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Archive for August, 2013

Instruments from India — 12/ Other classical gems


Annapurna Devi on surbahar and (right) vocalist Kishori Amonkar using a swarmandal

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, Indian adaptations of the guitar, and Indian adaptations of other western instruments. This month, we feature other instruments used in Indian classical music.

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.

SO FAR, we have talked of melody instruments that are commonly played in Indian music today. There are other instruments too, which one has seen classical, devotional, film and folk music.

In this part of the series, we shall talk of the balance classical melody instruments, which can be divided into two categories. The first comprises those which were earlier played in classical music, but are not too common these days. These are surbahar and sursingar. The second includes instruments used as accompaniment in classical music, like the tanpura and swarmandal. The other accompanying instruments, harmonium and sarangi, have been covered separately before, as they have attained a status in solo performance as well.

Let’s look at these instruments in detail.


imrat khan

Ustad Imrat Khan on surbahar

Surbahar: A bass version of the sitar, it used to be commonly played about 60 or 70 years ago, but today, is seen much less than most other instruments. It has a lower tone than the sitar.

Typically, a surbahar has four rhythm or chikari strings, four playing strings, and 15 to 17 unplayed sympathetic strings. It has two bridges, with the playable strings passing over the greater bridge. The instrumentalist plays the strings using a metallic plectrum, the mizrab, which is fixed on the index finger of the player’s right hand.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raag, 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.

The instrumentalist may then play compositions in the same or any other raag. Here, tabla accompaniment is provided, though in the dhrupad style, pakhawaj is played.

There are conflicting views on who invented the surbahar. Some researchers believe it was invented around 1825. Though its creation is generally attributed to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, some musicologists believe Lucknow-based sitarist Ustad Ghulam Mohammed invented it.

Well-known surbahar players include the great Ustad Imdad Khan, his sons Ustad Inayat Khan and Wahid Khan, and his grandson Ustad Imrat Khan, who has done some excellent recordings on the instrument, Though Imrat’s brother Ustad Vilayat Khan also learnt the surbahar, he was better known as one of the greatest sitar players ever.

Annapurna Devi, daughter of the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan and first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar, is also known for her adeptness at surbahar. She however stopped performing in public.

Another old-timer was Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan. Contemporary players include Irshad Khan and Buddhaditya Mukherjee, Ravi Shankar’s disciple Kartick Kumar also gives surbahar recitals, besides being a prolific sitar player.

The popularity of the sitar in the 1950s is said to have led to the falling demand for the surbahar.

Sursringar: It is like a sarod but larger in size and providing a deeper sound. It is also older than the sarod. A typical sursringar has four main strings and four chikari strings, and is played with a mizrab.

Well-known sursringar players were Maihar gharana doyen Baba Alauddin Khan and Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra. Among the recent players, Joydeep Ghosh has made a name.

Just like the surbahar was affected by the sitar’s popularity, the sursringar is said to have been replaced by the sarod.


What sursringar looks like


prabha atre

Vocalist Prabha Atre with a tanpura

Tanpura: Popularly known as the drone instrument, the tanpura or tambura is one of the most important instruments as it is used as an accompaniment in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms, in vocals and in instrumental music.

The tanpura is a long-necked lute whose body shape resembles a sitar, but has no frets. Ideally, it has four strings, though some tanpuras have five strings too. While instrumentalists normally use one tanpura or a smaller ‘tamburi’, vocalists prefer two or even three tanpuras as an accompaniment.

The name is said to be a combination of ‘taan’, which is a musical phrase, and ‘poora’, which means completion. Some vocalists prefer to play the tanpura themselves, whereas others have disciples or professional tanpura players play it in the backdrop.

Some musicians also use a electronic tanpura, which is easier to carry around while travelling. In Carnatic music, the shruti box which is similar to a harmonium is also used to provide the drone. However, in both north Indian and south Indian music, purists prefer the standard form of the tanpura, which provides the perfect ambience.

pandit jasraj

Vocalist Pandit Jasraj with a swarmandal

Swarmandal: Also called the surmandal, this is an Indian harp or Indian zither used by some vocalists. While Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan used it in the past, others to use it include Pandit Jasraj, Kishori Amonkar, Ajay Pohankar, Rashid Khan and Ajoy Chakraborty.

The advantage of the swarmandal is that can produce a large number of notes in succession. It can have between 21 and 36 strings, depending on what the vocalist wants.

Interestingly, even the Beatles were fond of the swarmandal, and used it on songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Within You Without You’, ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’.

These were some of the other instruments used in classical music. Besides them, a huge variety of instruments is used in Indian folk, devotional and even film music. The next part of the series will focus on some of these gems.


