatar? Honestly, that is a mystery to me. I myself have been unable to fathom why some absolutely silly songs like ‘Tubthumping’, ‘Who let the dogs out?’, ‘Tum toh thehre pardesi’ and ‘Kolaveri di’ could become such a huge craze. It may have something to do with the mood of the moment. And obviously, it also has something to do with the people who like such songs. I wish I could call them dumb and tasteless, but then, it’s because of them that I keep going. So I’ll insist they are smart and cultured.

Secondly, some of these songs are actually very listenable. ‘Eye of the tiger’ is one of the classic rock songs, ‘Macarena’ is still a rage when played on the dance floor, and ‘I am a disco dancer’ still attracts both ordinary people and composer Bappi Lahiri fans. What’s surprising is that the singers of these songs didn’t have the acumen to release even one more song which matched even closely. It must have been a fluke, it must have been luck, or a combination of both. Sorry, this is a family blog, so I dare not think of any word combining ‘fluke’ and ‘luck’.

Third and most important, once a song is super-successful, most singers will just tend to repeat the formula in their next few songs. And this is where they fumble. I know that this will invariably fail, but as I am looking at a new avatar myself, I encourage them to keep repeating the same thing till the listeners dismiss them forever. How wicked of me!

Whatever the reason for their limited success, I shouldn’t be complaining. It’s great fun watching most of these musicians the moment they get their first hit. They think they have conquered the world, and that they have become true legends. Ha ha! Wish they understood that one has to release hits regularly, and not once in a lifetime. The worst thing for any singer is to be tagged with a single song, though honestly, these people are better off than those who haven’t had a single hit at all. And I’ll be polite enough not to take the names of so many hitless singers who tried to sing Indi-paap in the late 90s.

At this stage, I am obviously wondering who my next apparition will be. For me, life has become so much easier with YouTube and all this free downloading that I am taking the examples of ‘Kolaveri di’, ‘Gangnam style’, ‘Under the lights’ and ‘Eye to eye’ to rework my long-term strategy. I’ve already made a beginning by hiring people to click the same video link from morning to evening for days and weeks so that it increases the number of views. Nothing like creating hype, false or otherwise. But with the music scenario changing so fast, I need to think of something more innovative.

My only relief is that Taher took 15 years to write ‘Eye to eye’. The moment I dump him and move on to my next target, I don’t have to worry about him singing another song for another 15 years. As for Meisner, going by past record, he may have to wait another 77 years for the next Britisher to win Wimbledon and inspire him to do another song. He may be gone by then, but I’ll definitely be around. Till my next seasonal hit, adieu!

Yours sinc-ear-ly


Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young for the blues and jazz

bill wyman mick ralphs

Bill Wyman (left) and Mick Ralphs

A FEW weeks ago, the music press talked of the formation of the blues-rock supergroup The Rides, featuring the legendary Stephen Stills on vocals and guitar, the hugely talented Kenny Wayne Shepherd on guitar and Electric Flag veteran Barry Goldberg on keyboards.

Those who’ve grown up on rock and folk-rock of the late 1960s would be delighted to hear of the involvement of Stills, best known as a member of iconic bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Having been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer and recovering from it a few years ago, the master musician is taking his career in a new direction.

Like Stills, many musicians of the 1960s and 1970s have been working on new music or on side projects. We’re not talking of Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and Ian Gillan who continue to be associated full-time with their earlier groups, or people like Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and David Gilmour who have been releasing solo material. Specifically, we’re mentioning musicians who are now doing more work in the blues and jazz, instead of continuing in the field of rock, which they were known for.

A few random searches on Google and YouTube revealed some very interesting results. Though this music and these bands may not get the kind of popularity that their earlier rock bands earned, they are definitely brilliant in quality. And though these musicians are making the occasional appearance at blues and jazz festivals, a lot of their new stuff is going unnoticed.

Let’s look at five such acts, which are definitely worth checking out:

Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings: The former, long-time bassist of the Rolling Stones, Wyman ventured into blues-rock with this group, which also consists of some veteran musicians like guitarist Albert Lee and keyboardist Georgie Fame.

Also featured are vocalists Beverly Skeete and Gary US Bonds, guitarist Andy Fairweather Low (who accompanied Roger Waters on his India tour) and keyboardist Mike Sanchez. Guitar hero Peter Frampton, best-known for his mega-selling live album ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, appears as a regular guest, and even guitarists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor have guested with this group.

