Tag Archives: Amazing Grace

The Bangalore International Arts Festival – Day 1





Bangalore is arguably the music capital of India and Malleshwaram has been the center of fine arts for generations now. In Malleshwaram is the iconic violin-shaped auditorium, Chowdaiah Memorial Hall – the holiest of holies for Indian Music. It is no surprise that the organizers of Bengaluru International Arts Festival (BIAF) chose this venue to kick off proceedings for the third edition of this annual arts festival which is said to be among the top ten in the country.

I arrived way ahead of time despite the excruciatingly slow traffic. There was the customary lamp-lighting ceremony, which was followed by welcome addresses by co-founders Dr. Suma Sudhindra and Kuchipudi exponent Veena Murthy Vijay. Then there were short and witty addresses by chief guests Mr. Ashwath Narayana and noted music director Hamsalekha. It was heartening to see that along with the usual shawls and garlands, all the VVIPs got a gift of a sapling: a gesture to encourage a greener Bangalore.

First on the agenda was the lovely Sonal Kalra’s Sufi Gospel Project from Delhi. I was consumed by curiosity about the “Sufi-Gospel” genre, wondering what they had in store for us. It turned out that the most obvious inference would have been correct. – their music is a delightful confluence of the East – Sufi, Bhakti, Thumri and the West – classic hymns, gospel jazz, negro spiritual.

The Sufi Gospel Project comes highly recommended just after four months from their debut and they will also be opening at the India Show that is to be held in Toronto later this year. The first piece was their rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ which began with alaaps on Rajesh Prasanna’s flute and Ahsan Ali’s vocals. Sonam Kalra then joined in with two verses of the widely beloved hymn. The music transformed seamlessly into a Sufi song with Ahsan’s impassioned wails of ‘Maula’, before giving way again to another verse of ‘Amazing Grace‘: only this time in Urdu! In all, this first piece was a spectacle in execution, thanks mainly to Alex Fernandes’ mastery on the keys. I was already beginning to wonder whether they had their CDs for sale in the lobby.

The next song was called ‘The Confluence’. The opening bars took me back many generations, perhaps into a royal durbar. This magic was created by Ahsan Ali, this time on the Sarangi, and Amaan Ali on the Kanjira. I could never have imagined that the essence of the song was actually an old Negro Spiritual, ‘Down to the River’, in the guise of a Bhakti song. Sonam Kalra’s voice was absolutely languorous as the band easily mesmerized half the capacity of the audience into a hushed silence.

Next up was a Ray Charles’ gospel jazz number, ‘Hallelujah! I Just Love Him’. What really stood out in this song was the solo section: first the flute, followed by the sarangi, the tabla, Daniel Paul on the bass and finally Alex Fernandes on the keys. Gandhi’s favourite hymn ‘Abide With Me’ was next, which magically transformed into an ancient Kabir song, ‘Moko Kahaan Dhunde Re Bande’, which had Sonam Kalra and Ahsan Ali crooning together to form a soothing, lilting harmony. The Sufi Gospel Project wrapped up things with their rendition of Bulleh Shah’s ‘Chal Bulleya Chal Othe Chaliye’, a fitting upbeat farewell to a delightful little show.

Next Up was Laya Lavanya, an Indian percussion ensemble lead by Vidwan Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma. The cast for this show included three tablas, a kanjira, a chenda (temple drums), a madal, drum pads, congos, a mridangam and two morchings. It was clear that this was going to be a treat to my already heightened senses. I didn’t manage to get everyone’s names, but I did recognize Pramath Kiran, the live wire percussionist who played at this year’s Fireflies Festival with Dr.BC Manjunath’s Spinifex. The fact that the individual introductions of all the members of this super-troupe took ten minutes is testament to the fact that this was a collection of the very best of India’s Carnatic percussion vidwans. Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma (or, Shivu, as he is also known) introduced us to the concept behind this project. ‘Laya’ means tempo and ”Lavanya’ means beauty. While the troupe was busy tuning their instruments Shivu kept the audience engaged in a delightful banter consisting of humourous personal anecdotes. This concert was very different from the kacheris (traditional carnatic concerts) that we are so accustomed to, with the performances more familiar and contemporary.

