Tag Archives: M. S Subbulakshmi

L.Subramaniam and Global Fusion

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The world music circuit in India for 2012 kicked off in fine style with the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, starting off in Bangalore and then moving on to Chennai, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Trivandrum and Kollam through the month of January. The Bangalore concert on a Saturday evening was also followed by a workshop the following Sunday morning, a real treat!

As part of a 20-year tradition, violin maestro L. Subramaniam brought musicians from around the world for a treat of world music dialogues and jam. The annual concert series is a tribute to his late father, the legendary violinist V. Lakshminarayana. I have had the joy of attending over five of these festivals, and this one was particularly outstanding.

The line-up this year included world musician stars Solo Cissokho from Senegal (kora), Miya Masaokha from Japan (koto), and Dhafer Youssef from Tunisia (oud). L. Subramaniam’s entire family consists of musicians, who joined him on stage: wife Kavita Krishnamurthi Subramaniam on classical vocals, daughter Bindu on fusion vocals, son Narayana on classical vocals, and youngest son Ambi on violin.

The festival in previous years has featured a galaxy of renowned artistes such as Yehudi Menuhin, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Al Jarreau, Steven Seagal, Stanley Clarke, George Duke and Jean Luc Ponty. Over the years the festival has straddled a number of genres: Carnatic, Hindustani, jazz, rock, Western classical, Indian folk, ghazals, and Bollywood.

The 2012 show is special, being the 20th anniversary of the festival and the centenary year for L. Subramaniam’s father. A special tribute was also paid to the late great mridangist Palghat Mani Iyer, a frequent collaborator with L. Subramaniam.

Some of my favourite L. Subramaniam albums include ‘Conversations‘, ‘Global Fusion‘ and ‘Duet with Ali Akbar Khan’, as well as his opening track for the Mira Nair movie Salaam Bombay. The DVDs and CDs from the 2012 concert series should make for fine listening as well, but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit!

The 2012 Concert Series

The room and outside lobby area for the Bangalore concert on January 7 were packed with over 2,000 fans, and the show was broadcast live for the first time as well, on Sankara TV .

The programme was anchored by the youthful Bindu Subramaniam, who also joined in vocals on some of the tracks and performed one of her own compositions. She joked often with the audience, asking them to recall the names of the dozen-plus musicians on stage. She also invited the audience to suggest a name for one of the group’s untitled new compositions!

The evening performances straddled India, Japan, Senegal and Tunisia, with over a dozen solo and group pieces. The international solo performances began with Miya Masaoka on koto, followed by Solo Cissokho on kora and vocals. Dressed in kurta and greeting the audience with a ‘Namaskar,’ Solo gracefully won the Indian audience over! Dhafer Youssef’s astonishing vocal range and loud riffs also drew loud applause.

The full band then appeared on stage, with a terrific Carnatic percussion section: V.V.Ramana Murthy on mridangam, G. Satya Sai on morsing, T. Radhakrishnan on ghatam, and B. K. Chandramouli on kanjira (it was also his birthday that evening!). The Western instruments featured Bangalore musicians Preetam Koilpillai on piano, Alwyn Fernandes on bass, Rudy David on electric guitar and Deva on drumkit.

L. Subramaniam and his son Abi led with high-energy violin duets, backed by Kavita Krishnamurthi on vocals. The pieces were artfully composed by L.Subramaniam, giving enough space for all musicians to showcase their prowess, though the audience wished for extra time for more solos. Some of the outstanding moments included solid support by V.V. Ramana Murthy on mridangam for the sections by Preetam Koilpillai on piano and Solo Cissokho on kora, as well as a Persian ghazal featuring lyrical and poetic couplets.

“We are now moving from the mountains of Japan, forests of Senegal, and deserts of Tunisia to the monsoons and plains of India,” said Subramaniam. His mastery of the electric-acoustic violin from slow moody stretches to high-octane crescendos shone through, blending Carnatic and Western sound.

The coordination and synergy between the musicians was flawless, revealing years of playing together in India by L.Subramaniam and the Indian musicians, and the collaborations between L.Subramaniam and the international artistes during festivals in countries like Norway. His entire family of musicians shared an easy rapport with the other artistes.

