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Archive for November, 2013

Percussion from India – 1/ The tabla


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IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. This 14-part series was called ‘Instruments from India’, and it dealt with melody instruments.

This month, I am starting another series which shall talk of Indian rhythmic instruments, Called ‘Percussion from India’, it will feature various drums used in the north Indian form of Hindustani music, the south Indian Carnatic music, ghazals, film music, fusion, folk and devotional music, besides certain instruments played solo irrespective of genre. Many instruments used to accompany dance recitals shall be discussed too.

Like in the previous series, the aim is 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 beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary, as it is in this particular part. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style.

As many are aware, the most popular Indian percussion instrument is the tabla, mainly popularised abroad by Ustad Allarakha and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain. Naturally, it would be appropriate to begin with this instrument.

ON an amateur level, the tabla is perhaps the most commonly played Indian instrument. It is in many cases the first instrument that a child or a teenager is introduced to, as it is taught in schools and at basic music initiation courses. However, playing the tabla is not as easy as it seems, and it requires hours and hours of practice and dedication, and a natural rhythmic skill, to master it.

On a professional level, the popularity of the tabla can be gauged from the fact that there are a larger number of well-known practitioners (or ‘tabalchis’) as compared to any other Indian instrument. One of the reasons is that is that it is used to accompany many other melodic instruments, specially in Hindustani music, ghazals, Sufi music, film, fusion folk and devotional music, and on rare occasions in Carnatic music too. At the same time, it has made its own mark as a solo instrument.

There’s so much information about the tabla, that it would be difficult to put together everything in one article. Hence, I am dividing this blog into two parts. The first will deal with the basic features of the tabla, a bit about its history, some basic terms and its role in a performance. The second will talk of the different schools (‘gharanas’) of playing, and the main players of each ‘gharana’. As such, this particular part will not discuss any maestro or other tabla player.

Features: The tabla consists of two hand drums of different sizes and timbres. The drums are placed on ringed cushions placed on the floor, and the player sits on the floor during a performance. Most of the playing is done by the fingers, though the palms and wrists are also used.

Normally, in the case of a right-handed player, the smaller drum is placed on his right and he plays it with the fingers of his right hand. This drum is called the ‘tabla’ or the ‘daayaan’. The larger drum, the ‘baayaan’ or the ‘dagga’ is placed at the player’s left. This has a bass sound.

Both the drums have different layers – a thick-skinned outside layer (‘chanti’), an intermediate portion (‘maidan’) and a black circular patch in the centre (‘syahi’). The pitch, tone and timbre vary across these layers, and at various points on each layer. The outer circumference, the ‘gajara’, supports the instruments, and some players even use that in fusion or film music to create unusual sounds.

A tabla can go out of tune when exposed to change of temperature or humidity. Tuning of the ‘daayaan’ is done with a small hammer. For the ‘baayaan’, the player needs to ensure that the pitch is even, and for this certain pegs are used. To ensure that the surface doesn’t get rough, powder is regularly sprayed on the drums, and rubbed smoothly across the surface with the palm.

History: There are different theories on the origin of the tabla. Some musicologists talk of Hindu temple carvings dating back to 500 BC showing pairs of hand drums resembling the tabla.

A more common belief is that the great Sufi poet and scholar Amir Khusro invented it in the 13th century. Legend has it that he created it by cutting the two-headed pakhawaj or mridangam drums into two halves.
Though there have been other theories, the name tabla is said to originate from the Arabic word ‘tabl’, which simply means ‘drum’.

Tabla terms: At most concerts, one finds a large section of the audience clapping at the faster portions played on tabla. Sadly, many of them are unaware of the various terms that are used. Though this series does not intend to get into too many technicalities, some terms are worth mentioning, even if at a very basic level.

The most important is the ‘taal’, which means a rhythmic cycle. Each composition is set to a ‘taal’, consisting in a specific number of beats, or ‘matras’. The most common ‘taal’ is the 16-beat ‘teentaal’, often played with the faster compositions. Other ‘taals’ include ‘ektaal’ (12 beats), ‘jhaptaal’ (10), ‘deepchandi’ (14), ‘rupak’ (7), ‘dadra’ (6) and ‘keharwa’ (8). Some very talented musicians employ unusual rhythmic cycles like eight-and-a-half, 10-and-a-half and 11-and-a-half beats.

