Rahul Sharma, T M Krishna, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Ajay Pohankar, Ustad Rashid Khan, Ustad Ashish Khan at Nehru Centre
One doesn’t often relate a banjo with a tabla or an upright bass in the same setting. They originated from different corners of the world (the banjo originated from Africa, despite its popular country-ish sound associated with American Folk music) and are associated with styles that seem, on first impression, like chalk and cheese. Ordinarily, one does not see Bluegrass or American Folk music blending in with the groove of an upright bass, set to Hindustani beats from a tabla. But then again, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, double bass maestro Edgar Meyer and Tabla legend Ustad Zakir Hussain are not your regular, ordinary musicians.
The 147-year old Bishop Cotton Boys’ School was the venue, on the 10th of February, for the event titled ‘Confluence’ featuring these three pioneers of their respective instruments. An enormous crowd gathered in front of the auditorium at around 6:30 PM, most of them in great expectation of watching the Ustad play.
The event finally started almost 45 minutes late, understandably due to the difficulty in handling a frenzied crowd. Edgar Meyer started out with a short bass phrase and Zakir punctuated it with a Middle-eastern drum sound and Bela followed suit with a progression that segued into their popular tune ‘Bubbles‘ from their CD Melody of Rhythm, which had followed their debut show with a symphony orchestra in Nashville, around 7 years ago. Any doubts of the instruments and styles not blending together were wiped out, as the trio moved as a unit, seamlessly from the familiar opening phrase of the song to Bela’s solo and back, and to Edgar’s solo and back. My only gripe was that considering that this was one of the few groovier songs, this could have been delayed in the set especially since the organizers allowed a few noisy latecomers to pour into the auditorium, staining the experience.
Edgar then began the second song ‘Cadence‘, also from The Melody of Rhythm CD, with a tune in minor scale and Bela countered it with a poignant and minimal phrase that would go on to define a very Indian and solemn setting for the song. But when the tabla kicked in, the song proceeded through a few pleasant and happy-sounding sections before resolving back to the hook of the song, almost like a slow ballet where you can imagine the stage lights darkening, reminding the protagonist of an impending struggle. The musically interesting aspect was that Bela’s style in this song was hardly American Folk or Bluegrass which came to be associated with him. He adopted a drastically different style and he made it his own. Edgar’s slow chromatic arpeggios and Zakir’s differently-tuned dahinas ‘agreeing’ to the opening melody were the other crucial aspects to ‘Cadence‘ being one of the best compositions of the set.
Zakir followed it up with a light-humoured introduction of Bela and Edgar before introducing the guest artist, Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew and disciple of Bansuri legend Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, on stage for the third track ‘Happy Drum Drum Monkey Girl‘. Rakesh himself opened the song with a few impressive tunes on the bansuri, accentuating and sustaining wherever necessary. Edgar joined in with a groovy bass line in 5-4 after which Bela added the distinguishing bluesy tune and Zakir filled in the gaps with those little nifty fills that made knees buckle everywhere. Zakir’s solo which made use of some interesting rhythmic variations had music aficionados in awe, keeping up with the 5-4 count. Following this was a solo by Edgar Meyer, which despite visible scale changes, chromatic walks and pentatonic phrases, seemed to lack in its listenability factor. But regardless of the bassist’s reputation, there was a lot of annoying chitchat in the audience. Seriously, what is it with people and bass solos?
The next was an upbeat song in 12-4 but despite the rhythmic jumps and the seemingly tricky time signature, it was effortlessly performed even without the artistes tapping their foot to keep time! Being one of the more up-tempo songs, the solos employed crescendos that the audience duly applauded. After Edgar made some friends in the audience with a knock-knock joke [I’m-a-pilap], the trio performed a Canon in a cycle of 15 beats, again to the surprise of many, without any visible time keeping. The Canon was played with a phase shift the length of the cycle itself, with Edgar leading the way and Bela following accurately in tow. Zakir matched the duo’s chemistry with dextrous improvisations in the gaps. Edgar’s sublime musicianship came to the fore as each time he had to think of melodies in two adjacent cycles and how they match up to each other, producing magical counterpoints! Pt. Rakesh Chaurasia reappeared on the stage and had a slow jam with Edgar before they broke into a pleasant Abhang-like world music piece. The resting place in the song was Zakir’s oriental-style playing, using melodies from the differently tuned dahinas. And then came, arguably one of the high points of the show – Bela Fleck’s solo piece which started on the lines of Hamsadhwani and then proceeded to a few diminished and country style variations. This was one of the solos that had it all – exploration, technique, soul, dynamism and showmanship. Following this was, ‘E’hem in the key of E‘, a slow jazz standard composed by Edgar and ‘The B Tune‘, a standard in four chords; in the latter however, Rakesh’s solo at times did not sit well with the complex syncopation employed.