It is when you are performing with musicians from around the world that you learn how much Indian music is contributing to world music, according to Subramaniam. “Carnatic music from south India is one of the oldest and well-developed musical systems in the world. Global collaborations help you to seek and pursue new directions in your music,” he said in remarks to the press. (A good book for interested readers is Bhairavi – The Global Impact of Indian Music,” by Peter Lavezzoli)

World Music Workshop

The next morning, the musicians gathered again for a workshop for a smaller cosier audience, thanks to generous support from the Ista Hotel. With natural lighting in a tree-top level room offering panoramic views of Bangalore, the musicians explained their instruments and took questions from a curious and excited audience.

Miya Masaoka showed how moving the bridges on the koto led to different scales, but cautioned that moving them too often made it difficult for the musician to remember their positioning. She also showed some visual effects with sweeping plucking movements of the hand. Tuning the instrument can be complicated, since the strings are of varying thickness and length. Gagaku from Japan is the oldest orchestral music in the world, said Miya.

Solo Cissokho had the audience on the edges of their seats as he showed how to build layers of sound on the kora (in “paragraphs,” as he was taught by his father), ending with vocal improvisation in the Mandinga language. The griot community had an important role to play as messengers between kings and citizens, and were also musical healers and activists.

“I built this kora myself,” said Solo. “We have to learn 150 songs to pass the test and become accepted as musicians,” he explained. All this has been taught in oral manner for centuries. “I don’t know how to read written music,” Solo confessed! The Cissokho family is famous for being musicians, as well as the Diabate community.

I asked him how well his music fuses with other forms. “It fuses easily with jazz and blues. After all, the roots of blues and jazz is in Africa,” Solo said. The West African music also lends itself very well to dance, as with much of African music.

The Indian percussionists then took the stage one by one. G. Satya Sai mesmerised the audience with his demonstration of circular breathing and percussive chanting while playing the moorsing. At one point a dozen children ran up and gathered around him, finding it hard to believe how much sound could be generated by a mouth harp using the mouth itself as a sound box! But one can easily cut one’s mouth and lips if one is not careful, cautioned Satya Sai, which probably explains why the instrument is not so popular among youth.

There are entire villages in South India where the entire community is involved in making the ghatam, according to T. Radhakrishnan. He showed how different squatting positions and leg movements can vary the sound and pitch of the ghatam. V.V. Ramanamurthy explained how mridangam had been taught in his family for five generations.

L. Subramaniam also joined in the discussion, sharing insights into the traditions of instrument making as well as humourous anecdotes from his interactions with performers. “I once saw a ghatam player with such a big stomach that I actually thought he had a ghatam under his shirt,” he joked. Other ghatam players would eat a lot of food so that when the ghatam was placed on their belly it would sound unique and different from other players’ sounds!

Some ghatam players would like to throw their ghatam in the air during performances, but crafty mridangam players would not create big enough gaps for them to indulge in such show, he said. Most ghatams are made from clay, but some also used “non-vegetarian ingredients” like yolk, he joked.

L.Subramaniam ended the workshop on a fitting note, by saying that ultimately Carnatic music is about spirituality. “You cannot separate spirituality from Carnatic music. It is based on and evokes feeling for the Supreme,” he said.

“The mark of good musicians is not how much they know, but what and how they feel, how they bring life to notes, and bring in the Divine Breath,” he concluded.

It would be terrific to join the musicians on their roadshow across India for the rest of the month; the next line-up of this festival for is also eagerly awaited!

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Vibha Dhwani at St. John’s Auditorium, Bangalore

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I did not know much about Vibha.org, a charitable organization founded in 1991, when I entered the St. John’s Auditorium on Saturday. By the end of the evening, however, I developed great respect and admiration for the work they do. The event was called Vibha Dhwani where bands that strongly personify Indian culture – The Raghu Dixit Project (TRDP), Agam and La Pongal were invited to perform.

Until Saturday afternoon, I was to watch TRDP, Agam and Yodhakaa play; however, due to slight confusion, as it was put, La Pongal, a Tamil folk rock band, replaced Yodhakaa in the line-up. The band which contained two key members from Yodhakaa was in the middle of their sound check when I entered the disinfectant-smelling auditorium. The stage setting had a nice rustic touch to it, with kites and hay, certain to remind you about the fun times that you had as a kid back in your village. Considering how the whole evening eventually panned out, the stage design intent was spot-on. About an hour to go before the start of the event and Agam, except one member, was nowhere to be seen. Not really a bad thing, as I’ve known Agam to do their sound checks a day before the event, something they did at the Big Junction Jam back in June.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

