Two dreamers. Eleven collaborations. One quartet. Nine guitars. One voice. Ten stories about urban life in our cities. The image that Delhi-based Adil & Vasundharas debut album Ampersand presents at first glance is very inviting. Its refreshing to finally see Indian bands add relevance to their themes by embracing the awesome chaos that is life in our own cities. Ampersand narrates ten stories from urban India. The concept rings true through the album, but one has to listen closely to really absorb the different themes. Like with most good jazz, the references are subtle.
The core band consists of Adil Manuel on guitars, Vasundhara Viradur on vocals, Saurabh Suman on bass, Sava Boyadzhiev on drums and Rohit Gupta on keys. Although very jazz based, the album explores a lot of funk and rock elements as well. Add to it the fact that some of the best musicians in the country have collaborated with the band on this, it all makes for a very exciting listening experience.
The album starts with 15 Nights to Dawn, a song about the despair of an artist who realizes the true importance of his gift only when it is taken away from him. Loy Mendonsa plays the keys on this. His style is minimalistic and soothing. The lyrics are moving and the song successfully portrays the desperate passion that the theme presents.
The next song Pinocchio Times is about the 9-to-5 woes of the average Joe white collar worker in the city. Collaborator Ranjit Barots drumming is as chaotic as it is controlled: most of the song is on a meter of 11 with several arcane polyrhythms worked over it. The drum solo in the middle of the song is one to watch out for. The album moves on to Refuge, a song about refugee settlements in Delhi. This track employs a very catchy Assamese bihu beat. It has a raw folksy feel to it, uniquely merged into a jazz setting. The outro has Vasundhara humming over the chords creating an eerie soundscape to end the song.
The next two songs Waking Hours and Dog Days provide a small twist to the album, both relatively straightforward compared to the other tracks but enjoyable nevertheless. Waking Hours is about romance in our crowded city streets and features some delicious keys by another Indian jazz giant, Louiz Banks. Dog Days is a short blues number featuring Sanjay Divecha on the guitar and Zubin Balaporaia on the organ.
Now we come to my favourite song in the album. Creek Funk treads carefully at the start, but soon launches into an amazing blend of powerful vocals, brilliant drumming and trademark keyboard licks by Louiz Banks that fill up the sound perfectly. Its not often that the bassline of a song turns out to be such a powerful earworm but bassist Saurabh Suman manages to create a thing of beauty. The song ends with Vasundhara doubling the bassline making sure the earworm stays. This song surely is one for the ages.
The next song is One Winged Goose, a quirky, almost strange number. With lyrics like A flying teapots a goose with one wing one could mistake it for a John Lennon song. Amidst the absurd imagery, Adil Manuels guitar solo introduces a serious counterpoint for a while but Suchet Malhotra guesting on drums restores the wacky feel of the song. This is followed by Parentheses, a beautiful jazzy ballad in French. Even though I do not understand the language, the chorus seems to get stuck in my head every time I listen to it.
Blue Bashing is a loud guitar-driven blues number about the love-hate relationship of a couple, again with a very catchy chorus. All the songs have amazingly layered guitar parts, but this song is the first time one can clearly hear Adils guitar playing take centre stage. The song also has a section of quirky and very well done childrens voices that lend a very dark feel. The artwork for this song is especially intriguing and worth checking out. Also, the fact that there is artwork for every song deserves a special mention. It is very well done and each one represents its respective song perfectly.
The album ends with a slow jazz-blues ballad called Not Another Blues. Vasundharas vocals take the spotlight, with Louiz Banks returning to provide a lovely base to the song. It is interesting to note that they chose to end the album not with the typical last-track-of-album fireworks, but with a number of depth and quality, showcasing the musical ideology of the band.
All in all, this album has excellent production values, catchy songs and contributions by the Whos Who of the Indian jazz scene- a perfect accompaniment to your rainy monsoon evening! With so much going into the album, there are so many &s on the album that it is much bigger than just Adil & Vasundhara, hence the name Ampersand. The name itself represents that there is more to the album than what you would expect, which can never be a bad thing, can it? Ampersand isnt the easiest album for a layperson to digest, but is definitely an absolute treat for a jazz fan or any music-lover. As the band says- Hop on board the AMPERSAND!
Swarathma is a talented group of musicians, just thinking about whom brings an explosion of colors in ones head – not just because of the colourful dresses they don, not even because of the showmanship, the on-stage gimmickry or the props. These colours are of traditional art assimilated in an arrangement of largely western instruments, and the flamboyance with which the band rebukes the dishonest, mocks the ludicrous, and alleviates suffering through their honest rendition of songs that describe the world as they see it.
Their second album, Topiwalleh, is an experience where every word – spoken or sung, every pulse, beat, and measure, is a rush of colours of contrasting human emotions. Your senses are exposed to the entire spectrum in less than 55 minutes, if you listen closely. The melody is almost never melancholic, although when its dark, its ominous.