CD review/ Paradise Valley — John Mayer


Paradise Valley/ John Mayer

Genre: Folk/ country-rock

Sony Music/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

HE first hit the headlines a little over a decade ago, with his Grammy-winning pop-rock song ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’. His debut album ‘Room for Squares’ became a hit, and he quickly gained international fame.

Today, John Mayer has turned out to be one of the most prolific singer-songwriters and talented guitarists of modern times. He has matured as an artiste, moving from pop-rock to a soul-meets-blues-rock sound on the albums ‘Continuum’ and ‘Battle Studies’, to more folk and country-driven music in the 2012 release ‘Born & Raised’. On the live circuit, he formed a blues-rock group John Mayer Trio, and on his own played with hip-hop stars like Kanye West and Common, blues biggies Buddy Guy, BB King and Eric Clapton, and jazz guitarist John Scofield. That’s some versatility.

On his latest album ‘Paradise Valley’, Mayer continues from where he left in ‘Born and Raised’, sticking to tunes reminiscent of Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Byrds and early Grateful Dead. The sound is a neat blend of country, folk-rock and the California sound of the 70s, with ample use of pedal steel guitar and dobro. What’s really creditable, of course, is that he’s created such brilliant songs after two throat surgeries.

Like ‘Queen of California’, the opening song of ‘Born & Raised’, Mayer begins with a number that’s pretty inspired by the Grateful Dead. ‘Wildfire’ has an infectious hook, and the catchy lines “Say, say, say, Ain’t it been some kind of day, You and me been catchin’ on, Like a wildfire.” Charming work on the pedal steel and a smart, extended blues-rock guitar climax add to its beauty. The song has a shorter version, with singer Frank Ocean, used more like a filler in the middle of the album.

‘Dear Marie’ takes a nostalgic look at a past relationship, with incredible lines like “From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online, Some county judge in Ohio is all I ever find.” This is followed by a pleasant, optimistic ballad ‘Waiting on the Day’, which has a burst of melodic slide guitar.

‘Paper Doll’ is a rejoinder to ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift’s dig at him in ‘Dear John’, as Mayer sings, “You’re like 22 girls in one’, an obvious reference to her single ‘22’. Next up is a crackling version of the late JJ Cale’s classic ‘Call Me The Breeze’. It’s played marvellously, though one wonders why it comes to such a sudden end.

Mayer’s on-off girlfriend, Katy Perry co-writes and does a guest singing appearance on the ballad ‘Who You Love’. She sings soulfully, but this is probably the only weak song on the album, thanks to a hackneyed tune and mundane lines like “You’ll love who you love who you love.”

Mayer, however, gets into reflective mood on ‘I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)’, where he sings, “I’m a little lost at sea, I’m a little birdie in a big old tree, Ain’t nobody looking for me, Here out on the highway, But I will be found, I will be found, When my time comes down, I will be found.”

The last three tracks are absolute beauties. With its country pedal steel backdrop, ‘You’re No One Till Someone Lets You Down’ talks of heartbreak and breach of trust, as Mayer sings, “You believed that all people are kind, And that you’d never mess with your mind, You gave her your trust, And she busted your crown, You’re no one ’til someone lets you down.”

‘Badge and Gun’ has a wonderful melody, and the opening lines “Give me my badge and gun, Give me the road that I may run, Give me that peaceful, wandering-free I used to know” brim with nostalgia. The album concludes the folk-driven ‘On The Way Home’, with Mayer singing, “But just remember on the way home, That you don’t ever have to feel alone.”

Like ‘Born & Raised’, ‘Paradise Valley’ is co-produced by the veteran Don Was. If the earlier album had more diverse orchestration, using keyboards and harmonica too, this one concentrates mainly on guitars and basic rhythm back-up. The songs are never long, and use just the right amount of orchestration. Most important, they sound better and better on repeated hearing, winning you over with their simplicity.

The only question is: Now that he’s released two marvellous country-based albums, what sound will Mayer choose in his next album?

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

Fusion or confusion?


A R Rahman and Suchi at the opening episode of Season 3 of Coke Studio @ MTV

NO, no, it’s not an original headline or thought, but a question that has been asked for many years, mainly by opponents of the genre. Is fusion music an innovative and creative genre, or is it just plain, thoughtless confusion? The truth is that both aspects may be true. Fusion music can be highly inventive and enjoyable, if created properly. If not, it can be a complete mess.

Though one has seen some excellent fusion concerts and heard some incredible recordings over the years, the question came to mind yet again, after watching the opening part of Season 3 of Coke Studio @ MTV over the weekend. The producers obviously had a coup, in that they roped in A R Rahman for this episode, creating the hype that he was singing with his sisters Rayhanah and Issrath, and also doing a number with classical maestro Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan.

At least twice in the show, one had the feeling that the word ‘fusion’ was misused, even abused. The first song ‘Zariya’ featured Jordanian singer Farah Siraj, Nepali Buddhist nun Ani Choying, percussionist Sivamani and a sweet-sounding choir singing a tune that Rahman’s been regularly rehashing since 1994. All of them performed well, but seemed to be going off in completely different tangents. The song seemed all over the place.