I had met Darbuka Siva backstage for a short interview. He talked about taking Tamil culture wherever he went, the importance of attire to a performance and musicians as entertainers. A while later, I was in the middle of my interview with the man who symbolizes the beginning of folk rock in modern India, Raghu Dixit backstage when La Pongal started their act. BANG on time! I took a seat in the front row as La Pongal dived into their second song ‘Killiamma‘. Pradeep on the vox and acoustic guitar and Darbuka Siva on the bass co-fronted the band. Pradeep who has a background in Carnatic is a real joy to listen to and was easily La Pongal’s stand-out performer that evening. In my book, he’s got the right voice timbre to become indispensable to La Pongal’s overall sound. The first few songs had a similar structure about them – an acoustic guitar start, bass-drums-tavil joining in and the lead guitarist Vikram providing the fills, a mellow interlude and a crescendo finish. I must also credit Pankajan on the tavil because the folksy touch of La Pongal would have been non-existent if it weren’t for him. David on the drums was having an absolute ball if the sound on the PA was similar to what he heard on his monitors. I assumed that it was, considering he executed a crisp drum solo (and by the looks of it, enjoyed it too) before La Pongal went onto their next song, ‘Vandiyilla Nella Varum’.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Later, La Pongal broke their song pattern to play a song derived from a Tamil folk standard known as ‘Kuravan Kurathi Aatam‘ which was relatively less hard-hitting and mellower. Thumbs up to this one! Pradeep improvised with a guitar solo of his own. At this point of time, I had noticed that the lighting of the stage was also neatly done as it reflected the soft nature of the song. One of their last songs which Siva said was borrowed from a kid’s game, had a nice reggae feel to it. The little inputs to the song were so apt that it did seem like children playing in the background!

Overall, La Pongal still showed signs of starting off as they suffered issues in tightness in some songs. However, of the three bands they had the most rustic sound and I daresay that, with songs like the aforementioned, they were the closest to the theme of the whole event.

After La Pongal made their exit from the stage, Vibha showcased their work through a short movie. I was impressed with some of their innovative concepts like School on Wheels. There were actual clips from how teachers teach the students, a few short classes in Marathi and interviews with the children’s parents. Having their children educated and display the confidence that it brings in their daily life activities put a genuine smile on their faces. Ten minutes after the movie, Agam were ready with their act.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Before you notice any likely bias from this point on, I must warn you that I’m a huge fan of Harish, the frontman of Agam. Trained in Carnatic, he was on that day, confident and charismatic. He does give the impression of being in a hurry though. But coming to the whole band, Agam were really tight, demonstrating great communication, sync and not to mention, loads of practice! They started off with ‘Brahma’s Dance’, a song in the raga Revathi and which incorporated the well-known ‘Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu‘ shloka. Harish’s voice modulations and Vignesh’s slap bass were memorable from that song. They followed it up with a thillana in Raga Dhanashri. This is the same thillana, composed by Sri Swathi Thirunal and made popular by the evergreen voice of M.S Subbulakshmi. Pity not many realize how dry our culture would be if it weren’t for them, but I’m glad that the people took note of Agam’s extraordinary rendition.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Agam then launched into song they were performing live for the first time, a song in Malayalam called ‘The Boat Song’. Praveen, the lead guitarist, was at the center of this piece with some real good work on the guitar. The song was catchy and you should be able to hear more of it in the future. Agam went on to perform a song in the raga Nattai before launching onto an Urdu number called ‘Muqammal’. It seemed to bear a stark resemblance to the kind of songs A.R Rahman would compose. The song had a jazzy opening, with Agam breaking free from their hard-hitting openings and Harish alaaped in raga Ahirr Bhairav. Strangely though, following a dholak interlude the song threatened to end as ‘Lagan Lagi’ from the movie Tere Naam, but thankfully, the band ended it as the original piece should. I noticed a slight echo in Harish’s vocals, hopefully intentional, in their next song, ‘Bandurithi Kolu‘, a Thyagaraja Swamigal composition in the raga Hamsanadham. The song was interspersed with complicated proggy stuff and a good show of tightness and Harish’s vocals backed up by Vignesh’s were brilliant along with some accidentals in the overall song! Here, I could be a cynic and disregard the progressive stuff that a non-elite crowd seldom relates to, but I’m as happy as a frog in the rain that a rock band played Thyagaraja! More of that please!

