Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for May, 2015

Concert review/ Pt Ajoy Chakraborty at Dinanath Hall

ajay pic

IT’S always been a pleasure to listen to a live recital by Pt Ajoy Chakraborty. A leading representative of Patiala gharana gayaki, he has helped carry forward the tradition set by the great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. While he has mastered the techniques of the school through his training under the maestro’s son Munawar Ali Khan, he has also adapted nuances from other styles by learning from the renowned musicologist and teacher Pt Gnan Prakash Ghosh, besides being guided by the likes of Hirabai Badodekar, Nivruttibuva Sarnaik, Latafat Ali Khan and M Balamuralikrishna.

Chakraborty performed at the Dinanath Mangeshkar Hall in Vile Parle, Mumbai, on Tuesday in a concert held in memory of the well-known taar-shehnai exponent Pt Vinayakrai Vora. Though the proceedings started almost 50 minutes late, the singer mesmerised the audience from the moment he began. Accompanying him were Soumen Sarkar on tabla and Gaureb Chatterjee on harmonium, with his disciple Kaustubh providing vocal sangat.

Though critics have in the past complained of overuse of ornamentation, the fact is that the Patiala gharana style is very enjoyable to listen to. Special features are the use of intricate taan patterns and sargam passages, which are slowly and meticulously constructed while unfolding the raag. Singers also specialise in the Punjab ang thumri, with Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his brother Barkat Ali Khan leaving behind a treasure trove of memorable compositions.

Unlike many vocalists who prefer to just come on stage and sing, Chakraborty likes to explain his music to the audience, not only at the beginning but sometimes just before executing a phrase. So when he announced that he was beginning with a rare form of raag Kalyan, he talked of the research he had to conduct before actually becoming preparing to render it live, and also the meaning of the words. A speciality of this piece, he said, was that it used both shuddh and teevra madhyam, with all other notes being in the pure form.

Chakraborty’s Kalyan lasted almost 70 minutes. The vilambit ‘Jag mein kacchu kaam nar naariyan ki bas mein nahin’ was charactertised by a smooth build-up, some soulful phrases in the mandra saptak and later a stunning display of sargams. Being devotional in nature, the drut ‘Darshan devo Shankar Mahadev’ was rhythmically resonant and reached an energetic crescendo. A brilliantly rendered taraana, which boasted of complex permutations and combinations of syllables, ended the raag.

A 20-minute break was followed by a short khayal in raag Kaushik Dhwani, with the words ‘Kavan dhang se tum gaavat ho’, followed by the faster portion ‘Ajahun aaye baalamva’. Also known as Bhinn Shadja, this is a pentatonic night raag which omits rishabh and pancham, using other notes in the shuddh form.

As anticipated by the listeners, Chakaraborty next sang two thumris, with tabalchi Sarkar excelling in the laggi portions toward the end. The first ‘Saajan to humse rooth gaye’ was in Maanj Khamaj, and had a melodic air. The extra-popular Sindh Bhairavi tune ‘Kaa karoon sajni aaye’ received an overwhelming response, with Chakraborty totally putting his heart and soul into its presentation. He even demonstrated how a particular portion would be sung in the jazz form. As an apt conclusion, he rounded off with a shloka in memory of Vora.

Before presenting the thumris, Chakraborty said he was only providing a ‘jhalak’ as he has been scheduled for a full-fledged thumri evening at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in July. That would be an evening worth looking forward to.


Notes from the 1990s Asian Underground days

sam zaman

State of Bengal

SIX days ago, the news came as a sudden shock to those who knew the man and his music. Sam Zaman, the UK-based Bangladeshi DJ who went by the name State of Bengal, passed away after a cardiac arrest. He was best known for his tracks ‘Flight IC408’ and ‘Chittagong Chill’, the album ‘Visual Audio’, his pathbreaking collaborations with the Ananda Shankar Experience and Paban Das Baul, and remixes of works by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Massive Attack, Bjork and Algerian musician Cheb i Sabbah. While initial reports said he was 43, Wikipedia put his age as 50.

State of Bengal was one of the early stars of the UK-based Asian Underground scene, whose popularity among a cult audience was largely attributed to the efforts of producer and tabla player Talvin Singh. The popular club Anokha was founded by Talvin with promoter Sweety Kapoor, and the compilation ‘Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground’ was a success.

