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Concert review/ The Journey Continues…


Fazal

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.

Fusion or confusion?


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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)

Back at the Barsi


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ON February 3 every year, a section of Mumbai’s music lovers religiously heads to the Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion East to attend the day-long Allarakha Barsi concert. Many officegoers even apply for leave in advance, though that wasn’t necessary this year as the event fell on a Sunday.

‘A Homage to Abbaji’, as it’s formally named, is held on this day to mark the great tabla maestro Ustad Allarakha’s death anniversary. The first Barsi in 2001 was in fact held at the Tata Theatre in Nariman Point, and later in the evening, at the Kala Ghoda festival. But for many years now, Shanmukhananda has been the fixed venue, with Allarakha’s son Ustad Zakir Hussain spearheading the planning and organising.

For those who haven’t attended it, the format is the same each time. The day begins at 6.30 am with Taal Pranam, first featuring a tabla ensemble consisting of students of the Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music and then moving on to purely Indian classical recitals, both in Hindustani and Carnatic music.

The afternoon session, Taal Tapasya, features solo or duet recitals by percussionists. This again showcases the pure form of percussion playing, and is primarily attended by musicians and hardcore drumming fans.

The evening session, Celebrate Abbaji, has special international guests joining Zakir and other Indian musicians on fusion music, and a multi-artiste jam session. The global musicians to have performed here include guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz saxophonist-flautist Charles Lloyd, saxophonist George Brooks, banjo great Bela Fleck, classical bassist Edgar Meyer, bassist-producer Bill Laswell, drummers Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio, Pete Lockett and Eric Harland, conga genius Giovanni Hidalgo, African talking drum expert Sikiru Adepoju and Japanese taiko drummer Leonard Eto.

This year, the early morning tabla ensemble tribute was conducted by Zakir’s brother Fazal Qureshi. Mid-way, Zakir, Yogesh Samsi and Aditya Kalyanpur joined in. What needs to be noted ― and this is something that one has observed each year ― is that while Zakir did introduce them as students of the institute, it would have been a far better gesture if each student , as well as the harmonium player providing the lehera accompaniment, was introduced by name. That would have added to their spirit. On the contrary, what one sees at such shows is that only the famous names are repeated ad nauseam.

This performance was followed by a surbahar recital by sitar exponent Pandit Kartick Kumar, who paid tribute to his guru, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Mandolin wizard U Shrinivas then came on stage for a Carnatic recital, accompanied by Zakir on tabla. A Thyagaraja kriti, a ragam tanam pallavi and a bhajan were played with immense control.

The afternoon session featured Abbos Kosimov of Uzbekistan on the doira frame drum, a performance by Fazal Qureshi on tabla and mridangam exponents Palghat Rajamani Iyer and Kamalakar Rao, who paid homage to the great Carnatic mridangist Palghat Mani Iyer.

The evening session featured a trio comprising Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir. Fleck and Meyer have played at the Barsi before, and this time, the trio played tunes from their 2009 album ‘The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto’, including ‘Cadence’ and ‘Bahar’ (mis-spelt on the CD as ‘Babar’). Meyer also did a wonderful adaptation of Bach’s ‘Second Suite for Unaccompanied Cello’.

Solos by Fleck and Zakir were played immaculately, and U Shrinivas, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and sarangi player Sabir Khan made guest appearances on some numbers. One closely heard the interactions between Fleck and Shrinivas, and while both of them were technically brilliant, the Carnatic gamakas played by the mandolin maestro provided a distinct tone.

In the concluding jam session headed by Zakir, Trilok Gurtu mainly played the cajon, in which one sits on the percussion instrument while playing it, and Taufiq Qureshi played Indian rhythms on the African djembe. Drummer Ranjit Barot and Kosimov completed the percussion section.

Interestingly, the jam session was orderly and well-structured, unlike many times in the past, when it has become more of a tamasha filled with pyrotechnics just aimed at pleasing the gallery. With jam session regulars like singers Shankar Mahadevan and Roopkumar Rathod, sitar player Niladri Kumar, drummer Sivamani and kanjira champion Selvaganesh absent this time, one got to hear something different.