The entire performance lasted about forty minutes and comprised of just one composition, in adi tala, which transported the audience into magical lands from a faraway time. The opening movement was a Konakkal, but in five part harmony! The message was loud and clear. These stalwarts of the ancient art were going to give us something quite unorthodox and extraordinary. Two of the artists did a short burst with their morchings, and the stage was set for the next thirty minutes. The solos were perfectly executed in turns while Shivu looked at his fellow musicians with an almost benevolent pride. The pauses between the solos were filled with the soft rasping sound of audience keeping time, patting their thighs (another thousand points to Chowdaiah Hall’s acoustics.)

In entirety, the performance went from sedate and mesmerizing to aggressive and thrilling and back again. Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma was brilliant as expected, and so was every other vidwan. Pramath Kiran was undoubtedly the star of the show, playing the drum pads, morchings, congos, and two other unfamiliar instruments.

Last on stage was Vijay Prakash and troupe. Vijay Prakash first shot to fame in a singing reality show in 1998, and has then gone on to record for many films in many languages. He has worked with all the big names in the Indian film music industry, including A.R Rahman, Ilayaraja and Shankar Ehsaan Loy. He has also performed with the likes of Zakir Husain and Sivamani, at events as big as the Kala Ghoda Festival and at the Prithvi Theatre Festival. Event anchor Deepthi urged the audience to come and occupy the seats in front because this performance was something “not to be missed.”  I was quietly hoping that the evening wouldn’t turn into another “Bollywood night”, but after the first few songs, it did. I sent a distress message to my editor and bailed out. Not that I had any grouse with the quality, but the hushed awe and sanctity that was created by the proceedings so far were torn apart by this unfortunate choice of genres. Among their first few songs, I particularly liked ‘Lat Uljhe Suljha Ja Baalam’ and the sound check (!), which had a superb flute solo.

Overall, it was an evening well spent. I was secretly thankful that not all roads led to Chowdaiah that evening, because I was looking forward to an intimate experience with these ancient arts (selfish, yes). The BIAF was kicked off in grand style, and I look forward to more such events in the future.

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Rohan Arthur

Rohan Arthur is a Photographer + Writer at What's the Scene who enjoys all music that does not involve growling/vomiting into the microphone. Rohan is the vocalist of a blues rock band and also manages another folk rock band. At every given chance, he runs away to the jungles, which he believes are his home.


Tuning, Practice and Precision: The Turning Point in the 80s


Photo Credits: Chethan Ram

“With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument;
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.”

The Guitarist Tunes Up’ by Frances Conford (1886-1960)

I’ve always loved this poem. Today though, it reminds me of some of the changes that have happened over the years.

When I started playing the guitar in Calcutta in the 60s, I knew of just one seller of the instrument in the city, a shop called Reynolds (I don’t know if they’re related to the one in Bangalore). ‘Box’ guitars cost Rs.75 and were made of plywood, with necks probably made of the ends of discarded tea chests. You were guaranteed that the necks would warp. The only solution was to loosen the strings each time you were through with playing it. Tuning and detuning the guitar thus became an integral part of the act of playing itself. You would detune it in various ways, experimenting with different detuned combinations, until you’d had enough and were ready to put the instrument to sleep. Tuning up was also a ritual in itself – first thing in the morning, of course (at 16, if you love the guitar, you’re not just in love; you’re obsessed. You pick up your guitar before your toothbrush). You tune up one string at a time, play that string alone, listen to its timbre and nuances, experiment with it, often running up from the lowest notes to the highest ones imbedded in the non-cutaway body. Then on to the next string. Of course we used mechanical devices – I used to be the proud owner of a pitch pipe. But the process was entirely aural.

A natural fall-out of this was that bands tuned their instruments on stage. Without today’s electronic tuners, there was no way you could tune a solidbody electric until it was plugged into an amp (off-stage amps don’t exist in India even today, O Tempora! O Mores!). Most of us walked onstage with loosened strings and started from scratch in front of the audience. Anyone who’s seen the movie Woodstock will remember Richie Havens tuning his guitar on stage. He’d just changed strings and hadn’t had time to tune up off-stage. But it wasn’t considered odd; to us, in fact, it was part of his performance.

I remember going to a concert by the Bangalore band Human Bondage in the early 70s. More than the vastly superior musicianship, what struck me was that before the curtain went up there was just this one, single note from an already-tuned guitar. Then the stage opened and the first song started right away. All of us were amazed. Of course, the fact that they were playing, “f**kin FENDERS, man! A Mustang into a Silverface!” made a difference; but I swore I would never tune my guitar onstage again.