The movement, which peaked between late 1995 and 1999, essentially comprised musicians from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who blended rootsy traditional music from the sub-continent with modern club styles like drum n’ bass, jungle, house, ambient, triphop and 90s electronica. After Talvin got the 1999 Mercury Music Prize for his album ‘OK’, the style received a further boost. However, while most musicians continued to produce music on a personal level, the sub-genre as such slowly faded away.

Till the turn of the century, there was a lot of innovative music by Asians in London and Birmingham. Besides Talvin and State of Bengal, artistes like Bangladeshi band Joi and Indian songstress Amar were labelled Asian Underground. The former had an excellent album ‘One and One is One’, but after the death of member Haroon Shamsher, his brother Farook continued to work on his own. Amar, along with State of Bengal, was one of the early acts to play in Mumbai, with a memorable show at Juhu’s then-hotspot Razzberry Rhinoceros in the late 1990s.

There were others who used a similar amalgam but preferred to be associated with the ‘British Asian’ sound, rather than be described as ‘Asian Underground’ artistes. While Asian Dub Foundation, Aki Nawaz’s Fun-Da-Mental and Tjinder Singh’s Cornershop were among the first to use such sounds in the early 1990s, Nitin Sawhney, Badmarsh & Shri and later Karsh Kale were all part of this effort to promote Asian music in the UK. Sawhney, in particular, had – and still has – a huge following, thanks to his albums ‘Beyond Skin’ and ‘Human’, and also his contribution to films and television. Through regular appearances in India, Kale has successfully broken through among the audiences here.

Besides these groups, others used the Asian Underground influence too. Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Beat Science, featuring producer Bill Laswell, and Talvin’s Tablatronic project mixed north Indian rhythms with Asian underground and electronica influences. Foreign acts like Cheb i Sabbah and Transglobal Underground, featuring Natacha Atlas of Belgium, used a lot of south Asian sounds.

Whether they were called Asian underground or British Asian, their music was a far cry from the commercial sound of UK-based artistes like Apache Indian (who used more reggae), Bally Sagoo (Bollywood remixes), Malkit Singh and Panjabi MC (both bhangra), and Tarsame Singh of Stereo Nation (pop-friendly tunes). The basic formula the Underground lot used was a more club-oriented extension of the fusion concept, retaining the basic melodies from the Indian sub-continent and yet being modern and energetic enough to cater to western listeners.

While the bhangra brigade was followed even in India, the Asian Underground and British Asian were followed more in the UK, and very selectively in Indian metros. The chunk of the audience comprised either UK-bred youngsters of Asian origin whose parents had grown up on Hindi film music, Indian classical or ghazals, or of people who travelled to the UK or mainland Europe and soaked in the latest club sounds there. As the name suggests, it was an underground sound, and not a mainstream one. Yet, it was something that was considered cool and happening by the young crowd.

Unfortunately, the glory days didn’t last long. To begin with, the Asian Underground musicians concentrated on DJing and playing in clubs. They released very few albums in comparison to their pop and bhangra counterparts, and thus lost out on those who preferred home listening. Though they had a few shows in India, the number and frequency of concerts was inadequate.

Even otherwise, the tastes of audiences changed towards the beginning of the 2000s. Indipop was becoming passé, and bhangra was getting repetitive. Indians across the globe were opting for a pure Bollywood sound, which had begun relying on Punjabi and Sufiana-inspired hooks. Even within international dance music, there was a shift towards celebrity DJs like Paul Van Dyk, Sasha and Paul Oakenfold.

Yet, though the genre lost its sting, the musicians continued to create new stuff. Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney continued recording regularly, their last albums being released in 2013. Besides electronica and club music, Talvin Singh started focusing more on classical tabla playing, releasing albums with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and sitar exponent Niladri Kumar.

As for ‘State of Bengal’ Sam Zaman, he released his last album ‘Skip-Ij’ in 2007, but has thereafter spent time DJing, doing session work, teaching music and conducting workshops. Musicians who knew him admired his keenness to experiment with sounds and his knowledge of traditional folk forms. He shall be missed, especially by those who followed the Asian Underground movement and 1990s UK club scene closely.

BB King and the legendary blues masters


THE title ‘King of the Blues’ wasn’t just a pun on his surname. BB King, who passed away in Las Vegas on May 14, was easily one of the most influential bluesmen of all time, matched in terms of following only by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. And he was definitely the most lasting of the legends, ruling the stage from the early 1950s till almost the end. Sixty-plus years at the very top is something very few musicians have achieved.