Equally important is the ‘bol’, which is akin to the notes used in a song. Each ‘taal’ has a fixed structure of ‘bols’, common ones being ‘ta’, ‘dha’, ‘tin’, ‘ghe’, ‘kit’ and ‘dhin’.

The distinguishing characteristic for each ‘taal’, which makes it easy for identification, is called the ‘theka’. The ‘sum’ is the point where both the tabla player and instrumentalist return to the rhythmic cycle on the first beat. This process of returning to the ‘sum’ and starting off again, and continisuously repeating the cycle, is an art in itself, and requires perfect coordination and mastery by both the instrumentalist/ singer and the tabla player.

The tempo of the music is called the ‘laya’. Common types are ‘vilambit laya’ (slow tempo), ‘madhya laya’ (medium tempo) or ‘drut laya’ (fast tempo).

Complex rhythmic tools like ‘tihai’ and ‘chakradhar’ are played in most instrumental performances. In solo performances, specific improvisational composition styles like ‘peshkar’, ‘kayda’ and ‘rela’ are played. In the light classical form of thumri, the tabla player plays a fast ‘laggi’ at the end. These can be understood with more regular listening.

Role in performance: The tabla is played differently in different styles of music. In Hindustani classical music, it is played as an accompaniment to a vocalist or to an instrumentist.

A vocal performance is normally divided into ‘vilambit’ (slow) and ‘drut’ (fast) portions. In the former, the tabla player often comes just after the singer’s opening ‘alaap’, somewhere during the first sentence of the verbal composition, called the ‘sthayi’. He may or may not change the ‘taal’ in the faster composition, but will definitely change the tempo.

In an instrumental performance, the tabla player comes on much later. Let’s take a sitar recital, for instance. The sitar player first plays a sequence called ‘alaap’, ‘jod’ and ‘jhala’ which increases tempo without tabla accompaniment. After that, he plays certain compositions or ‘gats’ set to specific ‘taals’. This is where the tabla player begins his performance. In the middle of these compositions, he also gets a chance to show his virtuosity in individual passages where the sitar player accompanies him with a repetitive phrase called a ‘lehra’.

In film music, folk music and ghazals, the tabla is played right from the beginning of the song. In dance music, it is played at regularly intervals, depending on the composition. A Sufi music composition often requires very fast-paced tabla playing. In fusion, some tabla players add an additional cymbal or other kind of drum at the side to create a tabla-based percussion kit.

In a solo performance, the player is often accompanied by a sarangi or harmonium player who plays a repetitive phrase. The tabla player plays different types of improvisational compositions, like ‘peshkar’, ‘kayda’ and ‘rela’.

Besides these, there are also tabla duets/trios or multi-rhythm ensembles, where the tabla is played along with other percussion instruments like the pakhawaj, ghatam, kanjira or drums. There is another instrument called tabla tarang where 10 to 16 ‘daayaans’ are played together to create a different effect.

To sum up, the tabla may look like a pair of innocuous drums. But playing and even understanding its nuances requires an ocean of knowledge. While we have covered the basics of tabla playing this month, we shall talk of the various ‘gharanas’ and the great masters who represent each of them in the next part of the series. There’s an entire universe out there capturing the pulse of the audiences.

CD review/ On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2 – The Beatles


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On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2/ The Beatles

Genre: Rock, popular

Apple Records/ Universal Music

Rating: ***

IT’S amazing and admirable how the Beatles brand continues to be in the news, 43 years after the group split. Right now, they are being talked about for quite a few reasons.

To begin with, Paul McCartney’s latest solo album ‘New’ was released last month, to generally positive acclaim. Secondly, the band’s former secretary Freda Kelly is to appear in a documentary called ‘Good Ol’ Freda’, where she recalls her glorious days with the band. At number three and four are the recent release of the double album ‘On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2’ and the accompanying video for the Beatles version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Words of Love’, which opens the album.

Like its predecessor, the 1994 release ‘Live At The BBC’, ‘On Air’ contains live mono recordings of various Beatles songs on BBC shows like Saturday Club, Top Gear, Easy Beat and Pop Go The Beatles. As these shows were broadcast in 1963 and 1964, when John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had already taken the world by storm, they feature the band’s earliest songs, which include a good mix of originals and covers.

Even the template is similar to ‘Live At The BBC’, which has incidentally been re-released in a remastered version (make that reason No 5 why the Beatles are currently in the news). The songs are interspersed with short audio segments, mainly humorous snippets of the band members speaking between recording sessions.