The second instance was the final number ‘Jagao mere des ko’, with singer Suchi sounding smooth and Rahman totally uncomfortable in Bengali — that too on lines written by the great Rabindranath Tagore. What messed it up was the climax, with Suchi singing Hindustani sargams, Blaaze prancing around and doing rap, and Sivamani jumping in with Carnatic konnakol (spoken percussion syllables)— all at the same time. Somewhere in between, guitarist Prasanna played a few fancy riffs that came in from nowhere. All the musicians were trying to prove that they were perfect at their art, and the end result was a jarring mess.

To be fair, ‘Naan Yen’, with sister Rayhanah, and ‘Aao balma’, with Ghulam Mustafa Khan and guitarist Prasanna, were more coherent. But the other songs seemed like a desperate attempt in creating some random, directionless fusion, or unworldly world music. Playing to the gallery, very obviously.

SADLY, that’s what a lot of fusion music is now turning out to be. Playing to the gallery. Whether it’s Coke Studio, a multi-artiste concert jam attended by the hip and happening, or a club gig aimed at the whisky-swigging hoity-toity, this whole genre is slowly turning out to be one of bizarre theatre. There are exceptions, no doubt, but those are few and far between.

To analyse what has led to this state of affairs, let’s see how the genre originated and developed in India.

In the global perspective, the word ‘fusion’ was first used for the amalgamation of jazz and rock in the 1960s. Jazz was waning in popularity, and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bob Dylan had taken the world by storm. To attract more audiences, jazz musicians like guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, flautist Herbie Mann and vibraphonist Dave Pike started adding rock inflections in their music, but it was after the success of trumpeter Miles Davis’s 1970 album ‘Bitches Brew’, featuring an ensemble cast of musicians, that the term ‘jazz-rock’ became popular. Bands like guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, keyboardist Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and the outstanding Weather Report were at the helm of the jazz-rock movement. Whenever the term fusion was used abroad, it meant a mix of jazz and rock.

Among Indians, though Ravi Shankar had collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin on the album ‘West Meets East’ in 1966, it was more of a musical dialogue, with the musicians conversing with each other, rather than engaging in any fusion. ‘Raga Jazz Style’ by music directors Shankar-Jaikishen, and ‘Raga Rock’ by saxophonist Braz Gonsalves, keyboardist Louiz Banks and singer Pam Crain, broke new ground. Sitar player Ananda Shankar created waves abroad, blending Indian and western music.

The first popular instance of fusion was the mid-1970s group Shakti, featuring McLaughlin, violinist L Shankar, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and ghatam wizard Vikku Vinayakram. Both in studio albums like ‘Natural Elements’ and ‘A Handful of Beauty’, and at live shows, they fused Indian and western melodies with Hindustani and Carnatic rhythms to create some magical music. The term ‘Indo-jazz fusion’ was born.

Other musicians started getting into the fray. Louiz Banks and singer Rama Mani released a path-breaking album ‘City Life’, under the band name Sangam. In 1984, Carnatic violinist L Subramaniam did the brilliant album ‘Conversations’ with the legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli. In 1985, L Shankar did ‘Song for Everyone’ with Zakir Hussain, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and the following year, Zakir Hussain teamed up with McLaughlin, Garbarek and flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia on ‘Making Music’. Tunes from these albums were played stylishly at concerts, and the ‘collective improvisation’ concept used in jazz was put to good use in Indian fusion as well.

The good fusion albums kept coming in at regular intervals. Mohan veena exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt did ‘A Meeting by The River’ with American guitarist Ry Cooder, and mandolin wizard U Srinivas made the phenomenal ‘Dream’ with Canadian producer Michael Brook. Ilayaraja released ‘How to Name It’ and ‘Nothing But Wind’. Flautist Ronu Majumdar recorded ‘Moonlight Whispers’ with guitarist Larry Coryell, and ‘Ekatman’ with Louiz Banks. Trilok Gurtu released many great albums fusing global sounds with Indian rhythms, and the Indo-Swedish group Mynta, featuring tabla maestro Fazal Qureshi, released some magical stuff. More recently, santoor player Rahul Sharma has released a string of albums blending classical music with western sounds,

Till the mid-1990s, most fusion was instrumental. There were, of course, attempts to have vocal forms of fusion music, with Delhi band Indian Ocean blending Indian folk sounds with rock and jazz. However it was only in 1996 when Colonial Cousins Hariharan and Leslie Lewis released their debut album, that the style of ‘vocal fusion’ became popular. In Pakistan, Junoon, Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon blended western elements with traditional styles.