And then came the highly expected Zakir Hussain tabla solo with all its ebbs and flows, and there did not seem to be any particular sound of the tabla that Zakir had missed! He introduced a sound and then he made a story around it. Tabla players are not supposed to deal with melody lines, but apparently Zakir missed the memo. Using the tuning hammer and of course, his sleight of hand, Zakir even made the dagga sing the opening line of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik‘ by Mozart! And when it ended, needless to say, jaws dropped to the floor amidst a raucous applause! Following two more standards, the artistes were felicitated and the performance came to a close.
There were a few sticking points, however. It was disheartening to see premature departures for a sizeable number of the audience, in the middle of such a great show. Zakir jokingly enquired if we were still around to listen to the last two numbers. The crowd didn’t refrain from chitchatting in the middle of the performances either and some even turned up for the event, an hour into the show. And if this wasn’t enough, following the show, a few disgruntled and self-proclaimed ‘music-lovers’ angrily demanded to be let into the room backstage where the artists had a few minutes to relax after the show. The well-behaved portion of the crowd will want to take back only the music with them on their way out, but sadly they will also remember these untoward incidents.
To end on a positive note, it is noteworthy to mention that as evidence of this performance, the artistes were definitely neither a slave to their technique nor particularly keen on speed to which they noticed the audience’s spontaneous appreciation. Bela’s triplets were simple yet contained the perfect harmonizing notes and one achieves such musicianship and speed of thought only after years of devoted practice. One would be quick to assign the handling of the groove to the rhythm section, but the trio had the musical acumen to share responsibilities and Bela ably provided the pulse to let Edgar and Zakir explore and venture into more improvisational territories. The difficulty of playing an upright bass is often overlooked, but Edgar Meyer proved that he is truly a virtuoso not just as a bassist but also as a musician. Then we come to Zakir, whose playing never ceases to amaze the audience. His beats are often conversational, he finds the right gaps to insert the odd interjection, yet he retains the groove and does not overplay. Even musicians who attended the concert and who do not play these instruments per se will take home a lot of lessons.
An ideal concert is probably one that gives people a lot to think about in addition to the music that they’ll remember for a while. This was probably one of those events.
While a huge chunk of the junta was relieved to see a midweek holiday on the occasion of Republic Day, Spicmacay occupied themselves by organizing their annual event, the dusk-to-dawn musical event heading into the early hours of 26th Jan. They call this event Yamini and the previous editions were graced by stalwarts like the Late Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Bombay Jayashri, Pt. Ronu Majumdar, Kadri Gopalnath and Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
IIM Bangalore’s open air theatre was the venue for the stellar set of events lined up on the evening of the 25th. The stage setting was above average; the refreshing smell of wet grass had some obnoxious patches of heavily burning wood. Mattresses with blankets were spread in front of the stage anticipating a cold Bangalore night. People who preferred the conventional plastic chair medium for resting their tashreef were thrown further out in the back. The event didn’t start on time, but the delay was forgivable; people did not turn up in large numbers for it to start on time either. The first of the five events – a Hindustani vocal performance by Vidushi Padma Talwalkar, who was trained in the Gwalior, the Kirana and the Jaipur gharanas – started promptly after the routine lighting of the lamp and the intros. And then it began…
… with a bandish rendered in Raga Yaman, the words faintly recognizable as “Ke sakhi kaise kariye“. The vilambit (slower portion of the song) started off slowly, which was probably the intention, the raga chosen also seemed perfect to welcome the audience and wean them into the mehfil. However, the burning wood at the back, which was part of the stage setting blew onto the stage and annoyed the artiste. The MC responded by running out to avert the crisis! Back to the music, and it was still to alter pace almost sounding like a traditional slow Indian wedding song.
Accompanied by Vishwanath Nakor on the tabla, Vyasmurthy Katti on the harmonium and her protégé as a vocal accompaniment (who managed to enunciate better), the artiste then went on to the drut(faster tempo) where she was able to demonstrate her accuracy with the notes; there was one grudge however, the taal wasn’t mentioned so sections of the audience were bewildered where the verse of the drut actually began. She continued onto another raga, Durga wherein she followed the same pattern viz. alaap-vilambit-drut. The third song was rendered in a raga that resembled a cross between Khamaj and Maand, however it was disappointing that the artiste did not mention the names, despite her mastery over the swaras. She seemed at ease throughout the show (too easy perhaps), maybe she was making the whole performance look effortless, but the music lacked lustre for sure. The accompaniments did not steal the show either. A fourth song in an unknown raga concluded the show, but it was clear that the variation among the ragas was missing.
