Archive for the Category »Indo-jazz fusion «

L Shankar shouts the blues

(This is the second part of the BBC documentary Bombay and Jazz. I wrote about the first part last fortnight here.)

Quite improbably, the maestro mispronounces his own name. “Hi,” he calls in an accent that emerges from the interstice between Mylapore and Miami. “I’m Shank-er.”

Jazz, that expression of iconoclastic individualism, is a lifelong quest for your own voice. Jazzmen are obsessed with finding a distinctive way to parse a phrase, with creating a characteristic way to sail just over the beat or under it, with blowing out notes in a tone that’s so unique the music proclaims: Behold, it is I.

Improvisational musician L. Shankar found the song of his soul early. The son of violinist V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, Shankar was a child prodigy. He started vocal lessons at two, began violin at five and gave his first concert at seven. In 1975, aged 25, he co-founded Shakti with British guitar player John McLaughlin and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Even if its three albums didn’t quite set the global charts afire, Shakti was a raging critical success. Shankar’s compositions were hailed for their maturity, for their assurance, for how effortlessly they projected his very own voice.

Unfortunately, he’s been stuttering in the Babel tower ever since.

After Shakti was disbanded, Shankar attempted to learn a new vocabulary. He wanted to be a pop star. It’s a blustery morning in 2002. Outside his Bandra hotel window, the Arabian Sea roars with grey monsoon fury. Shankar has finally emerged from his slumbers, well deserved after an energetic performance the previous evening. Even this early, he’s wearing a black turtleneck exactly like the one he wears in his publicity photos. His hair is fashionably tousled. And in a confused creole that echoes his melodic muddleheadedness, Shank-er—who has lived in the US since 1969—hold forth on his most profound musical influence: Mahatma Gandhi.

“He like is one of the guy who sacrificed so much, he had so much struggle, but he is one of the strongest person I have ever met. He has had so much difficulty with the British army and everybody else but they couldn’t shut him up really and he really sacrificed himself. He didn’t want a post and he did it for the struggle and whatever he believed in the cause. He could have been the prime minister. He doesn’t like any of the stuff. He really believes in India. But many of the time people misinterpret it and politics is politics and that’s different stuff but he really believed in it to free people. He buy one man did what no one could do previously. He fred India. Just like that, I want total freedom in my music,’’ Shankar proclaims.

sangIn this latest avatar, Shankar (he’s long dropped the L) is attempting to capitalise on the current vogue for alluring female violinists who also tug at the heart strings. It’s a craze that was sparked by the sultry Vanessa Mae and given impetus by the Dixie Chicks. Shankar has attempted to clamber onto the bandwagon by enlisting the services of Gingger, with a double G – the Los Angeles-born daughter of his brother, L Subramaniam. The duo recently did a five-city tour through India, accompanied by percussionists Shafaat Ahmed and Sivamani.  To hear Shankar tell it, he and Gingger are all the toast of the West. They’re No 1 on the Billboard charts, he says. What he fails to emphasise is that he’s talking about the digital video disc chart, scarcely an accurately indication of musical popularity.

Shankar is given to frequent name-dropping. The ghosts of Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bono Van Morrison hover in the hotel room. Again, there’s some economy with the truth. Shankar has merely featured these rock legends as guest artists on his albums or has been a minor sideman on their’s; the extent of these collaborations, for the most, has been minor.