Indian Ocean moved from underground to mainstream, and Shakti returned as Remember Shakti, this time making sure it also had a vocalist in Shankar Mahadevan. Many subsequent bands like Advaita, Swarathma and more recently Agam took Indo-fusion to newer levels.

Though the purists mostly opposed any fusion exercise, the genre found a market in the younger crowd, which had grown up on western music, and yet wanted something Indian about the sound. These people would attend shows by Remember Shakti and Indian Ocean, and come out dazed. At the same time, they would not be enthralled by a purely classical concert, mainly because they never understood or bothered about the nuances.

AS long as the art and purity of playing were given prominence, fusion sounded like music to the ears. But somewhere down the line, the gimmickry and cacophony began coming in.

This happened mostly at concerts. Very often, musicians would see the crowd going ga-ga over some energetic phrase, and in order to keep them happier, they would get involved in more musical calisthenics. Worse, some musicians actually began thinking they were rock stars, and started behaving like them on stage, just to attract attention. They had their online fan clubs too, who would support them no matter what they did, and tear down anyone who opposed them.

Soon, the sound of fusion changed. Traditional Indian instruments were upgraded in electronic avatars, the once-romantic sitar would be played at ear-shattering volume, drummers started banging on suitcases, and singers would randomly rattle off breathless sargams to impress their gullible followers. Concert organisers started using different permutations and combinations of the same 10 or 12 ‘star performers’. It became a ‘tamasha’.

Even as all this was happening, ‘world music’ began influencing Indian musicians. Many of them thought it would be fashionable to mix various forms of music, even though the basic techniques used in them were vastly different. Event organisers, corporate sponsors and television honchos came up with the idea of fusing music from different regions of India, whether or not the styles matched. Top artistes were paid grand fees, and since records were selling lower quantities anyway, they would agree to do anything. And since television provided the maximum reach, the whole fusion jamboree moved to this new platform.

This is not to say that all fusion created over the past few years has been gimmicky or senseless. In fact, some excellent albums have been released. To take just three examples, we have had drummer Ranjit Barot’s ‘Bada Boom’, sitar player Ravi Chari’s ‘Crossing’ and guitarist Ravi Iyer’s ‘VRavi Guitar Fusion’. In each of them, different styles were blended subtly and artistically.

There have been some great concerts too, like the one at this year’s Abbaji tribute organised in memory of tabla legend Ustad Allarakha. Here, Zakir Hussain, banjo expert Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer were joined by some talented percussionists, in one of the better fusion performances of recent times. A couple of years ago in Chennai, flautist Chaurasia, saxophonist George Brooks and harp player Gwyneth Wentink gave a memorable concert.

But as we said, such concerts have become more of an exception. To take one classic example, when Remember Shakti got in mandolin player U Srinivas and kanjira exponent Selvaganesh around 1999-2000, in place of violinist Shankar and ghatam player Vinayakram, audiences got to hear a new sound. With Shankar Mahadevan eventually joining in on vocals, a new dimension was added. Though old-timers preferred the old Shakti, the new avatar played to packed galleries. Sadly, the gimmickry soon came in, and so did the repetition. At later shows, the musicians seemed more interested in showing their individual virtuosity, than in creating some evolving music. The earlier finesse was definitely missing.

What one can say from all this is that there has been good fusion, and there has been terrible fusion. Unfortunately, there seems to be more of the latter of late. And the only people who can control that are the musicians themselves. They should know where to draw the line between the artistic and the absurd. Yes, on many occasions, their decisions are guided by public tastes and the demands of organisers and sponsors, but at the end of the day, they should take the ownership and responsibility for what they create.

At the moment, one doesn’t know what the rest of Coke Studio Season 3 will sound like, except that they will have different musicians like Ram Sampath, Salim-Sulaiman, Amit Trivedi, Clinton Cerejo and Hitesh Sonik. But since the series is known to try and randomly blend various styles, often in the name of musical ‘unity in diversity’, one only hopes one sees more subtle and stylish fusion over the next few episodes.

Blend, by all means, but use the right ingredients in the right quantities, and with the right flavours. And don’t go about murdering great traditional music in the name of fusion, innovation and broadmindedness.

(NOTE: Two months after I wrote this piece, I heard an absolutely brilliant Indo-fusion album ‘Cosmic Chant’ by Rajeev Raja Combine, featuring flautist Rajeev Raja. Have reviewed that separately on October 18, 2013)

The Shah Hussain aura

shah hussain

BACK in the 1990s, there was a sudden increase in the popularity of Sufi music in India, thanks mainly to Pakistani singers Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and later Abida Parveen. Yes, the hardcore followers admired the Sabri Brothers too, and Indian artistes Wadali Brothers and Nizami Brothers did shows across the country. But from the point of view of music albums, Nusrat and Abida attracted maximum sales.

