Tag Archives: Robert Johnson

Bangalore Sings The Blues: An Ode To The Blues


In the history of all Blues music, there is a man whose life has become a folk tale. Legend has it that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he was flirting with but what really attracts attention to his life is the story of how he made a Faustian deal with the devil. Not that he enjoyed any fame in his lifetime “ he was largely unpopular even long after he died. People have studied his life, interpreted it, dissected and analyzed it.

That man is Robert Johnson and on his 100th remembrance, it took a bunch of music enthusiasts from Bangalore, India to finally take the man’s life and his genius contributions and celebrate it.

The tribute festival here in Bangalore would be free of any bereavement if he’d be a living legend. An Ode to the Blues, which was a venture that started last year by Counterculture, was never meant to be more than a carefully orchestrated gig. It spiraled into a full blown event that attracted even more attention than was intended for it. After the giant success it enjoyed last year, there was much excitement that followed after it was announced to be held again this year. After all, who wouldn’t want to witness a nine day extravaganza that focused entirely on The Blues and its multiple facets with more embellishments than it was furnished with last year?

This year, the fest made a comeback under the catchphrase The Blues Goes to Town. And it has. It is all over town and The Blues is painting the entire town red. Places where you wouldn’t normally expect to hear it. The Egg Factory, Hole in the Wall, Herbs and Spice, and even Rooftop Bar and Grill on Sarjapur Road. It doesn’t end there. This festival is expanding its horizons and including multiple screenings of movies related to the theme at different venues. What makes it even more enticing is the spontaneous busking on streets where people just play the music that they love to anyone who is willing to listen. Just like Robert Johnson did.

For a city that has no dearth of rock and metal music fans, The Blues has always moved in subtle, fairly small circles with the occasional burst of public mention alongside its cousin – Jazz. An Ode to the Blues has broken away from such demureness and has decided to thrust The Blues back in the nooks and crannies of town, on the streets and in every part of the city where the art belongs.

Remember those years when you were a wee kid when all things oriented towards entertainment were on the streets? The circus, theater and music. These things were omnipresent at cafes and outside libraries. These are places of vibrancy and spirit. These are places where you should see someone dreamily strumming their guitars and singing songs of pain and beauty. These are places where you should listen to The Blues if you want to experience it. An Ode to the Blues is Counterculture’s attempt at making you rediscover those experiences. Watching a film that catapults you back to the era when the forefathers of The Blues who birthed the genre, can be quite the rollercoaster ride. Now imagine walking out the door and seeing a man play right across the street. It’s not the same as listening to a digitally manipulated copy of an old number.

This festival is one that envisages a paradigm shift in how people experience Blues music and is one this town has shown great readiness for. They say Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil due to which he gained rapid mastery of the guitar. Is it any surprise that a tribute to The Blues originated on the day of remembrance of a man willing to go that far for his music? An Ode to the Blues captures the essence of The Blues and reconstructs it to be more aligned with its original, pure flavours.

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Swati Nair

Swati is a writer/sub-editor for What'sTheScene. She enjoys most kinds of music and spends all of her time scouting the Internet and re-watching Star Trek and Swat Kats.


The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore


When I stepped into BFlat on 25th Feb 2012, I was sure that I was in for a musical treat. Arati Rao Shetty’s The Kaya Quintet was performing that evening, and like previous occasions, she had invited some immensely talented musicians to accompany her. This time, she had along with her Aman Mahajan on Keys, Keith Peters on Bass, Arjun Chandran on Guitars and Amit Mirchandani on drums.

B Flat is famous for hosting some of the best acts in the country; the place was spacious, the dim lights were beautiful and the waiters were very friendly. I arrived at this lovely place half an hour before the band started with its performance. Eventually, more people started coming in and the band, sans Arati, took to the stage.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore

Arjun started fiddling with his guitar and came up with some melodious licks and soon Aman joined in with some beautiful jazz chords, wonderfully complementing the guitar. The drums kicked in soon and Amit, who was using mallets, displayed some clever use of cymbals. Keith, having finished tuning his bass, then joined in with some solid walking bass lines thus initiating a structured, 3-song-long jam session. The last song in the jam session consisted of an interesting display of the “trading fours” technique in which the musicians alternated brief four-bar sections with the drummer.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore The first thing that one would notice about B Flat is the marvellous sound. Even though on that particular day, the balance was a tad off (the bass seemed to be overpowering the guitars and keys), the overall sound was reasonably good. Secondly, one would observe the dexterity of the musicians performing. Aman Mahajan, who has a degree in music from the Berklee College of Music, Boston, was equally good with both his hands. The last time I had seen him perform with the Gerard Machado Network, he was performing the low-end duties with his left hand while playing pleasant chords and harmonies with his right. Amit Mirchindani is an amazing drummer and I think his drum solos were very intelligently arranged and executed. Arjun Chandran has a very interesting style, and he often peppers his solos with beautiful staccato style licks and has a vast repertoire of chords which gelled with the instrumental solo sections. Keith Peters needs no introduction. A.R Rahman has not recorded with any bass player other than Keith Peters after 1992, when he first jammed with him. However, I was a little disappointed that Keith did not play his funk style slap pop bass solos as he did the last time I had seen him performing with Amit Heri.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore

The fourth song (and the first with Arati) was ‘All Or Nothing At All’. This song was composed by Arthur Altman in 1939. I really liked Arati’s powerful vocals and the song seemed eerily haunting yet immensely captivating to me. I’ve been humming this tune ever since I heard it at B Flat.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore

After this, the crowd was treated to a series of covers of famous jazz numbers such as ‘A Night in Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie and ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ by Richard Rogers. An interesting point about Arati’s singing style is that she takes vocal solos in between verses, humming out tunes, a style which vaguely reminds one of Chick Corea. The bass lines in the track ‘Song For My Father’ by Horace Silver, contained a lot of double stops and slides which wonderfully complemented Aman’s solos.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore

The band then played the 1941 Gene de Paul composition, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, a sad and dramatic song, ending it with a tasteful guitar solo. The song that followed, ‘Rio de Janeiro Blue’ by Randy Crawford, was a peppy upbeat number. I feel the band was impeccably tight in this particular song and Keith’s bassline was irresistibly groovy. Next up was ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk, a slow haunting number, performed by only Arati and Aman. The band then proceeded to perform ‘Tokyo Blues’ by Horace Silver followed by ‘At Last’, an Etta James cover. The song ‘Someone To Watch Over  Me’ was up next, the arrangement for which was done by Aman. The time was close to 11 p.m. and Arati and the gang brought the proceedings to an end by performing the catchy ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ by Robert Johnson, ‘Speak Low’ by Kurt Weil and ‘Just One Of Those Things’ by Cole Porter.

The Kaya Quintet at The BFlat Bar, Bangalore

The crowd seemed to absolutely love The Kaya Quintet which was quite evident when Arati asked everyone what the time was (at 10:45 p.m.) and the people seated promptly replied, “It’s just 9 p.m. Please continue playing!” I left BFlat at 11:15 p.m. with a happy feeling, humming to myself the tunes I had heard that night. On the whole, it was an incredible show that left me keenly looking forward to their next performance.

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Anand Kumar

Anand Kumar plays bass guitar with a few Bangalore bands on and off. He is a coordinator with Songbound - a music outreach initiative that uses singing to reach out to India’s most impoverished children via collaborative projects with schools, choirs and professional musicians worldwide. His other interests include discovering new music on YouTube and computer programming.


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."