As news of his death spread, I was asked by Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper to write a tribute. For those who missed that in the May 16 edition of the newspaper, I am attaching the link below. The article sums up King’s life and contribution to music, and also talks of his biggest songs like ‘The thrill is gone’, ‘Lucille’ and ‘3o’clock blues’.

After King, a few others have successfully attempted to carry forward the blues. Buddy Guy, the other two Kings Albert and Freddie, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and Bonnie Raitt have been some of them. Today’s audiences are fairly familiar with their work, thanks to regular release of albums and the availability of their concert footage on YouTube. Many others are clued in to the modern blues-rock artistes, and in India, the Mahindra Blues Festival, has been a platform for some big contemporary names.

Yet, the music of the older masters remains largely unexplored among today’s younger lot. Their names would be familiar, as they have been mentioned in interviews by the likes of Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Now, with the passing of the legendary King, it might be ideal to start digging back into the work of all those greats who preceded or were contemporary to him. Those days, the blues was pure and unadulterated, and needless to say, was a delight to hear.

One may, of course, start with King’s live records ‘Live at the Regal’ and ‘Live at Cook County Jail’, or his studio album ‘Lucille’ or his collaboration with Clapton on ‘Riding with the King’. Besides that, here are 10 artistes one must check out:

Robert Johnson: A huge inspiration on greats like Muddy Waters, Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, Johnson recorded only 29 tracks in a brief career. He died a violent death at the age of 26, apparently of poisoning . His songs ‘Sweet home Chicago’, ‘Love in vain’, ‘Crossroads blues’, ‘Terraplane blues’ and ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’ have become major blues anthems.

Son House: In many ways, he was the father of the Delta blues, as he was the mentor of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. His style was rooted in the cottonfields of Mississippi, and he played often with the other blues pioneer Charlie Patton.

Big Bill Broonzy: His biggest achievement is of popularising the blues outside the US, doing concerts in Europe, South American, Africa and Australia in the early 1950s. He was also known for guiding many younger players, with Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs and Memphis Slim acknowledging his role.

Muddy Waters: Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters was called the father of the electric blues. Almost single handedly, he made the Chicago blues scene turn into the world’s most vibrant music centre in the 1950s and 1960s. His rendition of ‘I’m a hoochie coochie man’, ‘Got my mojo working’, ‘I got my brand on you’ and ‘I’m a man’ are hugely successful.

T-Bone Walker:
A huge influence on BB King and Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker was the man who first took the music electric in a big way. His guitar technique was unique, and he was known for his perfect timing.

Bessie Smith: The empress of the blues, Bessie’s music retains its power and emotion to this day, despite facing limitations in recording techniques during her era. Although primarily known as a blues singer, she was equally at home with jazz, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley material.

John Lee Hooker: Best known for songs like ‘Boom boom’, ‘Dimples’ and ‘Onions’, Hooker was known for his unique vocal timbre and brilliant guitar style. Despite being rooted in tradition, he also had a mass commercial appeal, specially in the 1990s.

Leadbelly: Huddle Ledbetter or Leadbelly was a notorious womaniser and convicted killer, who claimed to have twice sung his way out of prison. Musically, he was best known for keeping the country blues tradition alive, and played various instruments like 12-string guitar, bass, accordion, harmonica and piano.

Elmore James: It’s said that the most copied guitar sound in the blues is that of Elmore James’ bottleneck riff in ‘Dust my broom’. It was a sound he developed at age 12 running a broken bottleneck down a wire stung to his shack in Mississippi. James has been a huge influence on many slide guitar players.

Howlin’ Wolf: Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf was best known for his dark and brooding voice, and his innovative harmonica and guitar work. He was a major influence of British rock stars like Steve Winwood and the Rolling Stones.

Summing up: Besides King, these were 10 early legends to begin with. There are obviously many more and the list of greats from the pre-1950s era includes names like WC Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim, Charlie Patton and Memphis Minnie, to name a few.

In many ways and like Muddy Waters, King was the bridge between their music and the modern blues sound. His work will stay on forever.