The Sufi poets became popular too. And though the recording industry’s focus was primarily on Amir Khusro and Baba Bulleh Shah, followers heard the well-known songs of Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Sachal Sarmast, Waris Shah and Khwaja Ghulam Farid, to name a few. For a while, it had become a fad to listen to Sufi music, and it still is among certain sections. Here, we are talking of the purer form of the genre, and not the concoction belted out by Bollywood musicians who add standard words like ‘Khwaja’ and ‘Maula’ and brand themselves as Sufi musicians.

Of all the poets, Shah Hussain deserves special attention, as he is one of the pioneers of the ‘kaafi’, the classical form of Sufi poetry originating from the Punjab and Sindh regions. He lived in the 16th century, during the time of Emperor Akbar, and it was over a hundred years after his death that Bulleh Shah further revolutionised the poetic form.

A variety of musicians have rendered Shah Hussain’s work. Of the compilations, Times Music recorded an Abida Parveen masterpiece ‘Hazrat Shah Hussain’, containing popular pieces like ‘Sajjan de haath banh assaadi’, ‘Rabba mere haal da mehram tu’ and ‘Mera sona sajan ghar aaya’.

Some 10 years ago, a Music Today two-volume compilation called ‘The Best of Shah Hussain’. It featured singers Hans Raj Hans (‘Mere saahiba main teri ho mukhiyan’ and ‘Asan duniya te vat nahin’) , Barkat Sidhu (‘Rabba’ and ‘Hatthi thirkh paai’) and Wadali Brothers (‘Ni saiyyon assi’). Strangely, to cash in on Abida’s popularity those days, the compilation features her rendition of Bulleh Shah’s ‘Sadde vehre aaya kar’. Hope they had got the poet right.

Earlier this year, Bangalore-based singer Vasundhara Das released ‘The Shah Hussain Project’, featuring Sufi vocalist Mir Mukhtiar Ali and using modern versions with guitars, keyboards and additional English lyrics. The album contains eight songs, including ‘Mera sona sajan’, ‘Man atkeya beparwah de naal’, ‘Ni saiyyon assin’ and ‘Sajan bin raataan hoya waddiyaan’, and Vasundhara is planning a second volume.

Besides these specific compilations, there are many other recordings and YouTube offerings worth mentioning. One of the most popular renditions was used by Nusrat in the album ‘Night Song’, where Canadian producer Michael Brook lends an ambient feel to ‘Ni saiyyon assi’. The version, called ‘Sweet Lament’, is one of the album’s highlights.

Another Nusrat beauty is a pure qawwali performance of ‘Man atkeya beparwah de naal’, a song which has also been performed by the Wadali Brothers and the legendary Sufi singer Pathaney Khan. In fact, Pathaney has done some of the best presentations of Shah Hussain, including ‘Ghoom charakhreya’ and ‘Maen ni main kenu akhaan’, though he’s often been more associated with the ‘kaafis’ of 19th century poet Khwaja Ghulam Farid. Of the other well-known singers, Noorjehan has sung ‘Saahib teri bandi aan’.

Among the Pakistani ‘Sufi-rock’ bands, Junoon has done a version of ‘Ghoom charakhreya’. But the group to cover Shah Hussain extensively is the Mekaal Hasan Band, which has rendered ‘Rabba mere haal’, ‘Sajjan’ and ‘Jhok ranjhan di jaana’. The last number also has a popular version by Ataullah Khan.

Clearly, there has been a fair amount of representation for this wonderful Lahore-bred poet, who actually led a controversial life, and was considered by many to be a rebel, or in fact, the rock star of his times. He had a weakness for alcohol, which is said to have led to his early death at age 61. Another well-known story about him is that he fell for a Brahmin boy Madhoo, and he became his lifelong love, making him change his name to Madhoo Lal Hussain. Madhoo was in fact buried next to his lover-guru.

Though there is no exact fix on the number of ‘kaafis’ Shah Hussain wrote, estimates put the figure between 175 and 200. There have been various interpretations of his writing style, but the observations by L R Krishna in his thesis ‘Panjabi Sufi Poets: AD 1460-1900’ seem most apt. He says: “His verse is written in simple Panjabi, slightly overlaid with Arabic and Persian words. It excels in expression of thought, and has a clear flow… It lacks the brilliance of Urdu poetry but is remarkable for its just proportion of words and powerful sense of rhyme. His poetry is of a less orthodox type but it is not saturated with Indian thought as would be the poetry of Bulleh Shah. Like his character, his poetry is a curious mix of Sufi, Indian and foreign thought. The essential feature is that it pierces the heart, and creates a mystic feeling.”

Keeping that in mind, let us conclude this piece with a couple of his famous ‘kaafis’, along with their translations. They should give a fair idea of his supreme genius.