Strangely, 11 days after its international release, ‘On Air’ is still not available in Indian stores. This writer managed to hear it thanks to a friend who ordered it on Amazon, and gladly offered to lend it. The truth is that a lot of diehard fans are curious to pick up this kind of an album at the earliest. They have other means to access it, and delaying the release doesn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to do.

One thing that goes totally against ‘On Air’ is the fact that many songs overlap from the 1994 compilation. And this is not a small number – 13 out of 37. Though they are different takes recorded in separate sessions, one gets repeats of covers of Little Richard hits ‘Lucille’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, Chan Romero’s ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’, Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, the Carl Perkins-popularised ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘Sure To Fall’, and the medley ‘Kansas City/ Hey Hey Hey’. This is besides repetitions of the Beatles originals ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘From Me To You’ (sung in the earlier version as ‘From Us To You’) and ‘I Feel Fine’ (in a studio out-take).

While one or two such instances may have been fine, it’s ridiculous to repeat almost a third of the track-list. The sub-title Volume 1.67 would have been more apt in this case, Even though they might be separate recordings, the Beatles were never known to change their versions too drastically, especially in their early numbers. Thus, what the listener gets to hear is basically the same thing, with some very minor changes here and there. And this is not only the case with the repeated songs. The same holds true with all the other popular Beatles hits that have been included in this set.

Still, if one ignores this major gaffe, there are a few reasons fans should pick up ‘On Air’ to add to their collections. Most important is the presence of separate interviews of the band members by Pop Profile BBC Transmission Service’s Brian Mathew. They aren’t extraordinary or in-depth interviews, but good enough for the show-off fans to boast about.

Conducted in 1965 and 1966, and lasting about eight minutes each, the interviews have John speaking on his home, why he chose black as the colour for his Rolls Royce and what kind of education he wanted his son Julian to have. Paul has this interesting thing about how he always switched off Indian music from the radio, but slowly got to admire it thanks to George, who had begun following it deeply. Strangely, George doesn’t mention Indian music, but talks of his fondness for folk artistes Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Donovan. Ringo dodges most questions, and says he’d prefer spending time sitting around doing nothing. His interview is quite meaningless, and seems just like an effort to not to exclude him.

That brings us to those songs which we didn’t hear in the 1994 set. Though many of these have been featured in earlier Beatles albums, they represent a good selection from the early days of the band. Here, we could divide them into three categories – covers, originals and extra-popular originals.

The covers include Holly’s ‘Words Of Love’, which the band recorded in the 1964 album ‘Beatles for Sale’, country-soul singer Arthur Alexander’s ‘Anna (Go To Him)’, Carl Perkins’ ‘Lend Me Your Comb’, the Marvellettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’, the Isley Brothers-popularised ‘Twist and Shout’ and Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. Chuck Berry’s ‘I’m Talking About You’ and Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, dropped from the 1994 compilation as the producers weren’t happy with the sound, find a place here in corrected versions. And yes, there’s a short take on ‘Happy Birthday’, which the Beatles sang when the show Saturday Club turned five.

Among the originals, we have ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ (sung by George), ‘There’s A Place’, ‘Misery’, ‘I’ll Get You’ and ‘You Can’t Do That’. And the extra-popular songs include ‘Please Please Me’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘This Boy’, ‘If I Fell’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. For some variety, the recording of ‘And I Love Her’ has George playing the electric guitar and not the nylon string acoustic one is accustomed to. It’s a different matter that the acoustic one sounds far better.

Like most of the Beatles reissues and newer compilations, ‘On Air’ has a neatly produced booklet to attract fans. Highlights are the song-by-song descriptions, and the publication of the first audition form sent to the BBC’s variety department, where manager Brian Epstein entered the band’s permanent address as ‘All of Liverpool’. Of course, there’s a nostalgic introduction by McCartney, who says: “When I listen to the BBC recordings, there’s a lot of energy. I think spirit and energy – those are the main words I’d use to describe them. We are going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetimes.”

In the overall perspective, though, the compilation has its pluses and minuses. While many songs are featured in the first compilation, there are others which fans would have heard most of their lives. Even the most die-hard fan would have spent half his life listening to ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’, and one wonders whether he’ll discover anything new in this compilation. As such, only the less-heard songs may really sound exciting now, either reviving old memories or making people discover something new. At best, this compilation will be a treasure trove for the younger generation which knows only the bigger songs and hasn’t closely followed the early Beatles music.

