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Liner notes for Braz Gonsalves’ Devapriya

A few months ago, I received a request from the excellent Florian Pittner, who runs Hindustani Vinyl, the online record store that with the best collection of classic Indian and Pakistani pop you could ever hope to find. He and his friends at Ovular Records wanted to compile a bunch of Braz Gonsalves 45s as a 10-inch record, he said. Would I write the liner notes? How could I resist the offer?

The disc arrived in the mail this morning. Here, for what it’s worth, is the text on the back.


One freezing day in 1982, as Braz Gonsalves was making his way to a store in Munich, he went into a panic as he found himself skidding across a strip of black ice. He landed hard on the pavement, breaking his hand. Gonsalves began to cry bitterly. “In that moment, my conscience came out,” he said. All the transgressions he had ever committed flashed through his mind. He knelt down and began to pray. “Father, I’ve sinned against you and against heaven,” he sobbed. “Forgive me Father, forgive me.”
With that, India’s most innovative saxophonist effected an abrupt key change. Gonsalves gave up a 25-year career playing jazz and found solace in a Catholic prayer group, emerging only rarely to perform the American music genre that he had worked hard to give a specifically Indian form.

The reed player exited the stage when he was at the height of his powers. Though much of his career had been spent in India, he seemed to be on the cusp of international recognition. In fact, when he took his unfortunate toss on the ice, Gonsalves (b February 3, 1934) was in Europe to lay down the tracks for an album by the group Sangam. When it was released in 1983, Citylife would go on to gain a cult following. To jazz obsessives, it was the most seamless melding of South Indian Carnatic music with jazz that had yet been recorded. That wasn’t surprising. Gonsalves had been playing jazz in an Indian way for at least two decades by then.

Devapriya – which draws together tracks from several 45s and EPs that Gonsalves cut between 1970 and 1972 – refutes a misconception contained in many standard jazz history books. Most fans have been led to believe that John Coltrane in the mid-1960s was the first person to integrate elements of Indian music into jazz. In reality, such innovations had been underway in India for at least a decade before Coltrane began to study raga theory. Indian jazz musicians in Bombay had been inflecting their melodies with Hindustani touches since at least the mid-1940s, both in the concert hall and in tunes they recorded for Hindi film soundtracks.
Gonsalves, though, took those efforts to yet another level. A native of Goa, the territory in western India that was a Portuguese colony for 451 years until 1961, Gonsalves grew up studying Western classical music in his parish school. Curiously, his first job was in a circus band. But his talent was too enormous to be contained by a canvas tent and he was soon leading bands in prominent nightclubs in Bombay and Calcutta. He played tenor, alto and soprano saxophones (and sometimes the flute), earning gained the reputation for being India’s most accomplished reed player: his phrasing was impeccable, his improvisations startlingly inventive. One fan from the time wrote of Gonsalves’s music “rearing and swaying and striking like a serpent”. Another went into raptures about his “improvised jag…fuddled and wild”.
Gonsalves is best remembered for his quintet at Bombay’s Astoria Hotel in the mid-1960s and various formations in Calcutta in which he participated in the next decade, along with the pianist Louis Banks and the singer Pam Crain. These bands played a mixture of styles: post-bop, soul, funk and raga-based jazz. But because India’s recording industry was focussed on film music, very little of Gonsalves’s work from that time was actually preserved on wax. The tunes on the 45s he cut were probably picked as much for their commercial appeal as much for the creativity they display. Despite this, they present a glimpse of dynamism and originality that characterised the Indian jazz scene in the 1960s – and of the abundant talents of Gonsalves.
Jazz and gospel have long shared the same pew, so Gonsalves decision to devote himself to religious music may not be so unusual after all. In fact, a clue to his future may have been contained in the title of the track that headlines this collection: Devapriya – a Sanskrit word that means Beloved of God.


Jehangir Dalal talks about his friend, Sonny Rollins

The excellent Jehangir Dalal, without whose generosity Foxtrot would not have been written, has been a friend of the colossal saxophonist Sonny Rollins for more than five decades. He recounts their association in this heartwarming video.

Asha Puthli Cuts Loose

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Mumbai in 2006.

Asha Puthli has a somewhat unorthodox relationship with time. When she’s asked about her age, for instance, the pop diva has often been known to declare, “I’m 6,000 years spiritually, I’m mentally 98, I emotionally five and chronologically in between.”

That unconventional sense of temporality has decisively defined the Mumbai-born musician’s 35-year-long career. Puthli first gained international attention in 1971 performing jazz – a form that encourages musicians to play with rhythm, to glide on top or below the beat rather than hitting it predictably in the middle. Her sultry vocals on avant garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album that year earned her the prestigious Downbeat critics poll award alongside Ella Fitzgerald.

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.

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.


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

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.

“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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