Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for May, 2014

The great guitar codas


Alternative band Wilco

IF there’s one song I’ve been tripping on over the past few days, it’s ‘Impossible Germany’ by American alternative rock band Wilco. What I love most about this number, which is part of the 2007 album ‘Sky Blue Sky’, is the lengthy three minute, 20-second twin guitar burst that concludes it. Featuring axeman Nels Cline, this is clearly one of the best guitar codas I’ve heard in a long time.

Over the years, one has heard many great guitar intros, guitar solos and even entire songs played on the guitar. But there’s something about a guitar ‘coda’ or ‘outro’ – the portion concluding the song – that makes it special. Whether they simply fade out or end abruptly, they leave you on a high. Who would imagine the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ without their glorious climaxes?

Sadly, not many bands use an extended coda in today’s times. At least most of the memorable codas were played in the 1960s and 1970s, and a few groups like Guns N’ Roses used them later. But there have been some classics, and ‘Impossible Germany’ tempts me to list my all-time favourite 10.

I am excluding ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’ as, despite being path-breaking songs which I have grown up on, both suffer from being overheard. And besides these 10, there will also be others, which readers can write in about. Here goes:

1) Dear Mr Fantasy – Traffic:
This was the song that really got me into the coda craze. Though guitarist Dave Mason was part of the group in this 1967 number, the solo here was played by Steve Winwood, who also sang lead vocals. Traffic also had a great coda on ‘Heaven Is In Your Mind’.

2) Time Waits for No One – The Rolling Stones: From the 1974 album ‘It’s Only Rock N’ Roll’, this boasts of one of the cleanest coda riffs. While Keith Richards plays guitar for most of the song, the extended solo is actually by Mick Taylor. And talking of Stones codas, we also have the brilliant ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ from the 1971 album ‘Sticky Fingers’.

3) Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd: Easily one of the best guitar codas ever produced, with Allen Collins playing lead guitar and Gary Rossington on slide and rhythm guitar. It was released on the band’s 1973 debut, and has since been one of the most covered live songs in rock.

4) Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits: It took me a while to appreciate the coda of this song, simply because the entire piece is so uniformly good, and Mark Knopfler’s voice and guitar enchants you from the beginning. But slowly, the outro began sinking in – it’s simple, straight and yet so sublime.

5) White Room – Cream: The psychedelic rock gem released in 1968 by supergroup Cream, featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Here, Clapton played guitar with a wah-wah pedal to get a talking effect.

6) Moonage Daydream – David Bowie: First written in 1971, it was used a year later on the album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. The memorable guitar coda is played by Mick Ronson.

7) Pigs (3 Different Ones) – Pink Floyd: We’ve already mentioned ‘Comfortably Numb’, but this masterpiece from the 1977 album ‘Animals’ has an ending that takes you into another zone. While guitarist David Gilmour dazzles, Roger Waters chips in with rhythm guitar.

8) Layla – Derek & The Dominoes: One of guitar god’s Eric Clapton’s best-known compositions, written for his ex-wife Pattie Boyd. However, both the intro and guitar coda for this gem is played by the great Duane Allman, formerly of the Allman Brothers Band. The wailing guitar riff in fact merges with the famous piano climax which acts as the second part of the song.

9) Black Dog – Led Zeppelin: The opening track of the album ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, this has one of the most instantly recognisable intros in rock. However, the coda just completes the song beautifully, with guitarist Jimmy Page producing one of his most famous stretches.

10) November Rain – Guns N’ Roses: The power ballad for ‘Use Your Illusion 1’, this became one of the most popular GNR songs. Slash, equally known for his memorable riff on ‘Sweet Child O Mine’, come up with an incredible guitar coda on this one.

My coda: Well, these are 10 of my personal favourites, but there are surely many more, like Jimi Hendrix’s short coda on his version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ or Randy Rhoads’ great work on the Black Sabbath song ‘Mr Crowley’. Which are the other great guitar codas you’ve heard. Do drop in a line to add to the list.


A case for the 1990s playback singers


Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik

ON May 25, one was pleasantly surprised to see Alka Yagnik and Kumar Sanu on the Colors TV show ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’. Neither of them has been in the news as a playback singer, but their appearance revived memories of songs one relished about two decades ago.