Undoubtedly, the Beatles have been the most path-breaking band ever. No question about that. But by and large, this is like old wine in a new bottle, or a bid to re-milk the same old cow. Why Beatle about the same bush?

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

Take Five: The huge influence of the Velvet Underground


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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 six parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends and the Motown superstars, respectively. This month, we look at the Velvet Underground influence.

On October 27, rock music lost a true icon with the passing of Lou Reed. Both as guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter for the Velvet Underground (VU), and in his solo career, he created a highly original sound, blending the energy of rock with the experimentation of the avant-garde, and talking of social realism and sexual kinkiness. Songs like ‘Heroin’, ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite of Love’ attained a cult following.

Featuring Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker and later singer Nico, the American outfit had lesser commercial success, when compared with some of the other 1960s acts. But both the band and Reed as a songwriter had an enormous influence on scores of other musicians. The punk, post-punk, new wave, electronic, alternative rock, grunge and garage rock movements of later years all find their roots in the VU sound.

Brian Eno, a pioneer in electronic and ambient music, famously said only 30,000 people may have bought VU’s debut album, but each of them was inspired enough to start a band. Even Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger claims to have been influenced by the band, as he said in a 1977 interview: “I mean, even WE’VE been influenced by the Velvet Underground… I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched from (Lou Reed) too. You know ‘Stray Cat Blues’? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album. You know, the sound on ‘Heroin’. Honest to God, we did!”

Clearly, one wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying Reed and VU were among the biggest-ever influences in the history of rock. See the names of bands which have followed them, and the list is mighty impressive. Let’s take five such acts, who have all been path-breaking in their own way, and then name some of the others:

The Jesus and Mary Chain: A British alternative rock band formed by brothers Jim and William Reid in 1983, JMC were known to be hugely influenced by VU, and also by the Beach Boys and punk group Sex Pistols. Naturally, their sound was a neat blend of all the three diverse styles.

Commercially, JMC were never too big, but their artistic impact was amazing, as their albums ‘Psychocandy’, ‘Darklands’ and Automatic’ inspired a large chunk of alternative bands.

Joy Division: Also from Britain, Joy Division spearheaded the post-punk movement of the late 1970s. Inspired by VU, David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, the band created a melancholy alternative rock sound, and unlike the anger and rebelliousness of the punks, used mood and expression
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Frontman Ian Curtis was a star in his own right, but sadly, committed suicide after suffering from depression and epileptic seizures. The group released only two albums ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’, but their sound was strong enough to set a trend. The band New Order, for instance, derived their early sound from Joy Division before adding more dance elements later on.

Patti Smith: Often called the ‘godmother of punk’ or ‘punk-rock’s poet laureate’, Smith was inspired by VU, Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and James Brown, besides writers Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud. Some have even hailed her music as the best fusion of rock and poetry since Bob Dylan’s heyday.

Best known for her albums ‘Horses’, ‘Radio Ethiopia’ and ‘Wave’, Smith was an icon to subsequent generations of female rockers. Her best-known song is ‘Because The Night’, co-written with Bruce Springsteen.

REM: The most successful of the bands directly influenced by VU, REM marked the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. While vocalist Michael Stipe is recognised for his own distinct quality, the American band’s typical sound was attributed to guitarist Peter Buck’s unique style, which was derived from the sound of VU and folk-rock group the Byrds.

Best known for the albums ‘Out of Time’, ‘Automatic for the People’ and ‘Monster’, REM attained legendary status in the early 1990s, and were a huge influence on the alternative rock movement. Sadly, they decided to disband in 2011, but left behind a rich legacy.

The Strokes: Blending influences as diverse as VU, Buddy Holly and John Lennon, New York band the Strokes hit the headlines with their 2001 album ‘Is This It’, ranked No 8 by Rolling Stone magazine in its list of ‘top 100 debut albums of all time’. Even today, they are equally popular in the US and the UK, besides having a fan base in South America and Australia too.

The Strokes are said to herald the garage rock revival, and all members have been inspired by Lou Reed. Their latest album ‘Comedown Machine’ was released earlier this year.

Others: As mentioned, VU was an influence on bands from different sub-genres of rock and alternative music. Indirectly, they created an impact on the styles of such renowned acts as David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, Sex Pistols and electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

Others influenced by them include Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth, Dream Syndicate, Duran Duran, New Order and Simple Minds from the 1980s, and The Verve and Dandy Warhols from the 1990s. Even greats like U2 and Nirvana have openly acknowledged their influence, however small it was. This is besides scores of lesser-known artistes who have worshipped Reed.