Wyman and the Rhythm Kings have been around for a while, releasing five studio albums since 1997. Their versions of ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Chicken Shack Boogie’, ‘Green River’ and ‘Melody’ are simply outstanding, and Skeete’s singing on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins masterpiece ‘I Put A Spell On You’ takes you to another planet.

Peter Green and Friends: Vocalist and guitarist of Fleetwood Mac and writer of the Santana-popularised ‘Black Magic Woman’, Peter Green has had his roots in the blues, which was evident in some of the band’s early albums. This project marks his comeback in 2009, after a five-year hiatus.

Here, in fact, Green goes into exploring the blues even deeper. Accompanying him are Mike Dodd (rhythm guitar, vocals), Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Matt Radford (bass), Andrew Flude (drums) and Martin Winning (tenor sax).

The group’s versions of ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, ‘The Stumble’, ‘Sitting in the Rain’, ‘Stranger Blues’ and ‘When the Lights Go Out’ are surely worth checking out.

Mick Ralphs Blues Band: Formerly with glam-rock group Mott the Hoople and then with the marvellous rock band Bad Company, Mick Ralphs is one of the most under-rated yet brilliant guitarists ever. His Mick Ralphs Blues Band totally showcases his talent and his proficiency with the blues.

Accompanying Ralphs are vocalist/ harmonica player Son Maxwell, slide guitarist Jim Maving, bassist Dicky Baldwin and drummer Sam Kelly. They’ve done some brilliant work on songs like ‘Can’t Do It All By Myself’, ‘ ‘Mister Charlie’, ‘Hideaway’, Just a Little Bit’, the classic Albert King song ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ and the Bad Company hit ‘Can’t Get Enough’.

John Densmore’s Tribaljazz: The former Doors drummer has been in the new more for his legal conflict with other band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, which he wrote about in his book ‘The Doors Unhinged’. Following Manzarek’s death in May, he has initiated a reunion with Krieger.

Over the past few years, Densmore has been actively involved with Tribaljazz, which explores a mix of jazz, African beats and world music. The group released its debut album in 2006, featuring songs like ‘Blues For Bali’, ‘The First Time I Heard Coltrane’ (dedicated to the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane) and ‘Violet Love’, besides a more jazzed-up version of the Doors classic ‘Riders On The Storm’.

Besides Densmore, the group features saxophonist/ flautist Art Ellis, pianist Quinn Johnson, Egyptian bassist Osama Afifi, Guatemalan conga player Miguel Rivera, Italian-born, Brazil-trained percussionist Cristina Berio and African drummers Marcel Adjibi and Aziz Faye. Going by that very line-up, one can imagine how eclectic the music will be.

Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion: One of the rock world’s best drummers, Baker had very successful stints with Cream (along with Eric Clapton and bassist Jac Bruce) and the short-lived Blind Faith (with Clapton, keyboardist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech). He later teamed up with African musician Fela Kuti and explored world music.

Baker’s group Jazz Confusion is doing the rounds on the UK festival circuit, and is slated to play at next month’s Great British Blues Festival in Colne, Lancashire. Also featuring veteran saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and conga player Abass Dodoo, the band plays a highly energetic blend of jazz and African music.

Superb stuff from all five. Just a quick tour of YouTube will unleash loads of pure magic.

Is composer Amit Trivedi innocent, or is he a ‘Lootera’ too?


MUCH before the release of ‘Lootera’ last Friday, the media was flooded with snippets alleging that composer Amit Trivedi was the latest to be bitten by the plagiarism bug. His theme music from the Vikramaditya Motwane-directed film, they claimed, was a direct rip-off of Rachel Portman’s instrumental ‘We had today’ from the 2011 Hollywood film ‘One Day’.

Listen to both closely, and there’s no denying an uncanny similarity between them. The basic melodies are the same, even though the instruments are different and they go into separate directions after a while, with the ‘Lootera’ version picking up in tempo. However, what nobody seems to have got is that both of them sound very much like Nino Rota’s score ‘A Time for Us’, used in Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 film ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Rota, of course, is best known for his ‘Godfather’ music.

Whether the ‘Lootera’ theme music was original or not is a matter of debate, which I shall address below. And if it actually is an instance of deliberate copying, there should be no justification at all.

However, before getting into that discussion, a word of congratulations for the overall quality of the film’s background music. It’s simply stunning, to say the least — the portion just before the intermission is a class apart. Moreover, both Motwane and Trivedi have worked on an admirable balance between scintillating music, total silence and minor sounds like birds chirping and short dialogues. The way music has been used is a lesson to all aspiring filmmakers.