The jam session as such had the right build-up, some excellent percussion solos and no unwanted gimmickry. In fact, the entire day showcased a good combination of improvisation and restraint.

Finally, a word about the entry conditions. As the concert is free for the public, many people are relieved, moreso in these days when concert prices have shot up tremendously. However, for many, it becomes difficult or even impossible to get hold of passes.

The Shanmukhananda Hall has a huge capacity of over 2,750 seats. It has three levels ― main auditorium, first balcony and second balcony. For the main auditorium, passes with seat numbers are normally given to invitees, which consist of celebrities, musicians, the media, sponsors and other guests of the organisers.

The others get seating in the two balconies, and for this, advertisements are placed in the local dailies. This year, they could collect two passes per person from either Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, the Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar or the venue from February 1 onwards.

However, around 11 am on February 1, all three venues had run out of passes. Whether they went to the first lot of people who visited the venues or were deliberately kept back, nobody knows. But a lot of interested people and true music fans had to miss the concert because passes were unavailable. And strangely, the ads appeared on February 2 too, disappointing even more people.

Such a thing happens every year, and it’s time the organisers pay serious attention to this. For such a huge hall, it’s sad that quite a few people are forced to miss out.

A memorable night with the Mekaal Hasan Band


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(Left to right): Vocalist Javed Bashir, guitarist Mekaal Hasan and flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu

GIG REVIEW

Artistes: Mekaal Hasan Band

Venue and date: Blue Frog, Mumbai; January 8, 2013

Genre: Sufi-jazz-rock fusion

Rating: *****

ON the night of Tuesday, January 8, Mumbai’s Blue Frog was packed to capacity when the Mekaal Hasan Band arrived on stage. Around 10.20 pm, vocalist Javed Bashir began the opening lines of the Shah Hussain-penned song ‘Sajan’ to a huge applause. Flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu followed up with a soothing stretch, and guitarist-bandleader Mekaal Hasan, bassist Amir Azhar and drummer Fahad Khan played marvellously. The night had just begun.

Formed in Lahore in 2001, the Mekaal Hasan Band or MHB is easily one of the best groups fusing east and west. Its music is an intricate blend of classical and Sufiana vocals with jazz, rock, funk and eastern folk elements. And though Pakistani bands like Junoon, Strings and Fuzon have probably played more in India, MHB has its own cult following, created largely through its two albums ‘Sampooran’ and ‘Saptak’.

The best thing about MHB is that one never finds a weak spot in their renditions. As a live act, they’re just stunning and flawless. As a singer, Javed is simply outstanding, whether he’s rendering the words of Sufi kaafis or modern love songs, or presenting taans, sargams and harkats. His voice has that raw and natural charm, and he travels between the low, middle and high registers with such effortlessness that you believe there’s some kind of a computer in his throat.

Add to that the quality of the band and the beauty of the compositions. Mekaal, who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, is an absolute virtuoso with the guitar. Rock riffs, jazz improvisations and folk melodies flow through those strings magically. Papu is a delight with the flute, and can play lengthy solos with immense control and emotion. Bassist Amir and drummer Fahad are perfect on the rhythm section, providing just the right texture. In short, here’s a five-member band with five lead musicians.

The set lasted a little over two hours. ‘Sajan’ was followed by the uptempo ‘Raanjha’ and ‘Jhok Ranjhan’, another adaptation of a Shah Hussain kaafi. Then came the masterpiece ‘Sanwal’, written by contemporary Pakistani poet Farhat Abbas Shah. The words “O kabhi aa mil sanwal yaar wey… Mere roo roo cheekh pukar wey” resonated in the venue.

Up next was the gem ‘Waris Shah’, written by the great Punjabi writer and poet Amrita Pritam to express her anguish against the violence that took place following Partition. ‘Bandeya’, written by modern poet Ahmed Anis, boasted of spitfire riffs from Mekaal. Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s ‘Chal Bulleya’ had the wonderful lines “Chal Bulleya chal uthay chaliye, jithey saare anay, na koi saadi jaat pacchane, na koi sannu manne,” besides some charming flute and guitar passages.

