The New Pundits of Fusion

Published: 21st September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd September 2014 01:16 PM   |  A+A-

SelvaGanesh.jpgSelva Ganesh, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, can get no satisfaction. The Chennai-based world-renowned musician has conquered musical territories divided by traditions, styles, harmonies, scales, lineages and genres with his kanjira;the percussion instrument without scalesfor more than 15 years. Ganesh now wants to explore the contours of rhythm and melody in fusion music with the kanjira and bass guitar. Sitting on the crater of his unbridled creativity in a decade marked with landmark concerts, music direction for regional films, jams and studio recordings, including the recently released Cheetu, a folksy track for India grand old fusion-rock band Indian Ocean collaborative album Tandanu, Ganesh is planning to go full-steam on kanjira-bass guitar jugalbandis for live concerts.

Kumaresh.jpgClassicists like Ganesh, world-renowned violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan, tabla maestro Anuradha Pal, shahnai exponent Sanjeev Shankar, well-known vocalist and konnakol artiste Mahesh Vinayakram, renowned sarangi artiste and vocalist Suhail Yusuf Khan, American clarinettist and composer Shankar Tucker, among many, are at the helm of the musical renaissance that is bringing the audience closer to Indian classical music, the ragas, the concept of swara and sound.

Shankar.jpgLive is life, says Ganesh. His collaboration with bass guitarist Jonas Hellborg is exemplary and with the legendary guitarist John McLaughlin, in the 1990s and 2000, supreme. The best fusion music, like classical music, is where nothing is planned. It really helps to have nothing in the head when performing fusion music. Playing the kanjira with the bass guitar is super fun and very challenging, he adds. 

Ganesh new experiments could ignite a revolution in the Indian fusion music whimsical blend of the ragas, newer sounds, rock, a dewy-eyed return to the idea of jamming, devoted submission to acoustics and sound quality, oodles of flirtation with electronic sounds and music softwares.

Sanjeev.jpgSpontaneity is the soul of fusion music. To quote John McLaughlin, Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are. The bass guitar is musical spontaneity powerful vehicle. Today, it is bleeding into Carnatic and Hindustani music with stunning fluidity. Ganesh is not the only one romancing the sound of the bass guitar. Phenomenal performer Anuradha Pal will be deconstructing the rhythm elements of the tabla with Kerala-based bass-guitar player Jayen Varma. The young goddess of dexterity, Mumbai-based prodigious bass guitarist Mohini Dey is unravelling percussion on the bass guitar in her performance with drums and vocals. Dey has touched the musical zenith in her practice-driven craftsmanship. She has earned a collaboration with the five-time Grammy award winner, composer and bass guitarist Victor Wooten. a dream come true, she says over the phone from Mumbai. After the success of the Internet musical initiative Shrutibox, where the sound-superpower, American clarinettist Shankar Tucker made his debut as a composer, featuring his works on the YouTube, his new venture that features the best musicians from the Indian music scene. I had the classical music all boxed in. I wanted to experiment with all the sounds possible, says Tucker.

Suhail.jpgToday, fusion is not frozen in moulds prepared at the studio. The compositions are as free flowing and open ended as the jams and rehearsals that make them. The classists are responding to the ragas, kritis, rhythm cycles and their grammar in an evolved musical language that drizzled with chords, harmonies, western and Indian folk sensibilities and newer sounds. Having flown in and out of the musical television series like Coke Studio, MTV Unplugged and Dewarists, fusion music has seen a resurgence of musicians interest in technicalities, production and presentation. Noted Delhi-based shahnai artiste Sanjeev Shankar feels the orthrodox approach to music takes a beating. The pieces have to be developed out of the vast classical idiom. Everything presented to the audience in those three-four minutes of music is in a filtered form. Everything is perfect and precise from the placing and seating of the artistes, to the lighting, the managing of the sound monitors, the volume backup, to the sound engineering.

Mohini.jpgToday, the sound palette is more vibrant. More than a decade after he surprised Shawn Lane and Jonas Hellborg by moulding his singing and voice to blend with the sounds of the guitar strings, renowned Carnatic vocalist (also Ganesh brother) Mahesh Vinayakram is sweeping in the sounds of saxophone, accordion, flutes and the folk musical instrument kamancha into his music. Beat boxing and konnakol conversations are becoming quirkier. Taranas and taans are reclaiming the centre stage. In Tandanu, Indian Ocean has composed and performed with some of India best known musicians like Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan, Shubha Mudgal, Ganesh, Shankar Mahadevan and Karsh Kale, among others. Indian Ocean, themselves remarkable artistes, have embraced the classism with playfulness over the free-minded jams.

Anuradha.jpgIn Passion, Pal album from her all-women band Stree Shakti, a Hindustani and Carnatic music ensemble, she weaves raag Basant Bahaar with the western drums, djembe, darbukka, the congas and other percussion instruments all played by herself. I want to bring music closer to the audience without diluting the classicism, but putting it in a manner which is easily identifiable. I want to keep raising the bar. She fuses western drums in the tala vadya kutcheri in raag Hindolam in the track Heartbeat. I am not compromising on the classism. But I am not calling it classical music. People have their ideas about the term.