Along with Udit Narayan, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Abhijeet, Alka and Sanu dominated the Hindi film music scene of the 1990s. All of them came up with a string of hits, which are hummed even today. Overall, films from that decade had some memorable music, marvellous examples being ‘Aashiqui’, ‘Saajan’, ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge’, ‘Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin’, ‘Dil’, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’, ‘1942: A Love Story’, ‘Yes Boss’, ‘Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa’, ‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’, ‘Baazigar’, ‘Dil Se’, ‘Border’, ‘Taal’, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ and ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, to name only a few.

Though these singers continued singing in the early half of the 2000s, their market position and prolificacy suddenly came down about a decade ago. Today, they hardly have any songs in films, and barring Udit’s appearance along with other male singers in the ‘Student of the Year’ song ‘Radha’ two years ago, one cannot think of any major hit by them. Which is sad because all five of them were once very consistent, and were ideal representatives of a particular generation of playback singers.

What went wrong? To begin with, the beginning of the 2000s saw the entry of many new music directors who experimented with newer sounds. They were influenced more by rock, electronic music and world music, and the standard Hindi film love song got lesser importance. Item songs and ‘masti’ songs became trendy, and they required a different set of voices.

If one looks at the music directors, only A R Rahman has been around from the 1990s till today, though even here, critics may argue that he produced his best music during the first five or six years after ‘Bombay’. The other popular music directors from that period – Nadeem-Shravan, Jatin-Lalit, Anu Malik, Anand-Milind, Raam Laxman – have either cut down on their appearances, become full-time TV show judges or simply vanished from the scene.

All these music directors were very careful in the way they associated the singer’s voice with the actor on screen. Thus, in each film, Alka, Sanu or Udit would get the entire list of songs, and there was a time when Abhijeet was specially chosen to represent Shah Rukh Khan. The Udit-Alka and Sanu-Alka partnerships were very regular, and all these singers knew how to adapt to one another.

The 1990s in fact saw the revival of good music in Hindi cinema. After experiencing a terrible musical time in the 1980s – barring a few ghazal and semi-classical based scores in parallel cinema – the early 1990s saw the return of melody in a big way. In fact, Anand-Milind’s ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s ‘Tezaab’ and Raam Laxman’s ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ kicked off the trend in the late 1980s, but it was Nadeem-Shravan’s work in the 1990 movie ‘Aashiqui’ which marked the real change in sound.

For most of the 1990s, the emphasis was thus on simple melodies, and here, the voices of Alka, Udit, Sanu, Kavita, Abhijeet and in some cases Sadhna Sargam seemed perfect. While Hariharan came up with a few hits, Shaan, KK and Sonu Nigam were concentrating more on Indipop, eventually shifting their focus to films. Many films from that decade boasted of musical consistency, and the songs had the retention factor.

With the turn of the century, the newer crop of music directors not only began experimenting with new sounds, but also started trying out new voices. One of the reasons was to get in some freshness, but the other also had to do with the fact that the younger brigade charged much less than the established singers of the 1990s.

In some cases – like Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan and very recently Arijit Singh – the composers have been successful. But by and large, they did not focus on specific singers for specific actors. Many singers would sing for the same actor in the same film – one example being ‘Barfi’, where Pritam had six singers for Ranbir Kapoor. Last year’s biggest musical hit ‘Aashiqui 2’ had some wonderful tunes, but besides multiple singers, it had three music directors.

Another unfortunate development is that the era of the singing duo is practically over. Today, one can’t think on the lines of Lata-Rafi, Asha-Kishore or Udit-Alka.

On the one hand, with the passage of time, there were bound to be changes in Hindi film music. But on the other, it’s sad that some singers who were so brilliant throughout the 1990s and up to the early 2000s are barely heard today. Alka, Udit, Sanu, Abhijeet, Kavita and Sadhna are still capable of rendering the kind of hits they did 20 years ago, as long as they are given the right opportunities.

An occasional appearance on shows like ‘Comedy Nights’ may bring about some pleasant nostalgia, but it’s time music directors and filmmakers think of constructively using their voices once again.

A weekend of nostalgia


Nandu Bhende

FOR music lovers, nothing’s more satisfying than a round of pure nostalgia. And over the weekend, one got that feeling at not one or two but three western music events. From jazz to classic rock to Hollywood numbers, it was a trip down melody lane.

Beginning the proceedings on Saturday evening was an interactive jazz workshop conducted by flautist Rajeev Raja at the National Centre for the Performing Arts’ Experimental Theatre. The objective was simple: to take the audience through the history of the musical genre in such a way that they understood the meaning of different styles like Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, fusion, Latino and modern jazz.

