Tag Archives: Vinoo Matthew

The Tyranny of Technique and the Magic of Silence

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Playing a guitar essentially involves fretting a string with one hand while striking it with the other. As a right-handed player (I was born left-handed but that is another story), it is my left hand that determines the notes, and therefore the melody, while my right produces the sound. Techniques are add-ons, alternative ways of playing a set of notes. Instead of merely fretting and striking each note, you do something different with either hand, or both.

Till a few decades ago, descriptions of technique were centred on sliding, hammer-ons/pull-offs, bends/reverse bends, harmonics, etc. All of these were left hand techniques. Right hand methods were relatively fewer and simpler, consisting mainly of variants of alternate picking. The advent of the electric guitar and amplifier and of effects processors in particular, changed this equation considerably. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘pyrotechniques’ with the whammy bar and feedback; and the first experiments in two-handed tapping by Steve Hackett or Harvey Mandel (depending on which story you choose to believe) started a new trend. Soon you had pinch harmonics, 2-handed tapping, electric hand-drill picking, sweep picking, banjo-style claw-hammering, slapping and popping and so on. All of these are right-hand techniques. When technique moves from the hand that creates different notes to the hand that produces the sound, you can see that ornamentation is beginning to take precedence over the person wearing them.

This is not a rant against technique. I’m merely putting forward one possible perspective on where techniques stand in the overall scheme of things. Techniques are extremely useful. They spice up your playing, add tonal variety, grab the attention of listeners and make them go, ‘Wow!’ But today almost every guitarist, at any level of playing, feels compelled to learn every new technique that comes along. Once you’ve done that, you find it necessary to utilise them whenever you can. Technique then becomes compulsive, both in the learning and in the deployment. I recently heard a guitarist play riff upon fleet and fluent riff, each with a different technique, none of which had any connection to each other or to what the other musicians were playing; bereft of melody, lyricism or expressiveness, it was purely a demonstration of physical prowess. A more seasoned guitar player justified this approach, “But his technique is excellent.” Technique has been allowed to become its own justification. Onanism comes to mind – it is entirely about technique, too.

At much higher levels of guitar playing, the worship of multiple techniques segues into a celebration of myriad styles. I watched this very renowned, highly proficient guitar player once, in an impromptu performance. He played rock on an electric guitar, then moved into jazz and then into finger style jazz. Then he played fusion on a steel string acoustic, eventually moving on to playing classical on a nylon-string. All of it was done with consummate expertise and ease. Except that at the end you were left with nothing that had touched you, nothing that went home with you. One listener described it beautifully, “He performed everything without playing anything.” Exceedingly fluent, highly skilled, consistently reliable, extremely versatile: without the heart, guitar-playing becomes a sport.

The ascendance of technique has also been supported by a strong distance-learning industry spewing out instruction videos, on-line lessons, magazines, books, etc. We have allowed them to collectively create a large number of well-schooled clones. It is easy to teach techniques at $29.95 each – but you won’t find lessons that teach you to play goose-bump-inducing feel or shivers-up-and-down-your-spine expressiveness. You’ll need to discover this for yourself; and that is how it should be. Think back at the musicians who came up with your favourite techniques – which video did they learn it from? The great jazz pianist Bill Evans was once asked to demonstrate some of the exquisite chords he used to play. He refused, saying that he did not want to deprive others of the pleasure of discovering beautiful sounds for themselves.

Any student of linguistics will tell you that new words and descriptors do not pop up randomly. They are rooted in the cultural context from which they evolve. Today, if ‘riffs’ are ‘chops,’ the guitar an ‘axe,’ a great guitar player has ‘monster chops,’ and the headline of an ad for an acoustic-electric bass in ‘Bass Player’ magazine says, “Step up and slam low-freq through them until their tongue-studs crack their molars,” it means we have elevated guitar-playing from a sport to a gladiatorial sport.