Ni saiyyon assi, naina de aankhen lagge
Paakh jinhaan diyaan hoya nigawaan
Kaddi na jaavan thagge

Ni saiyyon assi, naina de aankhen lagge
Nain lalaari te nain kasumba
Nain nainanoon dang de
Nain naina di karan mazoori

Mehnat mool na mang de
Hans kadeevina rode chugg de
Kaag na dissde vagge
Ni saiyyon assi, naina de aankhen lagge

Nain kataari chal rahi
Bin chooriyaan talvaar
Bin shastar ghaayal karen
Nain bade hathiyaar

Shah Hussain kaddi nahin marde
Jede maran yaaraan de agge
Ni saiyyon assi, naina de aankhen lagge

Friends, listen, my eyes speak the truth
Eyes that have a pure perspective cannot be cheated
Friends, listen, my eyes speak the truth

Red, ardent eyes with a piercing stare
Eyes that sting with a glance
Only eyes can labour as eyes do
Without asking for payment

(I have never seen) the pure swan eating stones; the crow is never white
Friends, listen, my eyes speak the truth
A battle of the eyes is in progress, without swords or knives
They have the power to wound
These eyes can be dangerous

Shah Hussain has become immortal
Since he breathed his last in the arms of his beloved
Friends, listen, my eyes speak the truth

Sajan bin raataan hoya waddiyaan
Raanjha jogi main jogiyaani
Kamli kar kar saddiyaan
Sajan bin raataan hoya waddiyaan

Maas jharey jhar pinjar hoya
Karkan laggeyaan haddiyaan
Main anjaan, pyar ki jaana
Birhoon tanavaan gaddiyaan

Kahe Hussain fakeer saayin da
Daaman tere laggeyaan
Sajan bin raataan hoya waddiyaan

Without my love the nights seem endless
Since my love has become detached, so have I
Call me crazy but I will still go to him
Without my love the nights seem endless

The flesh has fallen off my body and I am but a skeleton
Even my bones have started to rattle
What could I know of love?
This separation is taking its toll on me

Says Hussain, the man of God: I’m hanging on to your hand
Without you the nights seem endless

Poetry and translations taken from

The Buddy Guy story

buddy two


When I Left Home: My Story

Buddy Guy, with David Ritz

Da Capo Press, pp 280

THE first time I saw Buddy Guy on stage, I was totally mesmerised. At Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Hall in December 2005, he dazzled on the numbers ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Someone Else is Steppin’ In’. What was most impressive was his showmanship, as he suddenly moved into the hall and came close to the crowd.

The previous morning, I had interviewed him for Mid Day. He came across as an extremely friendly and humorous person, always ready to talk about the blues and always filled with stories about the past. But since we had only 20 minutes slotted, he couldn’t really get into too much detail. I saw him two more times in Mumbai, one at the One Tree Festival and the other at the Mahindra Blues Festival, and though I felt disappointed at the third gig for more or less repeating the same set, there was no denying that he was a stunning guitarist with immense stage appeal.

Buddy’s life story was always something I wanted to know more about. His involvement with the Chicago Blues scene, and the fact that he influenced greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, speak volumes for his genius.

Last year, Buddy released his autobiography, written with the help of David Ritz, who has penned or co-authored biographies of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Etta James. I had no hesitation in ordering it, and boy, what a journey it describes!

THE best thing about ‘When I Left Home: My Story’ is that you actually feel Buddy is conversing with you. The whole book has been written in the manner Americans speak in the countryside. Add to that the regular doses of humour and nostalgia, and you have a clear winner.

And there’s the story too. In 280 pages, Buddy talks about his upbringing in a farm without electricity, his love for the guitar, his exposure to the blues, his idols, his decision to move to Chicago where all the action was, big city life, the blues clubs, his struggle and ultimate recognition in Chicago, blues record labels, his visits to Europe and Africa, his interaction with rock stars, his famous collaboration with harmonica player Junior Wells, his own feelings after many of his heroes passed away, and of course his parents, siblings, family and affairs.

Appropriately, Buddy writes his book “in memory of Muddy, father to us all.” Naturally, Muddy is one of the central characters to this story, and Buddy talks nostalgically of how the legend encouraged him when he was still trying to find his feet in Chicago and was actually planning to leave the city.

Buddy talks about his first exposure to amplified sound, thanks to Lightnin’ Slim, and how his own style and showmanship were majorly influenced by Guitar Slim. Other giants to get prominent mention are BB King, John Lee Hooker (check out Buddy’s written mimicry of his stuttering), Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Rush, Freddie King, Magic Sam, harmonica great Little Walter, Big Mama Thornton, songwriter Willie Dixon (who tried to use his influence to give him a big break) and Chess Records boss Leonard Chess, who recorded with all the great artistes but got into conflicts over royalty issues.