The best thing was that after information of each decade and style was shared through a PowerPoint presentation, a live band comprising faculty of the True School of Music played some representational numbers. With Rajeev joining them on some pieces, the band consisted of vocalist Jocelyn Medina, saxophonist Pawan Benjamin, guitarist Hideaki Tokunaga, bassist Marko Zenini, keyboardist Aki Spadaro and drummer Michael Mitchell.

The session was held in association with Jazz Addicts. The repertoire included popular fare like the Louis Armstrong-popularised ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, the Billy Strayhorn-composed and Duke Ellington-rendered ‘Take The A Train’, Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, Sonny Rollins’ ‘St Thomas’, Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Desafinado’, John Coltrane’s version of ‘My Favourite Things’, a jazz rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’.

For those new to jazz, that list provided a great starting point. And for the aficionados, it was a great nostalgia session. Many people, including those who consciously listen to jazz, are unaware or have limited knowledge of the technicalities involved with each style. For them, such sessions come as an eye-opener, and help demystify the art form.

A few kilometres away, later on Saturday night, Bombay Gymkhana hosted a tribute to Mumbai’s iconic rock vocalist Nandu Bhende, who passed away on April 11 after a sudden heart attack. It was the second show dedicated to him during the week, as on Thursday, an event was held at Blue Frog, Lower Parel.

The line-up for both shows had many common musicians, but since the basic crowd was different, it made little difference. Leslie Lewis did two songs at Frog – ‘Krishna’ and a special number for Nandu – but didn’t play at the Gym. The band Hoodwink Circle did a short set, and Nandu’s son Akshay did the Moody Blues favourite ‘Nights in White Satin’.

A highlight at Frog was the performance by Debashish Banerjee, aka Babu, who had played with Nandu and his band Velvette Fogg back in the 1970s. Now, this blogger has seen Babu innumerable times at private gatherings and residence sessions, and he is probably the best voice-acoustic guitar package in town. It was thus a delight to see him front an electric band, after some 40 years, and play classics like the Doors’ ‘Soul Kitchen’, Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’ and Cream’s ‘Crossroads’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Sunshine of your Love’ Supremely talented guitarist Keith Viegas, a regular with Nandu, gave him excellent company.

Bashir Sheikh, formerly of the 1970s band Savages and who later played with Nandu in the Savage Encounter, dazzled at both shows on the Rolling Stones’ anthem ‘Satisfaction’ and Steppenwolf’s famous biker song ‘Born To Be Wild’. The Awesome Foursome stuck to Beatles covers, and were excellent on their harmonies and presentation. Their set list included ‘In My Life’, a song Nandu loved.

Also playing at both outings were 2Blue, vocalist of the band Zedde, singer Mihir Joshi, who also compered the shows, and Nandu’s daughter Amrita, who sang the Beatles hit ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. Those who performed at the Bombay Gym included singer Gary Lawyer (who did ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and ‘Mustang Sally’), vocal powerhouse Joe Alvares, keyboardist Louis Banks, drummer Gino Banks and bassist Sheldon D’Silva. Mehmood Curmally, who manages the Rhythm House music store, Prasad Salian, Anushka Jagtiani and Zameer Vahanvaty sang too.

Both shows were organised by the Bhende family, with Nandu’s wife Usha spearheading the preparations. A great job it was, and a perfect tribute to Nandu, who had attained fame in the 1970s playing Judas in Alyque Padamsee’s version of the stage rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. With a good dose of the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Eagles, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin, the music was a great throwback on the 1960s and 1970s. One must of course mention that the sound at Frog was much better.

After jazz and classic rock, it was the turn for some of Hollywood’s biggest hit songs the next morning. Organised by Samantha Edwards’ school Muzicworks at Bandra’s St Andrew’s auditorium, the show’s theme was ‘A Day At The Movies’. Students of the school, mostly teenagers, sang incredibly well, and many of them didn’t seem they were appearing in front of a large audience for the first time.

Some of the classics included ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘My Favourite Things’ from ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ from ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ from ‘Rocky III’, ‘Stayin’ Alive’ from ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the ‘Born Free’ title track, ‘Spice Up Your Life’ from ‘Spice World’, ‘Lady Marmalade’ from ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘I see you’ from ‘Avatar’.

Dale Edwards, Samantha’s husband, compered the show, and the back-up band included bassist Karl Peters, guitarist Sanjay Divecha, drummer Gino Banks and keyboardist Garth D’Mello. As for Samantha, she’s doing a remarkable job training youngsters in vocal music. There was loads of future talent at this show.