Technique is about how you play notes, but playing music is much more than that. Allow me to describe one more aspect of this. I call it the Magic of Silence.

Take two very simple riffs: one which goes from C to D and another that goes from C to E. What is the difference between the two? Both start on the same note, both end on higher notes and both can be played on the same string. The simplest explanation is that the end notes (D and E) make all the difference because they are of differing pitches or frequencies. But this isn’t really true. Any musician knows that a C-D riff is the same as an A-B progression despite differences in pitch. It’s just that the riff has been transposed to another key. The difference between the two is actually about the ‘harmonic interval’ (major 2nd versus major 3rd, if you must), or the musical space between the notes. The point becomes clearer if you consider a drum beating a 1-2-3 and then a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. Both involve the same stick beating the same skin and producing an identical sound with every stroke. The only thing that has been altered is the silence between each drum stroke. Music is not about how you manipulate the notes that you play. It is about how you utilise the silences between them.

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Interview with Rex Rosario

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WTS: Rex, tell us about your experiences from your childhood and your tryst with music, how did it all begin?

Rex: I don’t remember exactly when I started learning, music is a traditional thing for us – it came from my grandfather, to my father and to me – and it keeps on going. I started learning the rudiments of music around the age of 13. My father had a band, Jakes Rosario and his Feet Warmers, and he inducted my brother and me into it at that tender age when we knew nothing about music. He made us play parts in it – my brother was a trumpet player and I was put on the clarinet. Later on we bought an old soprano sax and I used to play on that for some time.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: Tell us more about your father Jacob Rosario.

Rex: Dad was very famous – he had played at the Taj hotel in Bombay and was among the first Indians to tap dance while playing the trumpet. He was also a hockey player, and was a part of the team that was the winner of the 1944 Maharaja gold cup. They went for an exhibition match in Mysore and on the way they met with an accident, and about nine of them died in that accident – my father was spared but he had to amputate his right leg. Just imagine his plight when he was a dancer and a hockey player to lose one of his legs. After that he was not into music much but he joined the studios later in Madras and he has played for many films. Dad was a Louis Armstrong fan, sometimes when he played in Bombay they used to call him the Louis Armstrong of India – great showmanship with the aluminium bowler hat!

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

WTS: Tell us more about your father’s background.

Rex: Very little of his background is known. He told me that he and his brother learnt from my grandfather Samuel. My grandfather used to be transferred often, sometimes they were in Jamshedpur and sometimes in Bhadravati… in the bargain his education got hampered. My father wasn’t very educated, he then joined the Auxiliary Force of India (AFI) and used to play in the AFI band and he’d skip that and would sneak out to play in the dances and come back later in the night as if nothing happened (laughs) – he’d jump over the fences and get inside. He learnt things the hard way but learnt it very well. Army people are well-trained and whoever they teach, they teach in the right way. That was the advantage that I didn’t have. I had to struggle a lot, to understand itself was a struggle – the theory part of it. My father did teach me the basics very well but by the time I could learn to some extent that would help me go further, he passed away. Dad put us on the right track and the fundamentals were taught very correctly – this is how you have to learn, this is how you have to play, this is how you have to practice. But he was very rude and I wasn’t interested in learning. After he passed away, I thought I wouldn’t play this anymore. I was so against it. Then I said, “No, this is my dad’s tradition, my family’s tradition, forget about what happened to me. I’m going to do something with this.” That’s what I’ve been doing.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

WTS: So you come from a family of musicians?

Rex: Yes, my father and his elder brother Paul Rosario were very popular musicians. My father’s elder brother’s sons have also become very famous. One of them, Benny Rosario, has played with Bappi Lahiri and a lot of artistes all over the world and the other one, Lester Rosario, became one of the best drummers in India, he is still in Goa. He’s got a band called Lester and his Swingsters. 

WTS: How did your journey as a musician continue from there?