Still, it would be boorish to dismiss Shankar out of hand.  For one, he’s worked hard to try to establish his double-violin as more than just a curiosity. He devised the space-age instrument, a wondrously gleaming thing with two necks, in 1978, soon after producing an album for Zappa Records. He needed to overdub a whole range of string-instruments, from double-bass to violin. Because he couldn’t find sessions musicians who could render the Indian ornaments and styles he wanted, Shankar ended up having to play all the instruments himself. This implied having to haul them around, too. There was also the problem of sound engineering at outdoor concerts. In an attempt to mask the whistle of the wind, audio technicians would cut out higher frequencies – and alter some of the most achingly beautiful notes Shankar coaxed out of his violin.

shankar2Shankar took four years to solve the puzzle Then he pasted together a cardboard model of the contraption, which he coaxed instrument maker Ken Parker to turn into metal-and-steel reality. Shankar cancelled all his engagements for two months. He and Parker worked ten hours a day in his New York studio, experimenting with different materials and shapes before he was satisfied. In addition to giving Shankar a range of 5 ½ octaves, the double violin has an array of harmonic devices that allow him to sound like a full orchestra. His task didn’t end there. Shankar had to develop new techniques for playing his new instrument. It’s heavier than a conventional violin, so playing it is physically tiring. Because of the greater angle, the bowing is different. “It’s like playing two violins at the same time,’’ says Shankar.  But he adds: “It’s musically more satisfying.”

But he’s more than the designer of a new instrument. Shankar is a living critique of the notion of purity that rightwing political parties are attempting to burden us with. Shankar refuses to subscribe to the idea that Indian music is the most advanced in the world, or that it should be guardedly pristine. His music has doesn’t yearn for some imagined Golden Age. Instead, his musical cosmopolitanism struggles to demonstrate that one can’t rewind to the future. “Obsessing about purity springs from fear of freedom,’’ Shanker pronounces. “It results in being arrestment of your ideas.” He’s got the tone right. So what if the syntax isn’t?

Here are links to the rest of Bombay and Jazz: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

Sax adventures in South India

Despite the perception that it is a staid, uncompromising form, Carnatic classical music has been remarkably adventurous about incorporating new instruments into its fold. The violin seems to have made its appearance in Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century and, by 1824, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, south of Madurai, had appointed Baluswamy Dikshitar (younger brother of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar) as his court violinist.

sax-sisSince then, writes the musicologist Amanda Weidman, the violin not only become “a vehicle for conveying Carnatic music to modernity”, it’s also come to be seen as essential to preserving Carnatic music’s authenticity”.

Over the years, other Western instruments have made their way into Carnatic music, notably the mandolin, the guitar and the clarinet.

Though the sari-clad Saxophone Sisters — MS Lavanya and MS Subbalaxmi — have been attraction attention recently, the saxophone isn’t really capable of expressing the nuances of Carnatic classical music. The problem, as singer TM Krishna explains in his recent book, A Southern Music, is that the reed instrument isn’t able to render gamakas, or ornamentations, that characterise the form. “This has led to saxophone-using musicians rendering only ragas with relatively less gamaka, thus limiting their own exploration of the music,” he writes.

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Songs of Fate

This piece appears in Mint-Lounge today.

 

Last October, as Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva addressed his recession-battered compatriots on their country’s republic day, he was interrupted by a beautiful song. It floated across the 18th-century courtyard in which the event was being held, sending the President’s bodyguards into a state of confusion. They decided to shuffle Cavaco Silva off to safety. It was the start of Ana Maria Pinto’s career as Portugal’s most melodious public protestor.

With the TV cameras and press photographers swarming around her, the 32-year-old opera singer, wearing a black top and a red backpack, defiantly belted out an aria. In a nation lacerated by cuts to social-security schemes, Pinto’s ballad struck a chord. It seemed to articulate the belief of millions of Portuguese citizens that the austerity programme designed to revive their economy was actually making life more difficult, especially for the aged and the poor.

Belém AcordaiSince the much-hated troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—forced Portugal’s government to tighten its belt in May 2011, prices and taxes have soared. So has the unemployment rate, which stands at almost 17%. Wages, though, have fallen, so low in some sectors that call-centre jobs from India are being relocated to Portugal. “We feel betrayed,” Pinto said. “The government made false promises. There are no conditions in Portugal now to support a life. If you lose a job, you have to migrate. Everything is being privatized and these enterprises don’t follow moral principles—their point is only to make money for themselves.”