Sadly, nobody is talking about that. Everybody wants controversy, and public opinion often prefers to highlight the negative elements. So let’s get back to the subject of whether Trivedi’s version was a blatant copy or not, keeping in mind the three tunes discussed.

Quite clearly, Portman’s ‘One Day’ seems to have been inspired by Rota’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, even if sub-consciously, and even though it’s slower in tempo. And Trivedi, while admitting his ‘Lootera’ tune and ‘One Day’ match to some extent, claims it was just a coincidence. In an interview to Shakti Shetty of Mid-Day, the Bollywood composer said: “I’m not a fool to steal music. All of a sudden I was hearing stuff like ‘Amit Trivedi has become like Pritam and Anu Malik. He has become a chor too’.”

Was it downright plagiarism, smart inspiration or sheer accidental similarity? Should one believe Trivedi’s version and be convinced this was just a coincidence? For that matter, should one absolve Portman for being inspired by the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ theme?

Considering that Trivedi is one of the rising stars in Hindi film music, and has had a very clean record ever since he shot to fame with ‘Dev D’ in 2009, one might as well give him the benefit of the doubt. At this stage in his career, he would be the last person to think of directly lifting a tune, and facing ire and flak for it.

Let’s now look at the tune in isolation. From a melodic point of view, it’s a very simple tune, using just four basic notes, which have been improvised on three more times. There’s nothing complex about it at all, and anybody with a basic knowledge of the keyboard and a compositional bent of mind would be able to create that tune, using those same four notes in four sequences. And if required to set it against a romantic or sad background, the same person would use a similar tempo and metre, and give it an orchestral effect. In other words, it’s not something really pathbreaking from the creatve viewpoint. However, by creating a wonderul atmosphere, a composer can take it places.

Keeping that in mind, it’s highly probable that Trivedi would have composed the ‘Lootera’ theme without being inspired by ‘One Day’. It’s also possible that Portman would have created her piece without being directly inspired by the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ theme.

In his interview, Trivedi says he was initially shocked on hearing allegations of plagiarism, but on introspection, acknowledged that it wasn’t the fault of people who made them, as the tunes matched to some extent. He even found Portman’s e-mail and wrote to her, though he didn’t get any reply. If what he’s saying is true, it implies he hadn’t heard Portman’s version before.

So how did the tunes sound so similar? Let’s look at another theory — that of sub-conscious inspiration.

As part of their research and their passion, most composers listen to various types of music, as often as they can. For the background music, one would assume the current generation of Hindi film composers would listen to the way background music is used in other Indian films, both old and new, and in Hollywood films and world cinema. They would also be tuned in to sweeping types of orchestral music, as one finds in the western classical genre, or into more experimental stuff found in modern dance and new age music.

Thus, their audio systems would be filled with Hollywood musical geniuses like Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Nino Rota, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis, James Horner, Ludovic Bource and James Newton Howard, to name a few, and with classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Stravinsky. This is besides electronic dance music acts like Paul Van Dyk, Sasha, Deadmau5 or Swedish House Mafia, and new age acts like Yanni, Enigma, Delirium and Kitaro. Examples abound.

In all this, one is bound to get influenced by certain compositional styles and by certain tunes. A great piece of music can stick to one’s head today, be forgotten and reappear much later while one is composing something new. At times, one may not even remember the actual source. As such, it’s natural for every musician to get inspired by whatever he or she has heard before. In both Trivedi’s and Portman’s cases, it’s very likely that the ghost of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would be haunting their brains while they wrote their respective pieces. Both may have been sub-consciously inspired, and done what any composer would do with that same basic tune.

In the Indian context, there have been scores of unfortunate instances when tunes have been lifted directly, even by some of the greatest music directors. There have also been many times when composers have been inspired by other tunes, either sub-consciously or knowingly (as with Salil Chowdhury who openly acknowledged his ‘Chhaya’ song ‘Itna na mujhe se tu pyaar badhaa’ was influenced by the opening movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony). There have also been numerous occasions when certain Hindi film songs have sounded similar because they have been composed in the same classical ‘raga’.