Summing up, this Hindustani vocal performance was a joy at times when the accuracy in the notes was seen. Variations in the melody were far and few, the clarity in lyrics was overlooked and the troupe on stage looked disjointed. One thing that might have changed the monotony was trying out a raga from a radically different thaat (raga family). It was not as if the samay (time) was a factor against performing certain ragas; Durga is a late night raga. The performance overall, was good, but it wasn’t spectacular in any way.
In the first instrumental and carnatic gig of the evening, the violin duo Ganesh and Kumaresh maybe didn’t openly recognize that Yamini needed a lift, but they did take the pain of carefully announcing what was in store, something that the previous artiste only briefly took interest in.
The gig started off with a raga pravesham (non-lyrical composition) in Raga Mayamalavagowla which was expertly performed and would have done justice to any gig as the opening song. The whole unit on the stage seemed to be telepathically connected, maybe it was well-planned or spontaneous, but it was a joy to behold as they went on to perform two more raga praveshams in the ragas Reethi Gowlai and Nalina Kanthi.
The distinguishing feature of the duo was that they were collaborative, competitive and that they complemented each other. While Ganesh would play the higher notes, thereby creating the portion of music that floated above all the other parts, Kumaresh was adept at providing the appropriate vehicle with very well-thought of bass notes. They also continued each other’s pieces, like two close friends knowing what is exactly on the other’s mind. They soloed at will, each solo better than the previous, the audience looked on with awe at each violinist, as if they were in an extremely slow tennis match. The tones of the violins differed slightly; by the middle of the first song a person could close his eyes and tell which one is playing. Moreover, this wasn’t completely a Carnatic concert per se. The artistes ventured outside their niche, creating a new one of their own and incorporated western techniques into their music. Traditional Carnatic listeners were stunned as Ganesh threw a dive-bomb in agamaka, Kumaresh rounded off another mini-crescendo to which the audience applauded thinking that the song was over; later Ganesh tapped notes in a non-Carnatic style while Kumaresh responded with a harmonic equivalent. The note progressions were visibly similar to western compositions.
A ragam-tanam-pallavi in the raga Dharamavati followed, and this was the focal point of the entire concert. The artistes formed pairs with one percussionist each and then exchanged players in the middle of the song providing a different experience with the sound each time. It was fascinating to see the main artistes take a back seat as the percussionists demonstrated their skill with a superb jugalbandi. The artistes rounded up the spectacular show with two more pieces, the first one in Kapi raga which featured Ganesh doing the vocals and the final piece, a fast-paced thillana in Bahudaari.
P. Unnikrishnan was next to set the stage alight; he started off with a traditional varnam in the raga Saveri preceded by a raga alaapana.The varnam was beautifully paced with a lot of emphasis on the lyrics of the song, something which the previous vocalist of the evening failed to highlight. In each subsequent number, you could see the two percussionists – Ghatam Giridhar Udupa and Arjun Kumar on the mridangam – engage in mini-jugalbandis, like two kids up to a lot of mischief. On the violin, HK Venkataraman showed his dexterity with well-timed notes to add weight to the vocalist’s fine voice. The varnam was followed by a piece, ‘Shambo Mahadeva‘ in raga Panthuvarali, in tribute to the popular composer Thyagaraja Swamigal, who had entered samadhi at this time of the year, about 200 years ago. This was followed by another Thyagaraja composition, ‘Nadaloludai’ in the raga Kalyana Vasantham. Both were brilliantly rendered, especially the former wherein the artiste incorporated aneraval (verse improv) and a kalpana swaram (note scat-jam).
The gig progressed onto Unni performing his central piece, ‘Koluva Maragatha’ in the raga Hanumatodi. The raga is known to be very difficult to perform, the very reason why it is chosen by master artistes to be performed in kutcheries. Unnikrishnan was able to bring out the very flavour of the raga in the alaapana; the violinist followed that up with a virtuoso piece himself. Unni then started off unconventionally with the anupallavi (verse) rather than the pallavi (chorus). A neraval and akalpana swaram (in which the artiste made superb use of the divisions) in two tempos was the artiste’s finishing touch to the song before the instruments took centre stage. Ghatam Udupa and Arjun Kumar engaged in an epic jugalbandi that blew the audience away. Mesmerizing stuff!
After ‘Koluva Maragatha’, Unni picked himself to perform his much-loved rendition of ‘Pibare Ramarasam‘ in the raga Ahirr Bhairavi followed by a Senjuruti krithi, ‘Rara Chinnanna Rarori Balakrishna‘, in which he caressed the audience to a dreamy state. A few more krithis and the aristes bowed on stage to be greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd. At times Unni, ‘reluctant’ to open his mouth to sing seemed conservative, but effortless. There was no doubting the fact that the artiste was in a state of flow throughout the performance. The accompaniments were superb and it must have taken some thought to putting this troupe together because their styles blended in perfectly. Overall, this was a spectacular show; despite Unni barely hitting second gear.