This blogger’s tribute to BB King in Mumbai’s Mid Day newspaper appears on

Concert review/ The Journey Continues…


Fazal Qureshi

Concert: The Journey Continues…

Musicians: Fazal Qureshi, Rahul Sharma, Andres Hagberg, Ahmad Al-Khatib, Sabir Khan, Sanjay Divecha, Sridhar Parthasarathy, Varun Sunil

Date and venue: May 13, St Andrew’s Auditorium

AROUND 7.35 pm on Wednesday evening, the melodic notes of Rahul Sharma’s santoor mingled with the sounds of Ahmad Al-Khatib’s elegant Middle Eastern string instrument oud. The alaap, jod and jhala portions of raag Basantmukhari met the equivalent scale of the Arabic musical system. Over the next three hours, one heard different combinations in which eight musicians fused Indian classical, Arabian music and European folk-jazz.

The occasion was the concert ‘The Journey Continues’, held at Bandra’s St Andrew’s Auditorium to mark the 96th birth anniversary of tabla legend Ustad Allarakha, which actually took place a fortnight ago on April 29. After shows in New Delhi and Pune, the last leg in Mumbai also featured tabla exponent Fazal Qureshi, Swedish flautist-saxophonist Andres Hagberg, sarangi player Sabir Khan, guitarist Sanjay Divecha, mridangam player Sridhar Parthasarathy and percussionist Varun Sunil.

The mix of musical styles went well with the concert’s theme of ‘Connecting 3 Worlds’. The evening began with the recitation of spoken percussion syllables by students of the Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music. The host Darshan Jariwalla then introduced the evening’s concert, after which Rahul Sharma and Ahmad Al-Khatib got together.

The latter temporarily left the stage after raag Basantmukhari, and Rahul continued with raag Charukeshi, played in two compositions set to rupak and teen taal. Here, Fazal played wonderful portions, and he remained in great form for the rest of the show, showing mastery in both the traditional and experimental styles.

Rahul’s performance was followed by the appearance of Andres, who began by introducing two rare flutes – a contemporary silver flute coated with platinum, and an old-style plastic flute without fingerholes on the main surface. His command on the flute, and on the soprano saxophone in the latter half, was simply amazing.

Post-intermission, Fazal, Ahmad and Andres were joined by Sabir Khan and Varun Sunil, with Sanjay Divecha and Sridhar Parthasarathy coming towards the end. A Sufiana piece fronted by Sabir on vocals was followed by Ahmad’s composition ‘The dance of Salma’, an effervescent tune he had written for his young daughter. Sabir again showed his vocal prowess on ‘Panihaari’, based on a Rajasthani folk tune. The tune had some smooth sarangi and soprano saxophone passages.

One of the evening’s highlights was Ahmad’s composition ‘Two rivers’, which had a marvelous lilt. Andres’s Swedish folk lullaby took the audience into another world, and ‘Creation’ meandered effortlessly, with Varun Sunil excelling on the percussion instrument cajon, and having an interactive session with the crowd. The final piece was an untitled jazz fusion piece composed by Rahul. Sadly, because of time limitations, the piece – and the show – ended rather abruptly.

The evening, presented by LIC and co-sponsored by Dena Bank, had many highs in terms of musical quality and innovative compositions. However, one wished Sanjay Divecha and Sridhar had been given a few more pieces, with the former appearing on only two. In that sense, the time could have been managed better, with maybe a shorter speech by the compere.

That flaw apart, the show was well-received, with Fazal putting it succinctly by announcing towards the end: “We’re running out of time, but thankfully not running out of audience.” The fact that most people stayed till the end gave an indication of how much they were enjoying.

A time for tributes


THE air was nostalgic. On Saturday night, members of Santa Cruz’s Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana arrived with friends for a special double tribute, featuring songs of the Beatles and Cliff Richard. And since both the acts have been hugely popular in India, a large section of the crowd sang along and danced.

First to come on were The Awesome Foursome, which did the Beatles tribute. Comprising bassist/ vocalist Desmond Taylor, lead guitarist/ backing vocalist Barry Murray, rhythm guitarist/ vocalist Dicky Pereira and drummer Benny Soans, their selection included ‘Love me do’, ‘PS I love you’, ‘A hard day’s night’, ‘Day tripper’, ‘Drive my car’, ‘And I saw her standing there’, ‘I’ll follow the sun’ and ‘Rock and roll music’.

They took a while to settle in, as their attempt to replace the harmonica parts of ‘Love me do’ with a guitar seemed a bit odd. But slowly, the audience slowly got up and made it to the dance floor, specially on ‘And I saw her standing there’ and ‘Rock and roll music’. In structure, the voices were a shade different from the originals, but the members sang with an enthusiasm that pepped up the crowd. Yet, they were at best an average act, relying more on the popularity of the tunes than on musical prowess.