Rex: We were not so frequent with playing initially because we had to find a job and take care of the family so there was a lot of gap in between. Later, I joined LRDE (Electronics & Radar Development Establishment) and there I joined an orchestra that used to play Indian music. Very eminent players were a part of it like Mysore Ananthasami Rao who was a very popular music director, Violin Srinivas who is a very good violinist, Mr. Pawa he’s a great qawwali and ghazal singer. These were the people I worked with – I was just a bachcha who knew nothing but the A B Cs of music. Then I picked up a lot of Indian classical music through Mr. Pawa, he used to guide me and tell me everything about what note to hit, how powerful it is, which note is important, which raga, how to come to it and all such things.

By the time I was 19-20 years there wasn’t much going on with jazz music but I took a liking to it, because right from the beginning, there was jazz music being played in the house. I was very fond of melody. I’d catch up any melody and I used to tell my dad this tune is like that and he’ll write it down and play it. So that sort of a liking I had towards melodies. I was very attracted to jazz music. I realized that time that there’s nothing like this, but we were handicapped without proper schools and material to learn music. Then somehow we had to gather material from here and there.

Finding time to practice was quite tough that time. I got married very early, you can understand after that what will happen (laughs); it was chaos after that. So many things came in between and music became secondary. The most important thing was there was no scope for this kind of music. Whenever we played it wasn’t liked much by the younger generation, but anyway I stuck on to it. I said this is my love and I will die with this, whatever happens.

Earlier to that, I played with orchestras, where they have Hindi music, which had interludes, preludes… I used to write down from the record – transcribe and then play it. That’s when I developed my ear for transcribing. Later I said this is not my kind of music, I’m wasting all my time -till 1978 I was stuck in this. Then I realized it cannot be like this. Slowly I gave up that also. Then we started playing at birthdays, weddings with anybody and everybody. Till 1985 I did this and then said I can’t go on like this. Even if I don’t find the right kind of musicians to play with, I’ll start off with anybody. Then I started The Rex Rozario Quintet in 1985. So I got along with some talented guys and we practiced for 10 days, I took leave and then we did a show at Chowdaiah Hall – that was organized by Deccan Herald. I’ve preserved all those newspaper clippings!

After that, that also broke up. They played for cabarets and all that, you know, because it was their livelihood, and if they didn’t play there was no money in the house. There were a lot of these cabaret restaurants back then. Whenever I was short of money for school fees I’d go and play for 2-3 months and once I had enough money I’d say bye-bye. I didn’t like it, I was forced to do it, you know, I didn’t like to play for somebody who was stripping and all that.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: What were the music trends during your father’s time?

Rex: That time there was a trend for this kind of music at hotels because all the Britishers were there and these musicians would be hired to play there based on contracts for 3 or 6 months to one year. Those days they had the real dancing crowd. They’d play this plus the improvisations while the music goes on. Like Duke Kellington’s band is danceable but still they would do this out of the way stuff. Each one had to read music and read parts to the dot, because it is harmony and you can’t go wrong. If its melody it’s adjustable – you can take any note and it’ll come off somewhere (laughs) – with harmony you can’t do all that – each one’s break is connected like a computer. Especially those western, US or European bands, if you hear them you’ll be amazed how these guys can do the same thing, all of them! If you hear them, all will give that drop, that bend, all will sound the same as if there’s one instrument playing! That kind of skill and talent you won’t get anymore, it’s finished, because the trend is like that. There is too much easy learning and things are easily available on the computer and the internet but you don’t have that human get together and understanding. You’re-inspired-by-me-I’m-inspired-by-you sort of playing and that sort of music is not there anymore. It’s too technical with a lot of shortcuts. It doesn’t work anymore, it won’t work.

WTS: What happened after you put together The Rex Rozario Quintet?