So there it was. Quite a musical weekend for those who love old or even relatively new English songs. One normally finds a lot of concerts featuring old Hindi film music over the weekends, but last Saturday and Sunday were special.

Percussion from India ― 4/ The Carnatic route


Ghatam maestro TH ‘Vikku Vinayakram

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla. The third part, posted in January 2014, talked of double-headed drums like the mridangam, pakhawaj and dhol.

For health reasons, I did not carry this series from February to April. This month, I am continuing it by talking of other instruments prominent in Carnatic music ― instruments that were not featured in the earlier parts of the series.

Like in the previous case, the aim of this percussion series 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. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. The list of musicians may, however, not be exhaustive.

THE unique thing about south Indian classical or Carnatic music is the emphasis it lays on percussion instruments. In north Indian or Hindustani music, a singer or instrumentalist is accompanied either by a tabla or pakhawaj player – only in very rare instances, both appear on stage together.

However, in Carnatic music, musicians are accompanied by a mridangam and ghatam, besides a kanjira, morsing or at times thavil. An interaction between the percussionists is a highlight during the concluding part of a recital, be it vocal or instrumental.

The mridangam, the main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, was discussed in the blog on double-headed drums, posted on January 30 this year. In that write-up, we also talked of the thavil, which is generally used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram.

This time, let’s talk of the other three instruments:

Ghatam: Quite simply, it is a clay pot with a narrow mouth. While it has been very prominent in Carnatic music, one has seen variants in Punjabi, Rajasthani and Gujarati folk music, under the name of gharha and matka. Similar instruments played abroad, with different postures, include the udu in Africa and botija in the Caribbean.

Those following Carnatic music for years would have regularly seen it at concerts. However, for audiences in the north and even abroad, the instrument became famous thanks to TH ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram, who played with the Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti in the 1970s, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist L Shankar and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

In Carnatic music, the percussionist sits on the floor and places the instrument on his lap, with one side leaning on his belly and the neck facing him. He plays it with his fingers, nails, palms or wrists, and sometimes even hurls the pot in the air, before catching it again. Since different parts of the ghatam have different tones, a variety of sounds can be produced.

While Vinayakram is the best known practitioner of the ghatam, other well known players include his brother TH Subhash Chandran, Ghatam Udupa, TV Vasan and Vikku’s son V Umashankar.

Kanjira: If Vikku Vinayakram popularised the ghatam among non-Carnatic audiences, his son V Selvaganesh popularised the kanjira in the north and abroad, thanks to his association with Remember Shakti and other fusion groups. However, before him, it was G Harishankar who established himself as one of the greatest rhythm players in south India.

The kanjira is a frame drum resembling a tambourine. It is held with one hand and played with the other, making it one of the most difficult percussion instruments to play. Different parts of the head create different sounds, and it requires immense practice to master the kanjira. Moreover, its tuning can be affected by temperature and moisture, and hence many percussionists carry three or four kanjiras at every concert.

There have been numerous great kanjira players. Besides Harishankar and Selvaganesh, well-known players include HP Ramachar, Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Bangalore Amrit and N Ganesh Kumar, to take only some names.

Morsing: It is a percussion instrument played in the mouth, and is hence also called a jaw harp. Besides Carnatic music, it is used extensively in Rajasthani folk music under the name of morchang, and even in Assamese music. It comes under the family of lamellophones, which are prominently found in Africa, the Caribbean and Siberia.

The morsing is placed between the teeth, held firmly in the hand and struck using the other hand to produce sound. Movement of the player’s tongue, variations of the throat and blowing and sucking of air through the instrument produces different sounds or overtones.

Like other Carnatic instruments, there are many people known for the morsing. Srirangam Kannan is one of the most popular artistes.

The vocal way: Besides instruments, rhythm syllables are recited vocally in a typical manner known as ‘konnakol’. Whatever instruments they play, Carnatic percussionists are well-versed in this form. In some ways, konnakol is similar to the ‘bol’ of Hindustani music, but plays a more prominent and frequent role in actual performance.

Besides pure Carnatic music, konnakol is being increasingly used in fusion and jazz. Shakti was the first to incorporate it in the 1970s. Drummer Ranjit Barot and percussionist Pete Lockett have also used it in their jazz and world music concerts, the former making it part of the repertoire of John McLaughlin’s group the 4th Dimension.