It isn’t common for classical musicians to insert themselves into the heart of political movements, but Pinto came to her new role after a great deal of reading and reflection. When the Portuguese economic crisis erupted in 2010, two years after the implosion of leading US financial institutions, Pinto was making a comfortable living in Berlin, a city with a vibrant opera scene. After months of tracking the troubles from afar, the soprano decided to return home. “I felt I needed to do something,” she explained. “I also wanted to be connected to my people: that’s what feeds your soul.”

At a rally in September last year, Pinto was deeply moved to realize that the thousands of strangers around her shared her anxieties about the mess in which Portugal was embroiled. She was also stirred by a placard held aloft by a friend. “Acordai,” it said—Wake Up. It was a call to action with a resonant history: Acordai is the title of a ballad composed by Fernando Lopes-Graça, a spirited opponent of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal for 42 years, until 1974. “I immediately thought I’d like to sing it at a demonstration,” Pinto said. Shortly after, she created a Facebook event, explaining what art and revolution meant to her, and asking her countrymen to join her in a square in Lisbon to sing the anthem. Five hundred people showed up. The Acordai movement was underway.

Read the complete  piece here.

 

 

Fado Bombaim

One night on a recent trip to Lisbon, I heard a flute playing somewhere near the flat in which I was staying. I followed my ears and was delighted to find myself at a performance by Rao Kyao, whom I had seen in Bombay in the early 1990s.

Rao_Kyao_2Rao, who plays the saxophone and the flute, has been a frequent visitor to India — and to Bombay. The first time he came to India was in 1980, to perform at the Jazz Yatra. He became so entranced by the sound of the bansuri that he became a student of Raghunath Seth and spent a lot of time in Bombay over the next decade.

He used his lessons to enhance the sonic textures of fado, the emotion-drenched song-form beloved in Lisbon, adding the bansuri to the standard ensemble of Portuguese and Spanish guitar. He has also attempted to foreground fado’s Eastern influences, especially its Arab and Indian traces. This tune, with the vocalist Deolinda Bernardo, is called Canta-se o Fado.

About a decade before this track, though, Rao Kyao recorded this tribute to the city that decisively changed his musical direction — Bombaim.

Here, meanwhile, is a diary I wrote for Outlook about my trip.

 

Do You Speak Jazz?

 In 2004, Rudresh Mahanthappa alchemised his exasperation into art. His album Mother Tongue that year was a witty, biting rely to the query often posed to subcontinental immigrants to the US, “Do you speak Indian?” or “Do you speak Hindu?”

The saxophonist, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, recorded Indian-American speakers of languages such as Kannada, Konkani and Gujarati explaining, “No, I do not speak Indian. There is no such language. I speak Gujarati. Having lived in America for almost 20 years, I also speak English.” Mahanthappa used the intonations of these sentences to create an album that went to No. 8 on the US jazz charts.

Since then, the 42-year-old musician has attempted toive jazz an Indian-American voice through a variety of formations: the Indo-Pak Coalition; Raw Materials, a duo with his soul brother, the pianist Vijay Iyer; the quintet Dual Identity; and most recently Gamak. His imaginative sonic adventures have earned him a warehouse of fellowships and awards: he was Downbeat magazine’s alto saxophonist of the year in 2011 and 2012 and bagged the same honour from the Jazz Journalists’ Association for four years from 2009.

“Jazz is a multicultural music at its heart from its roots and through its history of embracing other cultures and ideologies,” he said in an e-mail interview for a piece I did for Outlook recently.  “My contribution is an apropos part of its journey.”

Excerpts from the interview here.

Play It Again, Samba

filhos-de-ghandy-2
filhosAs millions of Brazilians take to the streets to demand schools instead of stadiums, here are two musical reminders of that country’s intriguing links with India. The first is a clip of the adventurous Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti and his sideman, Nana Vasconcelos, attempting to find common ground with Indian musicians when they visited Bombay for the Jazz Yatra in 1984.

