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)