The band then moved into ‘Andholan’, brilliantly set to raga Kirwani, with some smart guitar and bass, a great drumming background, and the lines “Tore bina mohay chain na aave, yaad mein tori jiya ghabraave, gin gin taare main ratiyan guzaroon, birha sataave, mora man tadpaave.” Javed was brilliant on ‘Mahi’, one of the most beautiful and moving love songs written by the band.

Next in line was ‘Sampooran’, which had amazing flute and guitar passages, before Javed suddenly went into the popular raga Yaman composition ‘Eri aali piya bina’. This song was beautifully adapted for live performance, considering that the studio version makes good use of vocal over-dubs. The last of their own compositions was ‘Ya Ali’, in which a vigorous sargam intro and an energetic bass-and-drum line were followed by the lines Ya ali mushkil kusha, mushkil kusha ki jiye,” before a spectacular guitar solo.

Though the band didn’t play some of their other popular numbers like ‘Raba’, ‘Darbari’, ‘Albaella’ and ‘Huns Dhun’, it got into popular qawwali mood towards the end. The finale was an excellent adaptation of the famous ‘Damadam mast qalandar’, with Javed excelling in the nuances. It was one of the most innovative versions of the song one has heard.

As happens with most wonderful bands, a sizeable section of Mumbai’s musicians had come to see the band. In the audience, we spotted guitarists Mahesh Tinaikar, Ehsaan Noorani, Babu Choudhary and Ravi Iyer, drummer Ranjit Barot, singer Mahalakshmi Iyer and members of the band Agnee.

It was an absolutely memorable evening. Over the years, Mumbai hasn’t seen too many shows by MHB. They had performed at the Shanmukhananda Hall in 2005 and a couple of years later at the St Andrew’s Auditorium to launch their album ‘Sampooran’ in India. A show scheduled at Blue Frog two years ago was sadly cancelled.

After Mumbai, MHB is slated to do three shows in Delhi over the next week. We just hope they keep coming back, to give a live treat to Mumbai’s true music lovers. And, of course, one is eagerly looking forward to their next album.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent: **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world

Of ‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’


SOME five to six hundred people were present at the St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai, on Saturday night to attend a concert called ‘Thumri Funk’. Now, that’s an interesting and new title.

Presented by vocalist Ajay Pohankar and his son, keyboardist Abhijit Pohankar, the event sought to present the Indian semi-classical devotional-romantic genre of thumri in a more contemporary and pepped-up fashion. An album of the same name was released, and at the EMI Music stall, one could see quite a few people do their bit of impulse purchase.

Of course, this wasn’t the first attempt to blend traditional Indian music with modern elements. The entire Indo-fusion movement, which began in the ’70s, revolves around the principle of amalgamating Indian and western elements.

In various collaborations, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar has created musical conversations between Indian and western classical music. The ’70s group Shakti fused the south Indian Carnatic genre, north Indian Hindustani music and jazz. Many other musicians followed with different permutations and combinations of experiments.

However, while this trend is not new, what’s interesting is the number of new  and innovative names that are being thrown up to describe specific forms of fusion — ‘Thumri Funk’ being the latest example.

Just a few days ago, this blogger was listening to ‘The Rebel’, the latest album by Rahul Sharma, who plays the santoor, a stringed instrument similar to a hammered dulcimer. First played in Sufiana (Islamic devotional music), this instrument soon found a place in Indian classical music, thanks to the efforts and innovation of Rahul’s father Shivkumar Sharma. The santoor has a pleasant, romantic and easy-listening sound, and one wouldn’t normally associate it with rock music.

Yet, Rahul’s Times Music album has been branded ‘Santoor Rock’, as the instrumentalist has used a more upbeat orchestration. ‘The Rebel’ has some wonderful compositions like ‘Free’, ‘Gurudeva’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Rising’, but someone who reads its categorisation and begins expecting some hard-rocking guitars,  pounding drums and Robert Plant-like eagle-screeches may be disappointed. After all, this ‘Santoor Rock’ is a pleasant and mid-tempo mix of classical music and soft rock.

A similar case is ‘Thumri Funk’. The brainchild of Abhijit Pohankar, who has experimented with traditional music in earlier instances like ‘Piya Bawari’, the latest album’s name and its sub-title ‘Traditional Thumris In A Contemporary Style’ clearly indicate a fusion of semi-classical music with modern elements. The problem comes when someone takes the word ‘funk’ too seriously.