Clearly, Reed’s demise marks the end of an era. In the list of most influential rock artistes ever, he’d definitely be in the top 10.

Where are the glorious, innocent children’s songs?


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Evergreen favourite: ‘Lakdi ki kaathi’ from ‘Masoom’

EVERY November 14, when India celebrates Children’s Day on the birth anniversary of former prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, radio stations and home music systems play evergreen children’s songs. Others simply remember their all-time favourites, or type out lists on Facebook or e-mail.

What’s noteworthy is that whenever one talks of children’s songs in Hindi films, one invariably thinks of tunes that are at least 30 years old. The only post-1985 songs that come to mind are a few from ‘Taare Zameen Par’ (‘Bum bum bole’, ‘Maa’ and ‘Mera jahaan’), and the one-off songs from ‘Makdee’ (‘Panga na le’), ‘Stanley Ka Dabba’ (‘Nanhi hi jaan’), ‘Akele Hum Akele Tum’ (‘I love you daddy’) and ‘Anjali’ (the title song). And if films like ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, ‘Hum Hain Raahi Pyaar Ke’ and ‘Raju Chacha’ had children in prominent roles, they strangely didn’t have any memorable kids’ songs, because the filmmakers were more keen on picturising the songs on the stars. Other films with children flopped so badly the songs were barely heard.

Ask anyone to compile a list of children’s songs, and some obvious tunes come to mind. Barring ‘Taare Zameen Par’, most of them are the old hits, which the parents or grandparents of today’s children grew up on.

The 1980s would be represented by the 1983 hit ‘Lakdi ki kaathi’ from ‘Masoom’. From the 1970s, there were ‘Re mamma re’ and ‘Hain na bolo bolo’ (‘Andaz’), ‘Bada natkhat hai’ (‘Amar Prem’), ‘Teetar ke do aage teetar’ (‘Mera Naam Joker’), ‘Lalla lalla lori’ (‘Mukti’), ‘Saare ke saare’ (‘Parichay’), ‘Mere paas aao’ (‘Mr Natwarlal’), ‘Rona kabhi nahin rona’ (‘Apna Desh’) and ‘Luk chip luk chip jaao na’ (‘Do Anjaane’), to name a few.

The 1960s were as prolific as the 1970s. Hit numbers were ‘Tujhe sooraj kahoon ya chanda’ and ‘O nanhe se farishtey’ (‘Ek Phool Do Mali’), ‘Chanda hai tu’ (‘Aradhana’), ‘Nanha munna raahi hoon’ (‘Son of India’), ‘Rail gaadi’ (‘Aashirwad’), ‘Daadi amma daadi amma maan jaao’ (‘Gharana’), ‘Hum bhi agar bacche hote’ (‘Door Ki Awaaz’) and ‘Naani teri morni’ (the old ‘Masoom’).

And from the 1950s, we had ‘Aao bacchon tumhe dikhayen’ ‘(‘Jagruti’), ‘Nanhe munne bacche teri mutthi mein kya hai’ (’Boot Polish’), ‘Ichak daana beechak daana’ (‘Shri 420’) and ‘Bachpen ke din bhula na dena’ (‘Deedaar’). Each of these old songs was memorable in its own way. Either they were fun songs, nostalgic songs, or even patriotic songs. And there are many more from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Get the point? Barring the odd exception, one barely hears any Hindi film songs for children these days. They have all kinds of songs – love songs, so-called comedy songs, group songs, sad songs and, of course, item songs. But where-o-where are the children’s songs?

The interesting thing is that there are many talented children who are capable of doing justice to these songs, and one has admired them in television shows like ‘Indian Idol Junior’ and ‘Sa Re Ga Ma ‘Li’l Champs’. They sing tunes rendered by Lata, Rafi, Kishore and others so charmingly, and yet, today’s filmmakers don’t see an opportunity to use them in the latest films.

And it’s not only in films that children’s songs are neglected these days. If one looks at private albums, there have been very few efforts to release children’s albums, the odd exceptions being the projects of Preeti Sagar, Ritika Sahni and Sunidhi Chauhan’s debut album ‘Aira Gaira Natthu Khaira’, which she recorded when she had just entered her teens.