And then, there have been instances when the media has gone on and on about songs which weren’t copied at all. To take a recent example, half the Internet was filled with stories that A R Rahman’s ‘Challa’ (‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’) was a direct lift of Eagle Eye Cherry’s ‘Save Tonight’. Frankly, there was nothing similar between the songs except that they used the same guitar chord in the opening strumming portion. And when Rahman rehashed his own ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ title song to create ‘Tum Tak’ in ‘Raanjhanaa’, hardly anybody noticed. Interestingly enough, both these songs are somewhat reminiscent of (and maybe sub-consciously inspired by) the antara of the ‘Padosan’ tune ‘Main chali’.

Talking of the ‘Challa’ and Rahman controversy, one is baffled how quickly half the Internet writes about such instances when the so-called ‘originals’ haven’t been really popular in India. When the ‘Barfi’ promos were out last year, everyone wrote about how Pritam’s theme music was lifted from the soundtrack for the French movie ‘Amelie’, which actually has a limited following in India.

In the case of ‘Lootera’, everybody is writing about ‘One Day’ which was a box office disaster and whose theme music was hardly heard in India. And if they loved the ‘One Day’ music so much, it’s shocking not one of them thought it was similar to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which is actually one of the most famous Hollywood tunes ever. It’s like one person writes something, and everyone is just ripping that off. Plagiarism exists there too!

For Trivedi, of course, this should be a lesson learnt. He’s done some remarkable work in ‘Dev D’, ‘Udaan’, ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’, ‘Ishaqzaade’, ‘Kai Po Che!’ and even in ‘Lootera’, with the songs ‘Sawaar loon’, ‘Monta re’ and ‘Manmarziyaan’ being the highlights. And as mentioned before, the overall background score of this movie is simply awesome.

One sincerely hopes this instance was just a coincidence, probably the result of some basic compositional attempt, or even inspired sub-consciously by ‘Romeo and Juliet’, than being a direct lift of ‘One Day’ as is being touted. Just when his career is flying high, allegations of plagiarism are the last thing Trivedi would want. Hopefully, he’ll come out strong and clean. At this stage, he certainly wouldn’t want to gain a reputation of being a ‘lootera’.

PS: The only reason why I didn’t put the link of all the three pieces is that had I done that, it would be natural for readers to directly see them, without reading my views on this subject. They’re all available on YouTube, so one can quickly gain access.

Take Five: The earliest female blues singing legends


ma rainey

Bessie Smith (top) and Ma Rainey

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music and electronic music, respectively. This month, we look at five of the earliest female blues legends.

WHEN one talks of the blues, most people would instantly think of legends like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King or Willie Dixon. Or even blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. They’d talk of the slide guitar, harmonica and 12-bar chord progressions, or of songs like ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. More often than not, the mental picture would be of a man singing the blues, gleaming guitar in hand.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, however, the female blues singer reigned supreme. Though the male world had prominent names like W C Handy, Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, that period had a string of women with awesome voices and amazing recordings. And though many of them specialised in the more rootsy form of blues, they also sang sophisticated jazz, theatrical vaudeville songs and popular Tin Pan Alley material.

Though old-timers would have fond memories of these female blues legends, many of today’s younger blues listeners haven’t been exposed to them. Their records are rare to find, but luckily, one finds a lot of their music on YouTube.

Here, we shall focus only on those singers who made it big in the blues only during those two decades, in the pre-World War II era. Another generation of female blues singers became popular in the 1950s, but that’s another story. We shall begin with five, and list some of the others at the end.

Ma Rainey: The undisputed ‘Mother of the Blues’, Rainey was one of the earliest professional singers in this genre, and among the earliest to record. Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, she began performing in her early teens and changed her name after marrying Will Rainey at the age of 18.

A majority of female singers have been directly or indirectly influenced by Rainey, who was best known for her powerful voice, energetic stage presence and a typical folk style of singing called ‘moaning’. Among her numerous recordings, ‘Bo-weevil Blues’, ‘Moonshine Blues’, ‘Soon This Morning’, ‘Black Bottom’ and ‘See See Rider’ were all popular in the 1920s. Her performances with jazz great Louis Armstrong, blues guitarist Tampa Red and singer Papa Charlie Jackson are remembered vividly.

Rainey died of a heart attack at the age of 53. While her work is remembered fondly, an interesting bit of trivia revolves around how, in 1965, Bob Dylan used her name in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’, where he sang, “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll”. Dylan, after all!

Bessie Smith: While many other singers were given the title ‘Queen of the Blues’, the only one who deserved to be called ‘Empress of the Blues’ was the great Bessie Smith. The fact that she was a primary influence on some of the world’s greatest singers like Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Janis Joplin speaks volumes for her prowess.