So much changed with the advent of the plug-in tuner in the 80s. Today, I know guitarists who’ve been playing for over 40 years, who can’t tune up anymore without it (all of us who’ve been playing that long have probably lost it, anyway). But tuning is now a silent activity. Nobody hears it, not even the player. What used to be most important part of preparing your instrument before playing is now done visually.

Have we lost an important part of the process of communication between instrument and player? I think so. Most musicians today see communication as happening only between player and audience. There is no communing with one’s instrument. In its stead, there is ‘practice’.

I think the 80s was also when the concept of a ‘practice regimen’ among rock guitarists came into existence fully. While some musicians may have dabbled in it earlier, nothing is known for instance about the guitar practising schedules of Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield or any of the luminaries of the 60s. I don’t think they had any. No interviewer asked them about it. It wasn’t considered important. (The only noteworthy story about practice from that era is the unconfirmed one where the vicar of the parish of Ewhurst in Surrey, UK, on a visit to one of his parishioners’ homes, sees a guitar on the wall and asks the owner to play for the church. When the owner agrees, the vicar suggests that he practice for a few months first. It is only years later that he realises that the man who came to his tiny church to play hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ with amazing grace, was named Eric.)

Although I don’t place myself in that hallowed group, in my teens and much of my 20s I obsessed over the guitar, playing for 6-8 hours a day (wrecked my studies and dropped out of college, too). But you ‘played’. You never ‘practised’. There were no distant goals; you merely immersed yourself in the delight of playing the instrument, in the now-ness of the experience and that is what Conford describes so beautifully.

Years ago, I made my only attempt at learning from a teacher. I quit after 2 lessons because he wanted me to practice the exercises he gave me, while I was only willing to play them if they were part of a song or at least a musical-sounding snippet. I met him later and he asked me if I was practicing. I said I wasn’t, but I was playing a lot at home. So he says, “That’s what I meant by practice.” I don’t think he got the idea.

Playing, individually or as a band, outside of performances is essential of course; but intensive, repetitive practice produces chronic competence. It’s a bit like adding a Compressor to your talent – you will never do badly; but you’ll rarely rise above yourself either. A certain amount of the serendipity that can and ought to occur while playing – onstage or off it – can be lost, because much too much is rehearsed and preplanned. Magical moments become fewer.

You may not agree with me; but do go back to Conford’s description of the relationship between the player and the instrument. Do you see digital dexterity as an objective of the foreplay? Producing forth a cleanly arpeggiated Ab Augmented or D# Demented was not the point – that would be a natural by-product of the intense relationship.

Another change that has happened is, I believe, a product of the 80s’ shred guitar trend. Shred guitar was not only about playing at extremely high speeds; its corollary was maniacally mechanical precision. Any note that is off the key or even marginally off the beat is considered wrong today. Friends who cut their teeth on 80s music often fail to understand why older musicians leave in notes that were clearly off the scale or the beat in newer work. “Why didn’t they go back and change it? After all, it was a studio recording!” Ah well. There used to be a higher god than correctness – stream of consciousness, for instance.

You can find fine examples of variable time and chord changes in almost any of John Lee Hooker’s work. The legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson’s recordings of the 1930s demonstrate a totally different definition of tonality from ours today. Check out his ‘Crossroads Blues’ on YouTube.

As one learns more and more about music, the definitions of right and wrong notes tend to get increasingly blurred. Who then, is the final arbiter of the bum note? Just as each of us has her/his own, unique style comprising choice of notes and manner of playing them, we also have completely individual ways in which we make ‘mistakes’. Aren’t we the sum total of all that? The point isn’t that one should or shouldn’t make mistakes or leave them in, in recordings. The point is that there is a choice, provided you accept that mistakes are natural. Unlike the factory-processed leather we usually come across, hand-tooled leather will always have a few marks left by the implements used. As Eric Blackstead said of the flaws in the Woodstock recordings he produced: “Consider them like scars in fine leather; proof of authenticity…”

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Vinoo Matthew

Vinoo has been playing music for longer than anyone ought to, and has played rock, jazz, blues, fusion and music that no one listens to. He plays/has played bass with the Rex Rozario Quintet, Aftermath, River, Gerard Machado Network, Ministry of Blues, Cantonment Jazz Terminus, Chronic Blues Band, Bangalore Jazz & Abstract Music Club, etc. ad nauseum. He also plays lead guitar with the underground group, the Sarjapur Blues Band, proving Frank Zappa’s statement: "All bass players are failed lead guitarists."