Children form a large percentage of today’s film-going audiences. But what’s really sad is the kind of songs they are not only being exposed to, but also seem to know inside out. It’s quite shocking how many eight- or nine-year-olds sing ‘Sheila ki jawaani’ and ‘Fevicol’ at society functions or children’s competitions, with their parents beaming with pride at their ‘talent’.

It’s high time our filmmakers and music directors make some effort to revive the glorious innocence and magic that such songs provided in the past. No kidding here.

The ideal ‘Person’ in jazz


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ONE wonders how many people knew Houston Person was celebrating his 79th birthday while performing at Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre on Sunday night. In fact, going by the sheer brilliance with which the American played his tenor saxophone, and the charm he displayed in the few words he spoke, one would assume he would be a few years younger.

Compared to Saturday night’s near-full attendance at the three-day Jus’ Jazz festival, thanks mainly to the presence of the top-draw name of violinist Regina Carter, one saw many empty seats on Sunday. But most who attended would have been convinced Person gave one of the best jazz performances Mumbai has ever seen. While the second half featured the energetic mastery of saxophonist Igor Butman and the gorgeous voice of Fantine Pritoula, the impact created by Person and his quartet will be remembered for weeks to come.

Person isn’t such a well-known name in India, and I personally had never heard his music before. Even in the US, it’s said that he received his much-needed recognition rather late in his career. Among the general jazz audience, he was mainly known for his four-decade collaboration with singer Etta Jones, though the hardcore connoisseurs had recognised him way back in the 1960s for the sheer soulfulness of his playing. Yet, for most part, he has remained one of the under-rated geniuses.

That soulfulness still exists, as was evident in Sunday’s show. Each note he played had elegance, emotion and expression written all over. His interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, Lester Young’s ‘Lester Leaps In’, the Louis Armstrong-popularised ‘What A Wonderful World’, or standards like ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘People’ and ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ exhibited true class. There were other tunes that seemed familiar, and though I couldn’t pinpoint their names, they left me spellbound.

It was the purest form of jazz one could hear. It was the jazz sound that ruled the 1940s and 1950s, before other elements were fused in to enhance its mass appeal. A mix of ballads and the blues, standards and swing, the music was intricate enough to make you appreciate its deeper nuances, and yet relaxing enough to help you unwind.

Add to that the fact that Sunday’s show featured a classic jazz quartet line-up of tenor saxophone, piano (John Di Martino), bass (Matthew Parish) and drums (Chip White), and the end result was pure magic. Each musician excelled, both in the accompanying parts and during the solos, and everything added up so wonderfully.

We’ve seen many musicians get standing ovations for their performance, but Person deserved something even more special, and got it too. After his encore, he had waved goodbye to the audience, and walked to the green room. Everybody wanted more, and kept screaming their requests, without giving up. Even after a few minutes, a large number stayed back in the hall, till Person returned and played another tune. The audience couldn’t contain the excitement.

STILL buzzing from the show, I decided to gather more information about Houston Person. There wasn’t much on the Net, but for a Wikipedia profile, a few other short descriptions of his career, a few reviews of his latest album ‘Nice ‘N Easy’ and only a couple of interviews or write-ups. He’s recorded over 75 albums as a bandleader, which is evidence of his prolificacy.

Luckily, there is a lot of material on YouTube, including his interpretations of the classic old numbers ‘Moonlight In Vermont’, ‘Mack The Knife’, ‘All The Things You Are’ and George Gershwin’s ‘Love Is Here To Stay’. But the one that moved me the most was his heavenly rendition of Richard Rodgers’ ‘My Romance’.

The few interviews and write-ups on him provide a good glimpse of his musical mindset. In an interview given in 2004 to allaboutjazz.com, he says: “It’s important that jazz is relaxing. Something that when the end of the day comes, after a hard and frustrating day out in the world, that relieves you. Relaxes you and makes you feel good.”

In an interview to noted jazz scholar and critic Nat Hentoff, Person said that, like Lester Young and Ben Webster, he always first learnt the lyrics of the songs he played. He also told critic-author Doug Ramsey: “The lyric gives the song its meaning and provides the springboard for the improviser. I never play a song the same way twice, and my music doesn’t disguise the melody or reshape it or convolute it so that it’s unrecognisable.”

Those few quotes surely sum up Person’s approach to his music. They also explain what makes him special in the world of the jazz saxophone. Those who saw him on this tour of Mumbai, Delhi and Pune were lucky. It’s not too often that we in India get to hear traditional jazz of his extra-extraordinary calibre.