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

And how can an Agam gig be complete without their ace song, ‘Rudra‘? Their second Revathi song of the evening, ‘Rudra‘ was a mind-blowing hit and it won over the crowd. At a point, it seemed that Harish overdid his vocal roller coaster, but it was a definitive display of skill, energy and stamina. To be at the end of a 90-minute show and still be able to stretch your voice better than minute one deserves applause. Their last song, ‘Malhar Jam‘, was where the crowd was able to recognize the prowess of Ganesh on the drums and Shiva on the percussions who indulged in a jugalbandi with various sounds that people instantly related to and enjoyed. Swami on the keys and Suraj on the rhythm guitar did not appear to take a central role, but I’m certain that without them, Agam’s sound wouldn’t be what it was that evening. Overall, I am overjoyed that a carnatic rock band exists, but a greedy person like me wants more. I would love it if they render more Carnatic compositions in a less hard-hitting style and experiment with other styles of rock. And before I forget to mention, they received a 20-second standing ovation as the curtains closed on an exhilarating performance!

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

If La Pongal received a huge applause and Agam received a standing ovation, then The Raghu Dixit Project went one level further. I’m not sure if people sat at all during his act! I especially loved the lighting during his opening song ‘Hey Bhagwaan’ wherein, we could only see silhouettes! When the song started, there was a deafening roar of approval from the crowd. Maybe it was the moment, but I did feel TRDP were the tightest of the lot. There was a surprise addition to the line-up as Slain’s lead guitarist Bryden Stephen Lewis joined the crew in his debut lungi attire. Sandeep on the flute was mesmerizing, his sound complemented the band perfectly and his solos were out of this world! He would occasionally step up to the podium where Wilfred played the drums and engage in a sort of a telepathic conversation while playing. TRDP kicked on with the Kannada number ‘Gudugudiya‘. Occasionally, Raghu would march with his ghungroos giving the songs an extra dimension. Then finally, TRDP became the first band of the evening, to engage the crowd in their song as everyone yelled out the lyrics to ‘Lokat Kalaji‘, Raghu adding his humourous touch to the explanation of the song’s meaning. Just off the stage, a crowd had gathered and they jumped and danced with gay abandon, while the crowd from the balcony seats gathered and stood in the tier below.

As happy I was when Agam played Swathi Thirunal and Thyagaraja, I was happy when TRDP played songs by Sant Shishunala Sharif, whose poems are widely compared to those of Kabir. Kids in Karnataka learn his poems in school and it was a trip down memory lane for the arguably not-so-many in the cosmopolitan crowd. Coming back to the band, Gaurav Vaz on the bass was impressive with some licks to keep the crowd grooving while Bryden’s solos were jazzy and he made it look absolutely effortless. As a frontman, you really have to admire Raghu. There’s a lot upcoming musicians can learn about carrying themselves confidently on stage.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

TRDP went on to their next song, ‘Sajna‘, a softer number composed by Neeraj Singh in the 7/4 time signature (or Mishra Chapu for carnatic enthusiasts). This song was arguably TRDP’s standout piece of the whole act. People who came to dance near the front of the stage did not mind one bit to camp on the floor, soaking in the soft tunes of ‘Sajna‘. The crowd didn’t have to wait long to start dancing again and singing along to ‘Har Saans mein, Har Dhadkan mein ho Tum’ a song from Raghu Dixit’s work for a movie that is based on Facebook. Raghu cleverly started off with a hilarious jig of Sting’s stalker anthem ‘Every Breath you take’ before beginning the song. I thought it was impossible to accommodate more people near the now-crowded stage front, but I was proved wrong when more people joined in to dance to ‘Mysore se aayi Woh’ where Gaurav Vaz taught the crowd the never-before-heard dance steps of ‘put your hands together’ and ‘jump’. The band then did their trademark group bow before the crowd yelled out for more. And TRDP duly obliged with a last Kannada number before departing the stage. Overall, TRDP demonstrated great skill, sync along with trashing my baseless assumption that folk rock bands are a one-time watch. It would be fair to say that TRDP’s music is the music of the people and it brings out the child in you.

As an event, Vibha Dhwani did not disappoint, not one bit! In fact, those at the show were treated to a great display of music and entertainment! More importantly, the bands that performed, accentuated the message Vibha intended to spread. The event was a good thing to happen to society for more reasons than ten!

Ganesh Viswanathan

Ganesh Viswanathan is a musician, a designer and sometimes both at the same time. Caffeine is known to derive its energising properties from him. Nobody knows the exact moment when he dismantles an idle mobile phone or steals food from another plate.

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