There are many stories on Junior Wells, the way he got into trouble and the hilarious interactions between him and Muddy Waters. There’s a very nostalgic tale on events that led to the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter crash in August 1990. And there’s a section which talks of how he was impressed by white blues artistes for the first time, when he saw Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield join him on a jam. “That’s one of the first time I realised that the blues was blue, not white or black,” he says.

To be sure, Buddy focuses only on his active years, and avoids any mention of blues history prior to the time he reached Chicago on September 25, 1957, a date he keeps repeating. Thus, original masters like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House are mentioned only in passing, and there’s little talk of the Memphis or Texas contributions to the blues.

What also seems incomplete is that Buddy devotes only about five pages to his career after 1990, and of the success of albums ‘Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues’, ‘Feels Like Rain’, ‘Slippin’ In’, ‘Sweet Tea’, ‘Blues Singer’ and ‘Living Proof’. In fact, his latest album ‘Rhythm & Blues’, released on his 77th birthday on July 30, has had a superb opening. One really wishes he had added another 30 pages on the past two decades.

Those are minor flaws, of course. What’s really great is that this book reads like a thriller. There are so many stories, and it wouldn’t be fair to reveal any here, as that may just spoil the fun of any blues fan who would want to read this book. And this is an absolute must for anyone who loves the blues. After all, Buddy tells stories with almost the same effortlessness that he plays his guitar.

The drum chums

pete lockett 2

Pete Lockett

THE variety was simply amazing. A few days ago, on July 30, British percussionist Pete Lockett wowed the audience at Mumbai’s Blue Frog with his stunning display of drumming. He played the bongos, the African djembe, the Arabic goblet drum darbouka, the Peruvian ‘seat’ instrument cajon, the one-handed Brazilian frame drum pandeiro, and also the tabla in a standing posture. He even showed mastery in ‘konnakol’, the Carnatic art of performing vocal syllables.

These were only some of the drums Lockett played that day. A look at his website and study of some albums he’s recorded reveal that he also plays various Carnatic instruments like ghatam and kanjira, the Irish bodhran, duff, congadrums, Japanese taiko drums, ocean drums, rattles, shakes, the works. And if one types ‘Pete Lockett’ on YouTube, one sees many videos demonstrating the guiding principles behind various instruments. Clearly, he’s one of the most versatile international percussionists India has seen.

We’ve seen many Indian percussionists playing different instruments. Trilok Gurtu and Sivamani play a variety of drums. Though famous for the tabla, Zakir Hussain plays the conical batajon at some shows, and has a couple of cymbals in his kit. At one event, he even played the Japanese taiko drums. His brother Taufiq Qureshi plays the regular drum kit and tabla, and has also mastered the African djembe, on which he plays north Indian rhythms.

What Lockett played was an entire spectrum, something that literally seemed like a world tour of drumming. He has, of course, has been regularly exposed to Indian rhythmic and melodic culture. In 2009, he released the album ‘Made in Chennai’ with ghatam exponent Uma Shankar, son of the great maestro and former member of Shakti, Vikku Vinayakram. Recently, he worked on another album ‘Made in Kolkata’, with tabla maestro Pandit Shankar Ghosh, whose son Bickram Ghosh is also a well-known tabla player.

Featuring seven tracks, ‘Made in Kolkata’ has Lockett playing the ghatam, kanjira, tabla, cajon, darbouka and bongos. Pratyush Banerjee makes an appearance on sarod and electric sarod, and Supratic Das chips in on vocals.

Watching Lockett in concert, one’s mind flashed back to the other great international drummers India has seen over the past decade or two. In the latter half of the 1990s, one distinctly remembers jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s show, in which African drummer Paco Sery and Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena were joined by tabla wizard Zakir Hussain. It was sheer magic.

From 2000 onwards, India has seen some top-notch percussionists, many of who have performed at the Homage to Abbaji tribute held annually in Mumbai in memory of tabla legend Ustad Allarakha on his death anniversary on February 3. Here, we list down 10 outstanding international drummers the country’s music lovers have been lucky to see in the 2000s. This list comprises only those drummers this blogger has seen.

billy cobham

Billy Cobham: He’s played with jazz great Miles Davis and more prominently with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, started by guitarist John McLaughlin. Later, he did a lot of solo albums, and played with stars like bassists Jack Bruce and Stanley Clarke, guitarist Larry Carlton, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and keyboardist George Duke (who passed away on Monday, August 5).

He played in Mumbai in 2002 with violinists L Subramaniam and Jean-Luc Ponty, and a few years later did a solo appearance at the Allarakha tribute. In both cases, he proved why he’s rated one of the world’s best drummers.

ian paice

Ian Paice: As part of rock band Deep Purple, Ian Paice visited India first in 1995 and then in 2002. One of the greatest drummers in rock music, Paice has also played with the band Whitsenake and has collaborated with Paul McCartney, guitarist Jeff Beck, keyboardist Steve Winwood, bassist Rick Grech and bluesman Johnny Winter. His tight drumming style was a lesson for Mumbai’s rock buffs.

dennis chambers

Dennis Chambers: Some time in the late 1990s, the American did a drumming workshop in Mumbai, besides a private gig. Last year, he played with guitarist Scott Henderson in Mumbai, before joining the great Carlos Santana in Bangalore and Delhi.