This piece from NPR is about a samba school from the northern city of Salvador do Bahaia that has long fascinated me: Filhos de Gandhy, or Sons of Gandhi. One of their most prominent members, the pop star Gilberto Gil, performed at Azad Maidan in Mumbai in 2004, as part of the World Social Forum.
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“Jazzy Joe” Pereira, RIP

joe pereira, bombay volga's, 1959With the passing of the reedman Joe Pereira this morning, Bombay’s jazz age has truly come to an end. Jazzy Joe, as he was known fondly to three generations of Indian fans, was the last of the musicians from the swing era. He was 86.

Pereira started performing in 1941, aged only 14, in a band in Lahore’s Stiffle’s Hotel fronted by his cousin, the legendary Sebastian D’Souza.  After spending much of his career in Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta, Pereira returned to Bombay in the 1980s and helped train a bunch of enthusiastic hornmen (and hornwomen) who performed occasionally as the Jazz Junkeys.

Visiting Pereira at his home in Victory Blocks, right behind Bandra police station, was always enlightening. Until a couple of years ago when his health began to fail, Pereira could be counted on to recall slightly risqué stories about his encounters with cabaret dancers and to tell, in mock horror, about his shyness at their routine state of dishabille, even off stage.  He would tell about his musical journeys through India and his trips to Europe, his eyes lighting up with memories of musicians he’d jammed with and places he’d seen.
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Still in the AIR

All India Radio Signature Tune by tajmahalfoxtrot1

 

Preparing to moderate a conversation earlier this week with the writer-musician Amit Chaudhuri about his new book on Calcutta, I revisited his This Is Not Fusion album — and remembered that he had also recorded a tune called All India Radio.  The source material for Amit’s melody was the All India Radio theme song, composed, as this article noted last fortnight, by a Jewish refugee named Walter Kaufmann.

The music on the This Is Not Fusion album, as Amit explained in his liner notes, aims to move “towards a musical and conceptual meeting point, a space in which not only musicians encounter each other but in which musical lineages intersect and renovate themselves and become altered by this contact”.
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Live at the Taj, 1953

What Is This Thing Called Love, Part 1, by British Modern Jazz by tajmahalfoxtrot1

“The rostrum was surrounded with people who were content to stand and watch and that semi-circle kept on increasing by the minute till a stage was reached when people had to stand on chairs to see the bandsmen. The crowd liked the music and they communicated their appreciation by yelling their heads off which in turn exhorted the musicians no end…The consensus of opinion had it that Bombay had not heard better music in many moon.”

The excitement that Coover Guzdar described at the Ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel in downtown Bombay on the evening of August 4, 1953, is very audible on the two-part recording of What Is This Thing Called Love above and below. Between trumpet phrases and piano licks, you can hear 500 Bombay fans cheering, clapping and generally being appreciative of the band that had been styled the Swingin’ Britons.

The group had been cobbled together by the editorial board of Blue Rhythm, a magazine that had made its appearance a year earlier. Its editors – Guzdar, Niranjan Jhaveri and Jehangir Dalal – were determined not only to give Bombay the opportunity to read about the music they loved, they also organised concerts to allow the city learn about the latest directions in which jazz was headed.

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Bombay in Swing Time

[This is a slightly edited version of the Preface to Taj Mahal Foxtrot. It appears in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai.]

Taj Mahal Foxtrot, a tale that unfolds across five continents, began mundanely enough with a stroll down the street to interview a musician who lived around the corner from my home in Bandra. It was 2002 and the objective of my mission, I must confess, wasn’t entirely noble. I was seeking to excavate gossip about a scandalous affair that had titillated the world of migrant Goan musicians in Mumbai in the 1960s. Being inherently lazy, I had decided to bring my inquiries as close to home as possible and made an appointment with the musician-father of my college friends Larissa and Max Fernand. I didn’t know much about the man, except that he’d played in jazz bands and in the Hindi film studios. He seemed as good a starting point as any other.

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