Rex: I knew very little about jazz and the others knew nothing, I said no, come on let’s do it. Somewhere it has to start! After starting that band we felt that we are not up to the level for playing jazz. So we needed a lot of practice, which was a problem for us, because getting a place to practice, getting the instruments, equipment etc. everything was a problem. It was not going the way we wanted it to go. So I had to resign my job in order to pursue music. I had a very good job, I was a class-one officer, a very wanted person and was nominated for National award in my field, but I gave it up. I said music is my first love.

Another thing was that I was not able to get a good saxophone. There was nothing available here and I had to go to Singapore to buy a saxophone. I quit my job, took the money I got from the encashment of my leaves and got about Rs. 60,000. I took that money and went to Singapore, bought a saxophone and came back – that was a student model. I started playing here and there and tried to continue playing jazz music. There was the Jazz Revival Group  Dr. Tom Chandy’s band – we encouraged him and we were the ones to launch it – Bruce, Vinoo and Victor, and I played for this band. Our first show was a show called ‘Swing Time Jazz’. From that time I was in the scene and till now I’m still there, although many other people have come and gone. Denzel Bentley died- when we were just trying to get into the thing in our band, after that he got sick and he died. He was a very good trumpet player; I was very fond of him. For jazz, we need two front-line musicians it’s very important, to weave some harmonies into the music but we cannot do that now. Unless the two of you have that taste and that phrasing idea for jazz, it’s chaos. It’s always been a compromising story throughout.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: What happened after you guys started playing together?

Rex: Even then I wasn’t able to find a nice band. I was with all these guys, each one will come for some time and then they’ll say I’ve got a band. They’d say first preference is for my band, whenever I have a show I won’t come for you. I had no other choice but to say okay whenever you’re free please come and play. Jagdeesh was playing with The Styluses and once I met him at a jam session with Peter Isaac’s band and I asked him, “Would you like to play the kind of music I’m playing?” He said, “If it is challenging I’ll take it up,” and I said, “You come and try it.” Then he stuck on with me, for 2-3 years he played. But it was always a struggle, every time I had to search for musicians. I had to put an ad there at the Peacock hotel – musicians wanted to play for this band. Nobody turned up.

It somehow went on, till now something is happening. It’s not totally off the scene. A lot of jazz programs used to happen those days – foreign bands used to come, now for the past 10 years nothing is happening. They had these yatras – they used to land up first in Calcutta, Bombay, then go to Madras and then come to Bangalore, the last in the circuit. The decline is because rock and metal has taken over. Who wants to sit and study the scale and the chord? They just want to go on the stage. My grandson was telling me one of his cousins says the best part of playing the guitar is going on the stage and breaking it. It’s terrible! It’s laughable but very serious. If such things get into children’s minds, what will they do later?

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Vamsi Krishna

WTS: How was it trying to learn songs back in those days when you just had vinyl?

Rex: We had gramophones, the LPs – 78 rpm things, and later the tapes came into the scene. We had two gramophones. Dad would mostly play Louis Armstrong, and would write down some parts – it’s called transcribing – you hear it and you write it. Dad used to sit and write parts for everybody – tenor, trombonist, pianist, bass players – those days we had the acoustic bass right – double bass, he wrote parts for everybody except the drummer, and each one had to play their own parts. It was well organized. People who knew music only could sit there and play. My father was a very harsh man, he’d get angry and start shouting and using these bad words (laughs). They used to fear to play with him, he was very strict.

WTS: How would the band rehearse a new song?

Rex: We used to get score sheets- written music, leaflets as well as booklets. Each leaflet would cost about Rs. 20 – all from England or the USA. Nobody from India did anything like that. Those days every band would need to get new numbers, each one will try to beat the other. So they’d get the score for all the Elvis Presley songs, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sara Vaughn – all their scores would come in leaflets or booklets. Leaflets would have only 2 leaves, booklets would have about 5-10 songs in each book. The scores, words and piano parts would be there; from there they would try to do their own arrangements.

WTS: How have you seen the live music scene evolve over the course of 30-40 years from hotels in Bombay to orchestras to the jazz music scene to today?