Bessie’s songs ‘Downhearted Blues’, ‘Women’s Trouble Blues’, ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Empty Bed Blues’ have been covered by many. But her biggest success came with her rendition of Jimmy Cox’s iconic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, which became an anthem during the Great Depression, and was revived when Eric Clapton recorded it in 1970 with his band Derek and the Dominoes.

Born in a poor family, Bessie lost both her parents before she was 10, and joined her brother to sing on the streets. Soon, she joined a troupe that also featured Ma Rainey, who influenced her to concentrate on the blues.

Bessie’s career was later affected by a serious gin-drinking problem, accompanied by falling record sales during the Great Depression. And just when she was staging a comeback with a series of successful concerts, she was killed in a car accident, allegedly denied admission by a whites-only hospital. She was only 43 and the world lost one of its greatest singers.

Mamie Smith: Even before Rainey and Bessie really hit the big time, another extremely talented singer became the first woman to record the blues with phenomenal success. In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded a set of tunes written by Afro-American songwriter Perry Bradford, including ‘Crazy Blues’ and ‘It’s Right Here For You’. The record created history, selling a million copies in less than a year.

Mamie’s repertoire moved much beyond the blues, as she excelled in jazz and vaudeville too, besides being a pianist, dancer and an actress. Following the success of her records, the industry began promoting other female singers, and Mamie herself was described as ‘Queen of the Blues’.

Mamie later concentrated on her group Jazz Hounds, and even acted in a few movies. She passed away in 1946 at age 63.

Ethel Waters: She excelled equally in blues, jazz and gospel, but she began with the blues in the 1920s. It’s often said that very few artistes deserved to express the blues more than Ethel Waters, a statement attributed to her tragic upbringing.

Born as a result of her mother’s rape, Ethel was never shown any love by her family. She married at 13, only to end up in an abusive relationship with her husband, whom she left. Soon, she ended up falling in love with a drug addict.

Ethel had a string of hits in the 1920s and 1930s, including ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Dinah’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Cabin in the Sky’, ‘Taking a Chance on Love’, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ and ‘Am I Blue?’, featured in the 1929 movie ‘On With The Show’. She performed with the great Duke Ellington and pianist Fletcher Henderson, and later pursued a parallel film career. She died in 1977 from uterine cancer, aged 80.

Memphis Minnie: Lizzie Douglas aka Memphis Minnie was known not only as a singer but also as one of the earliest female guitar greats. Story has it that in 1933, she and the great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy got into a guitar contest. Broonzy, who was a very big name in Chicago, says in his autobiography ‘Big Bill Blues’ that a jury of fellow musicians awarded Minnie the prize of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of gin for her performance of ‘Chauffeur Blues’ and ‘Looking the World Over’.

Minnie began learning banjo and guitar when she was eight, and in five years, ran away from home to play on the streets. Later, she even took to prostitution to earn additional income.

One of her earliest hits was ‘When the Levee Breaks’, a song performed with her second husband Joe McCoy, and many years later reworked by rock band Led Zeppelin. Her other hits include ‘Bumble Bee Blues’, ‘Hoodoo Lady’, ‘I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit’ and ‘I Want Something For You’.

Minnie, who died in 1973 at age 76, was a huge influence on many later blues musicians, including the great guitarist-singer Bonnie Raitt.

WHILE these were five of the biggest pioneers, the list of female blues greats from the 1920s and 1930s would be incomplete without mentioning a few other names. Notable among them were Ida Cox, often called the ‘Uncrowned Queen of the Blues’, and Victoria Spivey, who was inspired by Mamie Smith to become a blues singer, and hit the big time with her 1926 original ‘Black Snake Blues’.

Two other Smiths — Clara Smith, who often accompanied Bessie, no relation of hers, and Trixie Smith — had a huge following. As did Alberta Hunter (one of the first to tour Paris and London), Sara Martin and Sippie Wallace, known as the ‘Texas Nightingale’.

And yes, there was the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who attracted attention from the mid-1930s. Though called the ‘Voice of Jazz’, she had a style that boasted strong blues leanings, strongly influenced by blues singers Bessie Smith and Blue Lu Barker. Her biopic, starring Diana Ross, is called ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’, and she had a huge impact on many later-day blues singers.

Needless to say, that era had some astonishing talent. The voices those days were supple, soulful and stirring. Those ladies really sang the blues.

Tag Cloud