After guest singer Cyril filled in the gaps with his original songs, sadly taking more time than one wanted, the group The Cliff Richard Experience took over. With two members common from the Beatles tribute band, the line-up consisted of vocalist/ rhythm guitarist Desmond Taylor, lead guitarist/ backing vocalist Barry Murray, bassist/ vocalist Ryan Taylor and drummer Sylvester Chaves.

The musicians began with a few numbers by Cliff’s backing band The Shadows, with Barry Murray excelling on the parts originally played by guitarist Hank Marvin. On the Cliff songs, Desmond Taylor displayed a timbre very close to the India-born British star, and dazzled on the hits ‘Bachelor boy’, ‘Congratulations’, ‘Summer holiday’, ‘The young ones’, ‘Devil woman’, ‘Constantly’, ‘Travelling light’, ‘Living doll’ and ‘Goodbye Sam, hello Samantha’.

The evening began a little after 8 pm and went on till past 10.30. Naturally, the attendees, many of who were 50-plus, left with a song on their lips and a spring on their feet. The Beatles tribute was so-so, but the Cliff one was far better. Yet, as many people knew the songs, they had fun.

THE Beatles and Cliff nights weren’t the only tribute performances to take place in the recent past. In fact, more and more local bands have been specialising in such single-artiste homages. This is besides the foreign bands that keep coming off and on.

On April 30, there were two other gigs in Mumbai, and two more in Bangalore. All of them were by Indian bands. At the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Nariman Point, the music of ace Weather Report and solo bassist Jaco Pastorius was remembered by well-known Mumbai electric bassist Karl Peters, with accompaniment from guitarist Sanjay Divecha, keyboardist Karan Joseph and drummer Adrian D’Souza.

Nearby, at Irish House in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai band One Night Stand did a special set of Dire Straits numbers, at an event held to launch vocalist-guitarist Mark Knopfler’s latest Universal Music solo album ‘Tracker’. While guitarist and vocalist Sarosh Izedyar played the role of Knopfler, the band also included rhythm guitarist NS Padmanabhan, bassist Arvind Iyer, drummer Ramesh Krishnamurthy and keyboardist Sushil Gawandi. The set list included popular tracks like ‘Sultans of swing’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Money for nothing’, ‘Down to the waterline’ and ‘Walk of life’.

On the same night, in Bangalore, north eastern band Girish and the Chronicles did a Led Zeppelin special at Vapour Pub, whereas MAD Orange Fireworks did a Pearl Jam set at Hard Rock Café.

MORE often than not, tribute nights end up being great fun, simply because most of the audience knows the songs by heart. Normally, a large section of attendees consists of those who are thoroughly familiar with the works of the original artiste.

Over the past few years, many Indian musicians have specialised in the works of specific artistes. Gary Lawyer has regularly done Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley nights, and each time, the response has been overwhelming. A few months before his death, Nandu Bhende did a memorable Beatles night. There have been Pink Floyd tributes by Mumbai’s Para Vayu and Delhi’s Think Floyd, whereas Mumbai’s Zedde has done Guns N’ Roses specials. One Night Stand has earlier done Iron Maiden and Deep Purple events.

Besides the Indian bands, one has seen many foreign acts do tributes of the Beatles, Eagles, Eric Clapton, Bee Gees and Abba. However, unlike most local performers, these bands actually specialise in a select artiste, and travel across the world not only singing their songs but also impersonating their stage mannerisms and looks.

A few factors determine the success of a tribute band. The first obviously is that the musicians should be able to retain the persona of the original artiste. If the singer’s timbre is very similar to the hit act, it’s always an advantage. This doesn’t, however, mean that one must blindly copy the earlier song. Sometimes, a completely different version of the same number helps. Here, half-hearted attempts simply won’t do.

The second thing is the selection of songs and their order of playing. Usually, tribute bands choose the most popular tunes, with the intention of attracting the maximum number of people in the crowd. But at times, it’s always good to throw in a surprise by choosing a rarer track.

Finally, of course, comes audience participation. Many in the crowd are invariably familiar with the originals, but because of that, some of them also tend to get critical, instead of simply having fun. At such tribute shows, if the primary purpose is simply to let loose without thinking too much about the intricacies, one can always enjoy oneself. The heartening thing is that most of the time, that’s what people come for and end up doing.

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