Even as some great classicists continue to rebuff the musicality in fusion, (they prefer to call it confusion instead of fusion, maestroes like Kumaresh lend meaning and mind to a fusion performance. In Longing, the track Kumaresh recorded for Tandanu, he gave the band members the choice and authority to keep what they wished to. Today, musicians make sound the mainstream. Today, many musicians dont present the skill to be creative with the sound. I once asked Zakirji what he really considers himself a Hindustani music stalwart or a percussionist? He said that he tries to play all the sounds he hears on the tabla. He wants to present every sound as music. That makes Zakirji one of the greatest musicians we have knownsays Kumaresh.

Abhijit.jpgThere is nothing to dislodge folk music from the core of fusion. Ganesh Cheetu is a folksy people song riding on a 10-beat cycle. During the jams for the song, Amit Kilam, Indian Ocean drummer, vocalist and composer uses his quirky percussion instruments that include, apart from his drum set, a menacing saw and steel utensils. Ganesh blasts the rock of 10 beats into fritters of gold. He subdivides the beat and prepares the band for the math, laying a chunk of 30-odd beats (three sets of 10) to approach in different permutations and combinations.

Sounds are bleeding into sounds at cultural crossroads. Sanjeev will be playing his shahnai in a jugalbandi with hang, the percussive and melodic musical instrument by Austrian hang artiste Manu Delago at a concert based on Rabindranath Tagore work Last Poem at the Tagore Festival in London later this month. Sanjeev has given the shahnai a new space and meaning by breathing the elements of pain, maternal love, longing, meeting, parting, loving, thinking and breaking-free into fusion music.

Mahesh.jpgVinayakram, the storehouse of over a 100 kritis passed on to him by his gurus and father, recently performed with a Bulgarian Choir to explore the four-note approach of harmonies. Ableton, the music software saved on his laptop, is taking care of the rest.

At the live concert with the Slovenian musicians, Vinayakram pulls the morsing giving a rickety drone of shadaj. Slovenian accordion artiste Matija Sloce plays the instrument in a melodius warm-up, and touches the note, that Vinayakram would hear as the taar shadaj. During the first few seconds of this particular performance, Matija and cello artist Martin throw open the harmonies. Vinayakram knits his way through the harmonies with his voice, morsing and the kannakol. That's his response to the slice of Slovenian music. There is no percussion instrument. You don’t even feel the absence of the cajon. Back home, in the muggy Madras weather, Vinayakram recently recorded the Shri Chandrasekharendra Thodakashtakam, the devotional piece composed by his father, world renowned ghatam maestro and composer Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram.

Today, fusion music has a head and a heart of its own. Pal says, “There is a huge desire to be all inclusive. Musicians are willing to hear each other and find a common path.” The bandish, the traditional classical composition tuned to a raga, continues to be celebrated as “cover song”. From Bhairav, Durga, Maru Bihag, Bhimpalasi, Gorakh Kalyan and Yaman Kalyan, to the Malhars, Kalyani, Sindhu Bhairavi, Darbari and other ragas, the canvas is only becoming wider. The trend may not bring back the days of the iconic four-minute renditions—not just yet. There are occasional thrusts of “conscience” that drove stalwarts like Pal to perform the most complex elements and concepts with astounding flexibility and fluidity. Pal is pursuing the tabla jugalbandi, a dual approach to a solo where she plays the sawaal-jawaab (the question and answer), on the tabla. She uses raag Shankara and Durga to express the concept of Ardhanarishwar. She is also trying to develop the musical concepts of alaap, jod and jhala in tabla.

Exploring the ragas was the musical motive behind Piya Bawari, and the other experiments of the father-son duo of Pandit Abhay Pohankar and his son, composer, keyboard and melodica artiste Abhijeet Pohankar more than a decade ago. “My father and I initiated the experimental take on ragas with the help of keyboards, guitars and vocals. His clinical approach to ragas led us into full fledged theme-based concerts and albums. Harmony is not important in Indian classical music. Single line melody is. We are preserving that element.”

Sanjeev, Abhijeet Pohankar, Suhail Yusuf Khan (known for his sarangi) and Tucker are preserving the gayaki ang, the intricate vocalisation in Hindustani instrumental music in fusion. Nuances like the badhat (the systematic progression in a raga) are explored methodically in a musical setting that gives back to classical music as much as it borrows. With a scale and a half all it gives, the shahnai, the traditional Indian wind instrument, has demanded from Sanjeev, ironically a lot in fusion music—perhaps much more than the classist had expected. Sanjeev has toured extensively with Anoushka Shankar for her Grammy-nominated albums Rise and Traveller. Ironically, he was initially hesitant to tour for Rise. “I had declared that I would participate only with Guruji’s (Pandit Ravi Shankar’s) permission. Come to think of it, I was seeking the permission from Pandit Ravi Shankar, the man and the guru who took Indian classical music to the West (laughs). Touring with Anoushka gave me immense confidence to perform fusion music. Also, performing with Flamenco artistes broadened my thinking completely. The concerts prepared me to respond to the wide range of scales and the laraj and kharaj of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s sitar. I realised that there was actually a lot to do outside a note-based approach to Indian classical music.”