Rex: In the field of jazz, nothing much has happened despite the good talent. There’s nobody to channelize them into this field, there are no good schools to study jazz, no good bands coming in and trying to influence them. To get a good band you need a lot of money and some big company has to sponsor it, it’s a very costly affair. These are the main reason why jazz is not progressing. Those days we had jazz bands playing for weddings, now even that has gone to dogs. Hotels these days want 2-3 piece bands because of various rules and restrictions. So based on this, music is not really doing well except for rock and metal. And DJs have taken over now. Then there were so many dance bands that died after the 70s. Dance bands like Fred Hitchcock Band, Eddie and the Rhythm Stars, Bruce Gabrielli Band, these were the prominent bands in Bangalore that played some decent music – the jazz standards, plus improvising, all that was there. But after that it slowly dwindled down to bands like The Human Bondage and things like that playing only rock and Beatles kind of music. So there’s nothing much in the jazz scene since then, and it is sad to say that after all these years.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: How can one bring music back into musicians?

Rex: That’s a good question, worth pondering over. First of all they should be dedicated – they should have an aim – “I must reach that level”. To reach that level you can get any amount of material now. All that matters is time and dedication, if you have that you can bring in real good stuff because very talented and intelligent guys are there now. It’s easier for them to come to that level faster than the earlier days. You get all the things on the internet, all that you have to do is remember and utilize it in the place where it’s required.

The other day Robert (Xavier) had an iPod and he played a minor 7 flat 5 chord and he switched it on and on the screen that chord window came up with all their alphabetical names, plus if you want to hear the sound, you can press a button and get all the sounds! What more do you want, eh? Got my point? You don’t have to struggle and say “I don’t know what the sound of the minor 7th chord is”. There it was! I said my, this is amazing. We played some tune, very fantastic – it’s by the Nassimento group. He played the tune; I didn’t know the name of the tune. He just switched on the internet and by hearing that sound getting through this equipment – it says the tune is so and so. I said this is magic! It’s like telling your fortune or what are you or what are you thinking! So much is the technological advancement; it’s so easy to get material to your ears. Those days to understand one chord I had to search, ask ten people before I came to know what that was. Where to go and ask first of all? Even if they knew they won’t tell you or they don’t know how to teach. To teach is another gift, everybody cannot teach – my father had the least gift for teaching. He cannot stand nonsense or accept one mistake no matter what your age is or what your level is. So you can’t learn anything, what happens is your interest and inquisitiveness is suppressed. Nowadays a lot of scope is there to do good music; they have to be dedicated and honest. You have to reach your destination, you’ll reach it somehow.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: Is there any hope for revival?

Rex: Hope is there unless these youngsters are brought back and channelized into it. They’re like these flocks scattered everywhere and we need a lot of ranchers. (laughs) You can imagine that scene no – all are going in different directions and you need to bring them into one direction. It’s tough, it’s not impossible but it’s very difficult. To divert the youngsters mind to the right direction is very difficult. Because everywhere you see there’s only heavy music – jumping and skipping.

But they are not to be blamed, it is the family, the way he’s brought up, what he’s exposed to – that is important. Somewhere in the corner one person is exposed to the right stuff, he comes up well. You can’t blame these kids. You show all the things and say don’t choose it, what is he going to do? That is the mindset, children will do anything to get anything they want you can’t control them or lie to them.

You youngsters think of some way to bring back the old, original stuff. Without an audience we are nothing. Back then we had a proper audience and residents, there was no infiltration, no people coming in from different cultures, those people bring their culture, slowly they get onto the stage and have many shows and our children are affected, you are forced to go into that. Everything is adulterated or diluted; it’s not the original and the real stuff. Bangalore folks are very good in music. All the orthodox Hindus stick to Carnatic music and the Marathis are very good in Hindustani. They are superb, you cannot beat the Marathis in Hindustani classical music, they stick to that and they are excellent in that. If such people are exposed to jazz music, they’ll do very well. Now they are trying to do fusion and all that. Fusion is not happening the real way now. If you want to do fusion you must know one thing very well, either you know Hindustani music or you know western classical or jazz or you know Carnatic, then you can combine it some other form of music and call it fusion. Taking some music and mixing it up then everybody starts jamming – that’s not fusion. You have to know something very well before you can mix something else with that.