Going by the Wikipedia definition, funk is a “music genre that originated in the mid-late ’60s when African-American musicians blended soul music, jazz and rhythm-‘n’-blues into a rhythmic, danceable new form of music. Funk de-emphasises melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground.”

Well, in ‘Thumri Funk’, Ajay Pohankar has done some excellent renditions of well-known traditional thumris like ‘Naina more’, ‘Yaad piya ki aaye’, ‘Ras ke bhare tore nain’ and ‘Ab ke saawan ghar aaja’, which have been earlier popularised in their traditional avatar by singers like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Rasoolan Bai, Heera Devi Mishra and Begum Akhtar.

The album also ensures that the orchestrations are pretty modern, with a good mix of keyboard programming and live Indian instruments. The question is: where’s the ‘funk’, as the term is normally understood? Where’s that slapping bassline?

Never mind, the album sounds wonderful — even though it’s actually old wine in a new bottle. And in an era where marketing and promotion are as important as the quality of the music, ‘Thumri Funk’ is an ideal marketing term. Moreover, how many people would actually know the exact meaning of ‘funk’? Today, the word ‘funky’ is used to describe anything ‘jazzy’ or ‘rocking’ — something trendy, unusual, out-of-the-box, cool.

As we said, ‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’ are not the first such brainwaves in musical labelling, categorisation, classification, nomenclature, taxonomy or genre-description — to use six terms that mean more or less the same thing but yet create an impression of being different.

Here’s a quick look at some past examples seen in the Indian sub-continent:

Sitar Funk and Zitar: A group formed by sitar player Niladri Kumar who also plays the ‘zitar’, a modified, electric version of the sitar which can create a rock sound. Luckily, this group has a bass player.

Hind-rock: Coined by the music industry to describe the presentation of rock music sung by Hindi, this term gained popularity with the release of Euphoria’s ‘Dhoom’ in 1998.

Sufi Rock: Used by various bands like Pakistan’s Junoon, Fuzon and Mekaal Hassan Band, and India’s Kailasa, to describe a genre where Islamic Sufiana influences are blended with rock and jazz. Of late, the term ‘Sufi’ has become fashionable in Hindi film music for anything that uses specific Urdu words — irrespective of whether the songs have the purity and depth of actual Sufi music.

Mohan Veena: Basically, it’s an Archtop guitar. But when Vishwa Mohan Bhatt added 12 sympathetic strings on the side of the neck to enable it play Indian classical music in an easier way, he gave it this name.

Urdu Blues: Used to market Hariharan’s 2000 album ‘Kaash’, where he blended the light classical, poetry-filled Indian form of ghazals with a jazz flavour. Of course, if one takes the term ‘blues’ seriously, one may wonder where the 12-bar chord progressions associated with the genre are.

Goa Trance: Essentially a form of electronic music which got its name because it originated in the Indian state of Goa in the late ’80s.

Tablatronic: A sub-genre where the Indian percussion instrument tabla is played with an electronic music background.

Dynamic Fusion: A series of concerts initiated by singer Talat Aziz, where different genres of Indian music were played with contemporary orchestration.

Global Fusion: The name of an album by violinist L Subramaniam, who later used the term regularly to describe a more eclectic form of fusion music. It’s also very similar to ‘World Music’ — which in itself is a very loose term.

Come to think of it, the music world is filled with various such terms and sub-genres. Within rock itself, we have ‘classic’ rock, pop-rock, psychedelic rock, progressive rock, folk-rock, country-rock, soft rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock (which is more a jazz sub-genre, actually), southern rock, Latino-rock, glam rock, punk rock, funk rock, acid rock, hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, garage rock, grunge, Britpop, progressive metal, death metal, thrash metal, industrial metal, nu metal, rap metal, Gothic metal, grindcore and even something called Wagnerian rock which will surely make classical composer Richard Wagner turn in his grave.

‘Santoor Rock’ and ‘Thumri Funk’ are interesting additions to the list of sub-classifications in Indian music. In the purely literal sense, both of them may not be as ‘rocking’ and ‘funky’ as the purist may expect. But as long as the music sounds good, it doesn’t really matter.

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