Khan’s sarangi is like a sandpapered prism placed in the musical depths of Advaita, the Delhi-based band. Advaita’s sound, a spectrum of vocals, bass, acoustic and electronic guitars, keyboards, Western and Indian percussion take a new direction every time his bow hits the sarangi. He says, “What next? Advaita has won the GIMA for the best album. We have performed at NH7, MTV Unplugged, at Blue Frog, at college fests, and corporate gigs. We would move into production next. But more importantly, we are now thinking about the sound.”

With every touch of the roughened back of Khan’s fingers on the sarangi’s rugged strings, Advaita got a new thinking note and more harmonies. The ragas are not simply “sung” and “played” in Advaita’s repertoire. They are used as the wind for a melodic flight. Khan adds, “There was a different dimension in the ragas waiting to be explored. Fortunately, independent music brought the culture of musicians’ own record labels. Producing and composing got a boost. This trend changed the way bands were thinking and performing fusion music. It was like a revolution waiting to happen.” Khan is currently exploring the works of Baba Bulle Shah in the band Adi and Suhail, where he performs with friend, guitarist and composer Aditya Balani.

Tucker has democratised fusion music. Songs and covers sung in Shrutibox by various artistes like the Iyer sisters, Nirali Kartik, Mugdha Hasbanis, Shweta Subram see Tucker enjoying every musical moment and space in an accompanist’s role. He says over the phone from Mumbai: “I attend to every sound. I want every sound well placed. It can be a painfully long process. A lot of these things are just impossible to attain in a live performance, which, I believe, should be a well thought out production.”

Tucker’s clarinet solos, where he uses elements like the alaap, taan, gamaka, meend and tihai, float between the Carnatic and Hindustani sensibilities. There are distant murmurs about how much Tucker can “really pull at live concerts out of what he produces at a studio”. But musicality wins over whispers, and most of the times. Here’s the interesting part: “Clarinet parts come last when I am composing and recording. For Shrutibox, I was under no pressure to put the clarinet parts first. I am (becoming) caring less and less about the clarinet parts while composing. I usually put the clarinet parts when I am finishing production. It’s never the centre of the composition really,” says Tucker who has learned a lot from hearing the music records of Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Zakir Hussain, and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma.

“Every little thing”, to paraphrase Sting, “she does is magic”. Mohini Dey’s performance and presence at the Coke Studio made her popular. It all began with a call from AR Rahman’s studio. “After I played an entire song at Rahman sir’s studio, I was told where we are headed next. Rahman sir likes my approach to the bass guitar. He gives the full freedom to play. As a bass guitarist, I understand that my approach has to be a bit laid-back in a vocals-oriented song.” She walked into the sets of the Coke Studio. Shew adds, “There was a students’ choir on one side. World renowned guitarist Prasanna was tuning his guitar on the other. Sivamani was present too. Suddenly, Prasanna started playing. I joined him. It was good jamming. ARR walked in with a big smile.”

Somewhere at the threshold of perfection, and at the horizon where brilliance and musical excellence meet under concert lights, five-time Grammy Award winner bass guitarist Victor Wooten walks up to you and says, “Ok tell me what you can’t do.” Selva vouches for Dey’s talent. “She was born for the bass guitar.” What does Dey want to achieve? She puts it in perspective. “My playing has to be ‘reactionary’ to the ragas. Sadly, today there is a dearth of musicians who can react to the song correctly. The newcomers focus too much on the techniques than on the basics.” She is about to finish recording for a new album (doesn’t reveal the name) that features nine vocalists, drums and the bass guitar. “I am playing something different every time. There is jazz, rock, pop and funk, vocals-oriented songs and tracks with a lot of percussive element. I am pretty thrilled about this album.”

The young guitarist is quite a disciplinarian. She compiles chord charts for  all her shows. “I feel that musicians should rehearse at least two times before coming for live performances. Michael Jackson has even his entries and exits rehearsed,” she adds.

Good sound is an expensive idea. Some ends have to be ironed out. There are parts of her album Recharge Plus that Pal cannot present live. “I have played 10 tracks of percussion and I don’t have 10 hands. In a recording you can layer it and play 10 tracks of percussion. But there are some limitations of live.”

Today, the West is setting the tone for Indian classicism in fusion music. Khan adds, “The West wants to hear more and more of Indian classical music. What could be better?” Sound is the changing constant. Yet, Pal wants to hear the tabla as the tabla. She sums it up: “Experiments with sound is a way of life, it’s a journey. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don’t.” It seems Sanjeev Shankar has reached there, yet again. This time with the hang. He completes the circle drawn by his Guru, late Pandit Ravi Shankar.

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