Everyone after learning a few things in music wants to go on the stage and get applause. Music is not about going on stage. It’s about expressing what’s inside you and treating the people. Your expression should be accepted – that is reciprocation – music is you play, I listen – that’s it. If I like it, I’ll clap if I don’t like it I’ll walk out. That audience-performer relationship should be maintained very well, you have to do justice there; otherwise it’s a flop show.

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The Himalayan Blues at Counterculture, Bangalore

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It was a Friday evening and the roads were wet and slippery after the incessant rain. I was exhausted after an arduous journey all the way from Electronic City to Whitefield but happy that I made it half an hour before The Himalayan Blues gig began. I was really excited and was looking forward to a bluesy night with not one but three remarkable bands. I armed myself with a notebook, a pen, a glass of whisky and a pack of cigarettes before I settled down at the table right at the centre of the long corridor where candle-lit tables were beautifully laid out.

The first band on stage, The Hudugaas, had completed their sound check and were about to start playing. The first thing you’d notice about The Hudugaas is the guitar sound. It was loud, crunchy, very raw and, very bluesy – the perfect sound for a blues band. The sound was achieved by connecting a Fender Strat directly to a Marshall amp and fiddling with the sound controls. The rhythm section, handled by Vinoo Matthew (Bass) and Deepak Raghu (Drums), was groovy and provided a solid foundation for the band. Most of the soloing was done with a harmonica which blended in quite beautifully with the blues setting. However, if you had come to witness a blues guitar ceaselessly wailing away, you would have to wait a while. The lone guitar solo on ‘Sinister Purpose’ was very ordinary and the notes were not clear in certain sections.

The band succeeded in drawing the reluctant crowd onto the open area between the tables and the stage. I suddenly realized that my feet were subconsciously swinging to the rhythm. The band’s set comprised entirely of covers and they kicked off the proceedings with ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, a song popularized by The Howlin’ Wolf. The vocals on the second song ‘Key to the Highway’ – a Charlie Segar song popularized by BB King, were particularly impressive. The set was completed in half an hour with a couple of blues favourites such as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Pride and Joy’.

Next up was Izzy and Chris – a band from West Virginia that is heavily influenced by the country music scene there. They are a very laid back duo with Izzy handling the guitars and vocals and Chris playing the mouth organ. The entire solo section was handled by Chris. Their set easily blended in with the cool evening air and got a lukewarm response from the crowd. The first things you’d notice about the band would be the dexterous flamenco style strumming, the strong vocals and the beautiful harmonica work. They played multiple songs from Izzy’s record Preachin’ The Blues Vol 1. There was a lot of raw emotion in his voice which was very touching at times. However, I must say it got a little too monotonous towards the end because an hour long set with broken guitar strings, irksome guitar tuning on stage and an energy-sapped performance is simply too bothersome to digest even for the most devoted Blues fan.

Last on stage was The Jimi Hocking’s Blues Machine. This is definitely one of the best blues bands I have seen on stage. Jimi was flawless with the guitar and had an incredible voice. Karl’s bass lines were irresistibly groovy and Greme’s drumming was simple yet effective. The crowd obviously loved these guys as this was certainly a great change of mood. The whole place suddenly came alive with excitement. Jimi’s song, ‘I Think I Can’ about the blues train in Melbourne, was a peppy number which effectively showcased his showmanship. Their set was a right mix of own compositions and covers, covers which were tweaked a bit to give them a great flavour. Jimi is a great performer who interacts with his audience a lot and ensures they’re having a great time. He doesn’t fail to display his dexterous guitaring skills by playing the guitar behind his neck and under his legs – an immensely popular Jimi Hendrix stunt. The covers played included John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ ‘All Your Love’ and Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’. On the whole, this band was tight, played well-orchestrated numbers and had extremely powerful stage presence. Jimi Hocking was definitely the fix for a blues guitar junkie yearning to hear a blues guitar ceaselessly wailing away to an irresistible groove.