The Houston Person Quartet played on the final day of the Jus’ Jazz festival, organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Jazz Addicts, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre from November 8 to 10. The other performers were the Renee Rosnes Quartet, the True School Manhattan Six Band, the Helen Sung Quartet featuring violinist Regina Carter, the James and Wes Legacy Band and the Igor Butman Quartet featuring vocalist Fantine Pritoula.

CD review/ Krisnaruupa — Various artistes


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Krisnaruupa/ Various artistes

Composer: Ruupa Raaman

Genre: Devotional

Iktara Musique/ Rs 199 for CD, available digitally on OK Listen for Rs 150

Rating: ****

IT’S extremely rare to hear a ragamala in a contemporary album, but in ‘Krisnaruupa’, composer Ruupa Raaman attempts that with great poise. In the song ‘Shreenaathji Darshan’, an ode to the famous Shreenaathji in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, she describes his eight daily darshans through a 19-minute piece that uses ragas Lalit, Komal Rishabh Asavari, Maand, Brindavani Sarang, Bhimpalasi, Hameer, Nand and Jaijaiwanti rather charmingly.

‘Shreenaathji Darshan’ is one of the many highlights of ‘Krisnaruupa’, a six-track album dedicated to Lord Krishna. Considering that this is Ruupa’s first record as a composer, this is a truly commendable job, as the sound is rooted in classical melodies and Atul Raninga’s smooth arrangements. While five songs are written by Aajay K Chauhan, the choice of four singers — Sraboni Chaudhuri, Sanchita Bhattacharya, Aishwarya Majmudar and Anweshaa — lends variety, as each of them has a different texture and style.

The tunes are the kind that grow on you. ‘Nandlala’, sung by Aishwarya Majmudar, is a sprightly tune which begins, “Bhola sa, bada pyaara sa, Natkhat sa, Dulaara sa, Thumak thumak chalta hai girta sambhalta hai, Dekho to zara kaisi ye leela… Kaun hai ye, Nandlala natkhat Nandlala, Nandlala ho Nandlala.” Revolving on the life of the young Krishna, it sets the perfect pace for the album.

Singer Sanchita Bhattacharya is in good form on ‘Krishnaa Krishnaa’, which is sung from the point of a devotee who pleads with Krishna to save today’s mankind, in the lines, “Aaj ka maanas bada vikal hai, Ghut-ti hai saansein jeena vihal hai, Tujh bin na ho paye Gopala , Tu hi sabka ek kinara.” Themewise, it is reminiscent of ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baaro’.

‘Shyaam Ke Sang’, also by Aishwarya Majmudar, is on the Krishna-Radha romance, as Chauhan writes, “Shyaam ke sang vichrai Radha, Shyaam ke rang rang gayi Radha.”

The extremely talented Sraboni Chaudhuri appears on ‘Aaj Prabhu Mohey’, which is about a devotee wanting a glimpse of Lord Krishna. The lines “Meera nahin main, Sita nahin main, Radha nahin main dwaapar ki, Yug yug se hoon pyaasi Prabhuji, Lipti hoon charnon se Prabhuji, Bairi jag hai, Paar lagaa do” are crisp and effective.

The album concludes with ‘Jai Jai Krishna’, which comes after ‘Shreenaathji Darshan’. A 10-minute piece sung by Sanchita Bhattacharya, it talks of 108 names of Lord Krishna according to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. A wonderful finale!

Being a Krishna album, it’s natural that the bansuri plays a major role, and flautist Ashwin Srinivasan does a wonderful job. Sunil Das’s sitar has also been used very effectively, and there are charming appearances by Dhruba Ghosh on sarangi, Narayan Mani on Saraswati veena, Atul Raninga on pianica and Manas Kumar on violin. The rhythm section consists of Ashish Jha on tabla, Shreedhara Chari on dholak and pakhawaj, and Rohit Prasad on mridangam.

Throughout, the album flows smoothly, and keeps you riveted through its sheer melody. Clearly, it’s one of the best devotional albums to come out in recent times, and is a must for devotees of Lord Krishna.

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

CD review/ The Voice From… Beyond ― Jagjit Singh


jagjit beyond

The Voice From… Beyond/ Jagjit Singh

Genre: Ghazals

Universal Music/ Rs 250 for CD, Rs 84 on iTunes

Rating: *****

GHAZAL maestro Jagjit Singh’s death on October 10, 2011, came as a huge shock to fans across the globe. Besides possessing one of the most soulful voices in Indian music, he had played a leading role in popularising the ghazal among the masses, using simpler and more accessible lyrics, and adding modern instrumental arrangements.