At the Santana nites, Chambers was accompanied by percussionist Paul Kerazzo and conga champ Raul Rekow. Santana’s wife Cindy Blackman also chipped in with a scintillating drum solo.

charlie watts

Charlie Watts: The outstanding Rolling Stones drummer was part of the band’s shows in Bangalore and Mumbai in 2003. Despite the stage presence of frontman Mick Jagger and guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Watts held his own with some really tight drumming.

A jazz fan, Watts was spotted a night before the show at Not Just Jazz By the Bay on Marine Drive. The venue had specially changed the programme to feature a jazz band instead of a ‘not just jazz’ one, but unfortunately, the Stone wasn’t impressed, and walked out after 15 minutes.

virgil donati

Virgil Donati: Known for his double bass drumming, the Australian played at the Jamshed Bhabha Hall in a show also featuring jazz fusion guitarist Frank Gambale. His 15-minute solo was arguably the best drum solo ever seen in Mumbai, and he received a five-minute standing ovation for it.

This blogger had gone with music buff friend Amul Kapadia, who’s specially clued in to various percussion instruments. After Donati’s solo, both of us decided that no matter what anyone did later, they wouldn’t be able to match that drumming passage. So both of us left the venue, even though another half an hour was left. Something we never regretted as Donati had taken us on such a high.

james kottak

James Kottak: One of the best solos seen in a rock concert in India, this one was by James Kottak, the American drummer of German rock band Scorpions, which played in Bangalore in 2001.

At that point, Kottak was unknown in India, and everyone had come to see vocalist Klaus Meine, and guitarists Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker. All of them were just brilliant, and though they had primarily come to promote their unplugged album ‘Acoustica’, they devoted half the time to an electric set.

simon phillips

Simon Phillips: The English jazz, rock and pop drummer has played with a variety of acts, including Toto, Judas Priest, the Who, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Mike Oldfield, the Michael Schenker Group and Indian drummer Trilok Gurtu.

He played at the Abbaji barsi two years ago, first doing a 30-minute solo, and then in duet with Zakir Hussain. Later, he was part of an amazing jam session. Many rock fans were unaware of his concert, and later regretted missing him.

giovanni hidalgo

Giovanni Hidalgo: The Puerto Rican congo king was part of the first barsi concert, held at Kala Ghoda in 2001. A well-known Latin jazz exponent, he was also part of Mickey Hart’s famous ‘Planet Drum’ album, which won a Grammy.

Also playing at the same event was Sikiru Adepoju, the Nigerian master of the talking drum, a West African hourglass-shaped drum whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech.

leonard eto

Leonard Eto: Another percussionist to play at the barsi, Leonard Eto is a master of taiko, the Japanese drums. Here, he specialises in instruments like hirado o-taiko, the flat-bodied big drum, the oke taiko or tub drum, and the chappa cymbals or hand cymbals. One of the features of taiko is to play a large drum placed vertically above the musician’s height, and at his show at the Shanmukhananda Hall, Eto simply dazzled on this.

daniel freedman

Daniel Freedman: The American drummer played with the great world music singer Angelique Kidjo, who hails from Benin in West Africa. In fact, having grown up in New York and studied under master jazz drummer Max Roach for some time, he decided to explore West African drumming.

The show at the Tata Theatre, Mumbai, focussed more on Kidjo, naturally. But at one point, she invited members of the audience to dance on stage. Freedman was playing a djembe, and invited individual enthusiasts to come near him and dance. He synchronised his rhythms to their body movements, delighting the entire crowd.

Finally, a wish-list: Those were some of the world’s best drummers and percussionists who’ve visited India. Another fantastic drummer at the Allarakha barsi was Eric Harland, who played with jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Zakir. Last December, Frank Ferrer drummed for Guns N’ Roses in Mumbai, but this blogger couldn’t attend the show as he was travelling. Besides these, there may have been more, who’ve visited Delhi, Kolkata or the north-east of India.

There are some more giants one would like to see. Some of the people on this blogger’s wish-list include jazz drummers Steve Gadd, Lenny White and Jack deJohnette, Brazilian maestro Airto Moreira (though he’s not been too active in terms of recordings of late), Mickey Hart of the ‘Planet Drum’ album fame, Vinnie Colaiuta who has regularly accompanied Sting, former Doors drummer John Densmore, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who’s now busy on the jazz circuit.

After all, there’s hardly anything as fulfilling as a good, energetic burst of drumming.

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