While these are some of the percussion instruments used in Carnatic music, it is remarkable how closely aficionados follow the style at concerts, often gesturing their hands to the beat or rhythmic cycle. In Tamil Nadu, this habit is often inculcated at a young age, and it enhances the quality of appreciation. The interaction between the musician and the audience is something that makes the experience even more enjoyable.

Remembering the ghazal wave


Rajendra and Nina Mehta

ON April 28, ghazal aficionados were in for some sad news, with singer Nina Mehta passing away. Those who followed the ghazal wave in the late 1970s and early 1980s would have seen her and her husband Rajendra Mehta regularly on Doordarshan, or at one of the numerous concerts that took place then.

Rajendra and Nina Mehta were best known for the nazms ‘Taj Mahal mein aa jaana’, written by Prem Warbartoni, and ‘Ek pyaara sa gaon’, by Sudarshan Faakir. While old-timers still recall them with nostalgia, they had other wonderful numbers like ‘Musafir ke raaste badalte gaye’, ‘Alvida alvida’, ‘Idhar dekho ek baar pyaar kar lein’, ‘Dhal gaya chaand gayee raat’ and ‘Bewafa bawafa nahin hota’.

The Mehtas, who have been performing together since the late 1960s, were best known for their coordination, stage chemistry and choice of simple songs. Rajendra-bhai has been deeply passionate about Urdu poetry, and at shows, would often recite different shers on the same subject before beginning a song. Even musically, the orchestration was simple, with some amazing use of harmonium.

The early 1980s were an entirely different era, actually, for ghazals. Jagjit and Chitra Singh had already become popular in the latter part of the previous decade, and Pankaj Udhas, Talat Aziz, Chandan Dass, Penaz Masani and Hariharan made their mark in this genre. Anup Jalota created an impact with ‘Chaand angdaiyan le raha hai’ as much as he did with devotional numbers. Senior artistes like Vitthal Rao and Madhurani impressed cult followers.

The more serious listeners who were familiar with complex Urdu words tuned in to Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum. But the majority wanted simplicity, which singers like Jagjit-Chitra, Rajendra-Nina, Udhas and Aziz provided. By then, audiences had become by and large familiar with the technicalities of the form, and had developed a keen interest in good poetry.

In the 1980s, ghazal singers also started singing in films, thus expanding their popularity. Concerts would be packed, and companies like HMV (now Saregama) and Music India (today Universal) allocated sizeable budgets to talent discovery and promotion. Names like Bhupinder-Mitali, Roopkumar-Sonali Rathod and Ahmed Hussain-Mohammed Hussain became popular.

A joke heard often in industry circles is about how a senior manager from Music India, who wanted to crush the competition (HMV), once made enquiries about which ghazal singers were most popular among audiences. When someone mentioned Begum Akhtar, he demanded that she invited to the office for a meeting, without realising the great singer had passed away some seven or eight years ago.

Sadly, however, the ghazal wave died slowly. When ghazals were huge, the overall condition of Hindi film music was pretty disastrous. But with late 1980s and early 1990s movies like ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’, ‘Aashiqui’ and ‘Saajan’ bringing back melody into cinema, the attention shifted away from ghazals.

Even among singers, repetition began creeping in, and the quality of poetry declined too. An increasing dependence on alcohol-related songs added to the woes of the genre, with some singers trying to catch the attention of bar visitors. Moreover, too many people tried to cash in on the genre. It was said that anyone with a shawl and harmonium wanted to become a ghazal singer.

Today, there are a few fairly talented singers like Ashok Khosla, Ghansham Vaswani, Radhika Chopra, Siraj Khan, Jaswinder Singh, Tauseef Akhtar, Mohammed Vakil, Anurag Sharma, Sudeep Banerjee, Somesh Mathur, Runa Rizvi, Khushboo Khanum and the young Pooja Gaitonde. But the audiences are smaller, and the avenues fewer. Only a miracle can bring back a wave that one saw 30-odd years ago.

For Nina Mehta, a prayer meeting was organised in Worli yesterday by Rajendra-bhai and other family members. Besides family and friends, those attending included singers Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota, Rajkumar Rizvi and Penaz Masani, santoor player Satish Vyas and radio personality Ameen Sayani.

Sadly, her demise has found no media coverage at all. This writer came to know only because a senior singer had posted about it on his Facebook page, after which an obituary classified was carried in the Times. The indifference to such news has been mentioned in the blog ‘Again, the media vanishes’, published on February 22 this year. This is another unfortunate example.

Fans, of course, will miss Nina-ji for her marvellous songs, her regular smile and for the brilliant coordination she and Rajendra-bhai showed on stage.

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