This album brought with it not just great music, but a lot of creativity in the album promotions too! Right from the colourful topis, the vibrant album cover, to running interesting contests on Facebook, and the launch followed by a Restless Tour that took them to many cities over a period of one month, the band has done a fabulous job of promoting their new album.
Swarathma has six members: Vasu Dixit (vocals, rhythm guitar), Pavan Kumar KJ (percussion, backing vocals), Montry Manuel (drums), Varun Murali (lead guitar), Sanjeev Nayak (violin) and Jishnu Dasgupta (bass guitar, backing vocals), and for the sound that is more refined, all six members unequivocally acknowledge Loy Mendonsa (from the Shankar-Ehsan-Loy trio) who has co-produced this album.
One might as well call the band Swarathma 2.0, because of two noticeable things one, a paradigm shift in the sound of a recorded album, and two, a concept album with many societal messages being delivered within a span of 10 tracks. For the message to be heard and the outreach to be as vast as the problems addressed and solutions needed, their language of choice is Hindi, although they have sung in Kannada on two of the tracks.
Topiwalleh has an effervescent, Rastafarian reggae rhythm, a violin that can admiringly be called the second vocalist for the track, a laid-back 40-second guitar solo and the superb backing vocals. The lyrics take a dig at everything thats wrong in the current political circles. There are many tongue-in-cheek references and no-holds-barred statements that the artists have taken the liberty to make on this track.
Koorane, my favorite track from the album, starts with the sounds that we relate to crying of wolves on a full-moon night. Varun Murali finds a fit to display the rock in his guitar, which is alarmingly close to Roadhouse Blues by The Doors. The song seems to draw a metaphor the mention of a rare animal Koorane being hunted by the hunters (human or otherwise). Think capitalism, consumerism, how the society is fascinated by television and advertisements, while disrobing itself of tradition and a sense of judgment, hypnotized by the domineering supremacy of advertising duplicity.
‘Rishton Ka Raasta is pleasing, and contemplative, with an intention thats driven straight to the heart by the expressive violin (the tone sounding almost like its a Saarangi) that opens this song which is about broken relations and the willingness to mend fences. For me, it delivers the most powerful message in the entire album.
‘Ghum is characterized by a sense of despair, urgency, and hopelessness, made apparent within the first 90 seconds of the song. The mood remains largely that, only youd have to find an interview where the band mentions what this song is about. This is their voice against child sexual abuse, and is the gloomiest of all tracks on the album.
Naane Dari starts with a superb guitar solo but everything else plays second fiddle to the violin and to the terrific lyrics. Naane Daari (I am my own way) talks about hope and leaving the past behind.
Aaj Ki Taaza Fikar may confuse you with the way it begins, if you ever used to trip on Dil Chahta Hai OST (think Jaane Kyun) and perhaps thank Loy Mendonsa? The highlight of this track is the juicy potpourri of all the overused or hyped snippets on the television (Sannate ko cheerti hui sansani and the like). It lands a sucker-punch on the sensationalism as created by the media.
Mukhote has got a fragrant, violin-drenched overture. This is a song about the two-facedness in human relations, the drumming stands out and is most imaginative among all tracks on the album.
Duur Kinara, featuring Shubha Mudgal, has everything that is being and has been talked about already. Shubhas vivacious vocals work perfectly with Vasus high-pitched recital of the Kannada lines on this track about separation from loved ones and the desire to unite, and about tales of a far-away land.
Yeshu Allah aur Krishna is where the arrangement goes back to reggae for most part, the violin speaks as if reinforcing the spoken words, and the vocals are dramatic and appealing. The song speaks about religious evangelists and communalism, but unless you are a in a mood to complain about the issue really, you might just end up dancing along with this one as well.
On a splendid album, where nine songs talk about one powerful subject each, Khul Ja Re is one song that apathetically speaks of optimism with adolescent lyrics and ordinary singing. For being a keepsake from the bands past, Khul Ja Re is forgivable.
All said and done, social issues and worldly worries notwithstanding, Topiwalleh is a fun album. The sheer energy that makes the audience sway during their live shows is not missing on this record. Though the lyrics may seem juvenile here and there, the maturity thats apparent for most part of the album compensates for it. The lead guitar has got to find a voice by bringing in more tones and risk-taking. As far as the percussion and violin are concerned, I would not want to change a thing. For the vocals though, my only sour point remains the habit of throwing the last note (for instance at 1:29 mark in Koorane).
Swarathma has already started working on their third album and until that is out, buying a digital copy of Topiwalleh and listening to it is only the second best choice. The best choice is to land up at a Swarathma gig, and treat your senses to the musical mixture of colors, sights and sounds.