After his demise, a few albums were released in his memory. First, T-Series came out with ‘Alvida: The Final Journey’, a compilation of his later songs. Last year, Sony Music released ‘The Master & His Magic’, which contained nine rare compositions from the private collection of his fan and admirer Sanjay Tayal. Now, Universal Music has released ‘The Voice From… Beyond’, featuring seven previously unreleased ghazals, chosen by his wife Chitra Singh. An added attraction is a selection of some rare photo postcards of the genius, which fans can treasure.

For any Jagjit admirer, this collection is a gold mine. Each number here bears the Jagjit stamp. The quality of poetry, a crucial factor which defines the beauty of a ghazal, is first-rate, using only one traditional writer (Daagh Dehlvi) and focusing on the work of those who were prolific after the 1970s.

As these ghazals were recorded in different phases of Jagjit’s career, one finds on close listening a slight difference in his vocal texture on each song. What really lends strength to this album is the pure quality of the songs.

Two of the gems are in ‘chhoti behr’ (short meter), and their words are deserved to be published in their entirety. The first ‘Ek tere qareeb aane se’, credited to an unknown poet, goes:

Ek tere qareeb aane se, door hum ho gaye zamaane se

Jaane kyon bijliyon ko ranjish hai, sirf mere hi aashiyaane se

Aag dil ki sulaghti rehne do, aur bhadkegi yeh bujhaane se

Ishq hi ek raaz hai aisa, faash hota hai jo chupaane se

The second one, a live rendition of a song rendered by Noorjehan, Farida Khanum and Reshma, has the lines:

Aashiyaane ki baat karte ho, kis zamaane ki baat karte ho?

Saari duniya ke ranjh-o-gham dekar, muskuraane ki baat karte ho

Haadsaa tha guzar gaya hoga, kiske jaane ki baat karte ho

Hum ko apni khabar nahin kuchh bhi, tum zamaane ki baat karte ho

Humne apnon se zakhm khaaye hain, tum toh gairon ki baat karte ho

Aashiyaane ki baat karte ho, dil jalaane ki baat karte ho

Though the song has been credited to poet Nasir Kazmi, some have attributed it to Javed Qureshi,

The other songs have their own charm. Jagjit’s voice sounds divine on the lower notes of Nida Fazli’s ‘Dhadkan dhadkan dhadak raha hai bas ik tero naam’. While the guitars and violins are marvellously played, the lines “Jamuna-ji ke tat par goonje tere naam ki murali, Ganga-ji mein jhalak raha hai bas ik tero naam” lend a spiritual, bhajan-like feel.

Poet Shahryar excels on ‘Zindagi jaisi tamanna thi’, where he writes: “Ab jidhar dekhiye lagta hai ke is duniya mein, kahin kuch cheez jyaada hai, kahin kuch kam hai”.

Daagh Dehlvi’s ‘Rasm-e-ulfat sikha gaya koi’ has been rendered charmingly, and it’s worth checking out Jagjit’s expression on the lines “Dil ki duniya udaas si kyon hai. Kya yahaan se chala gaya koi”. Here, Jagjit changes some of the original poetry’s complex words into simpler ones while retaining the meter. The rabab gives this song a rustic feel. On ‘Dard halka hai’, composed and arranged by Deepak Pandit, Gulzar’s lines “Aapke baad har ghadi humne, aapke saath hi guzaari hai” have been sung with pathos.

Despite its somewhat raw live recording, probably done at an indoor ‘mehfil’, Sayeed Rahi’s ‘Khuda ke vaaste apna hisaab’ is an absolute beauty, with Jagjit showing traces of the Mehdi Hassan style. The lines “Khuda ke vaaste apna hisaab rehne do, subah talak mere aage sharaab rehne do” are sung with a hint of intoxication that makes it amazing, and the use of harmonium, tabla and guitar are outstanding.

The best thing about ‘A Voice From… Beyond’ is that it’s very reminiscent of the vintage Jagjit Singh of the 1980s. It’s a must for all his admirers, and one hopes more such unreleased gems are released at regular intervals.

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

See also: ‘Remembering Jagjit Singh’, posted in the section ‘Ghazals’ on November 30, 2011

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