A kuchipudi performance provided a brief respite to those who had come there only for the music. The organisers did take the gamble of losing numbers in the crowd by scheduling the popular Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan performance at 3 a.m. The numbers were there however; everyone felt proud and enthusiastic at turning up at that time for the gig. Not a single soul on the chairs at the back; everyone found their places on the mattress.
The Ustad carries the legacy of being another product of a family that has produced some of India’s greatest Sitar players in history including the likes of Ustad Sahabdad Khan, Ustad Imdad Khan (his great grandfather), Ustad Wahid Khan (his grandfather) and Ustad Vilayat Khan. So it was natural that the crowd was very anxious when the Ustad coolly took the stage and took his time setting up his instrument. He wore a relaxed expression on his face as he meticulously tuned his elaborate sitar. No one in the audience dared indulge in useless banter even when the Ustad prepared his sitar, for the fear of missing out on the start of the performance.
The artiste who belonged to Etawah Gharana, then promptly announced what was in store, with a smile. He appropriately chose Miyaan ki Todi as his first raga and then took the audience on a journey through the stars with a superb alaap. Some of the audience felt it necessary to recline and observe the fast moving clouds in the dark orange sky while the Ustad went on to a faster version of the alaap viz. the jod. Witnessing nature itself altering its pace to keep up with the music was a heavenly experience.
The vilambit was rendered in teen taal and the Ustad’s mastery over the notes and the raga improvisations were simply superb. The audience surrendered themselves at such a powerful manifestation of music and when they were still lolling their heads, the Ustad went onto the madhayama and the drut. There was a deafening applause from even the reclining audience as the Sultan rounded off the piece.
The composition ‘Babul Mora Naihar Chhuto hi Jaaye‘ in raga Bhairavi which was similar in structure to the previous song was extraordinarily performed. The tabla player provided superb support and exchanged appreciations with the Ustad after each of them finished off mindblowing parts. It was fitting that the sky began to lighten up as the artistes looked to round up their performance. If there was any Indian classical instrument that had to welcome the morning sun, the Ustad advocated the case of the Sitar very well.
On the whole, the event was fabulous and a lovely experience. Kudos to Spicmacay!
When a leading newspaper advertised the ‘Splendor of Masters’ show, the first thing that drew attention was the eclectic mix of musicians roped in to perform under the aegis of the performing arts company, Banyan Tree. With my nose wrinkled due to the lack of a bassist in an ensemble that contained flutes, saxophone, tabla, drums and a harp, I warily approached the venue looking for a parking space for the car, and as I quickly found out, parking at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall was a pain in the clutch box.
The warning bell proved to be a useful system to usher in the crowd. The lights dimmed and then brightened up again, whetting the musical appetites that I’m sure the close-packed audience had. Quite the anticlimax, but I was glad the show started on time, and when the curtains drew to reveal a 6-foot high glistening harp that drew oohs and aahs, I was willing to bet the collective thought at that point in time was: we’re in for a treat.
Gwyneth Wentink played three classical pieces in all, and took pains to harp about the harp in an amusing (and not so condescending) way. To say that the performance was soul-stirring would be an understatement; her performance showcased not only her skill, but her understanding of the Indian audience’s ability to appreciate the technicalities of Western classical music.
Right after this, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), his protégé, and Subhankar Bannerjee (tabla) concluded the first half of the show on a slightly soporific note, not to say that what they played was bad in any way, but a lilt and a skip here and there would have ensured that three of my neighboring audience members did not drift away into sweet slumber. (Or was it intentional?)
A ten-minute breather after this first section saw samosa-lovers proceeding to the kiosk outside while strict crew members ensured that no one sneaked eatables into the auditorium. Kudos to the crew and ushers: who manned the isles during the show, urging people to turn off their cell phones, the eternal curse of gigs, or helping restless babies’ parents and restless parents’ babies to exit the auditorium, for obvious reasons.
George Brooks walked onto stage ‘blowing his own trumpet,’ nodding his head and dancing to his own tune on a tenor sax and dished out a groovy piece with Gino Banks displaying his skill on the drum kit. I thought the bass drum seemed too boomy initially, but as we settled into the ‘groove’, the feeling went away: either due to acclimatization, or because it sounded so bloody good, thanks to Mr. Banks finesse on the drum kit.
The grand finale with all the musicians present was delightful, and what helped was the excellent sound at this venue on this day. The western instrument players displayed their feel for the nuances of Indian classical music, and Panditji was phenomenal in the way he led the troupe. He humored the crowd after an encore, and played a piece each in the Hamsadhvani and Pahadi ragas.
Banyan Tree intends to bring together Indian and International artistes in this manner, and if they pull off a gig such as this, rest assured, I’ll be there.