On the whole, the experience was fantastic and the sound on the PAs was incredible. The bands put up a great show and the crowd had a wonderful time which was very obvious because by the end of the show, almost everybody was standing and shouting out for encores.

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

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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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Interview with The Ministry of Blues

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The Ministry of Blues (MoB) play a genre of music that originated in the 1900s, but combine it with a distinctly 21st-century flair. The band’s music is not the laid back, lonesome blues but a hard-hitting “we’re coming at you like a ton of bricks” blues played with finesse and a deft touch. Red Hot Blues Rock is what they call it! The MoB line-up includes Philipe (vocals & lead guitars), Vinoo (bass), Rauf (vocals & keyboard) and Deepak (drums).

WTS: Let’s start off with a bit of background information about MOB, how did it start and of course what made u call it The Ministry Of Blues?

Philipe: The three of us used to play together (Deepak, Rauf and Philipe) in a band called Aftermath. It sort of died around the same time that Ministry of Blues started. Not too much of a gap between the two. That was more of a hard rock band. Then we just got fed up of the music that we were playing, so we disbanded. Deepak came out with the idea of forming a blues rock band, nobody was playing blues rock then, we were the only band. Also Ministry Of Blues in short is MOB and it’s a genre of music that caters to the youngsters so we thought of calling it that.

Deepak: So we just thought of this name and everybody liked it immediately.

Rauf: I liked the whole MOB feel!

WTS: How has the band transformed in terms of members?

Philipe: That was for a very short period. The band formed when the other bassist (Sarat) left, he played for probably six months before he got transferred somewhere else. So the actual band started moving only after Vinoo joined.

WTS: How easy/difficult was it for you to make it big in the Bangalore music scene?

Deepak: Firstly, we don’t think we’ve made it big. We don’t take it so seriously. We just enjoy our music.

Philipe: People call us veterans, there’s a big difference between that and making it big!(laughs)

Vinoo: As long as we’re playing we’re happy.

Philipe: We’ve been there done that. I used to play in a band called Hammersmith, we had a whole lot of stuff going, my brother used to drive that band. We were Asia’s second act on MTV back then. What did we get out of it? Nothing. Rock machine went on for a short while and then they turned into Indus Creed. They had three albums after that. What happened after that? Nothing. Making it big is difficult unless you’re doing traditional Hindi music. You take Shankar Ehsaan Loy for example. Who are those guys? Ehsan was the guitarist of a band called Crosswinds, Loy was a hardcore keyboard player, now they have made it big after getting into Hindi music. For English music it will always be an issue. We don’t see it gaining equal popularity. Playing live, you can have a good day, have a good show, and the crowd has a blast. It ends there. Taking it beyond that and cutting out albums, making money out of it’s just not happening.

Deepak: People don’t make money out of albums. That audience is not there.

Vinoo: Many, many years ago, when I was in my teens I had decided that I’m not going to earn by playing music. It reminds me of things that I don’t want to do. I firmly believe that the only decent thing a musician can do is to play in front of people. Everything else is done to death. All this recording, being in albums and all that, it’s all done to death. The only thing that matters is that you play in front of people.

Deepak: That’s completely gone. In today’s world very few artistes/bands actually make albums and sell it, it’s the age of free downloads on the internet. Where is the money? The money is only in playing live.

Philipe: We are playing live but the market is not so big for English acts and guys playing Western music.

Vinoo: Take India’s largest band – Indian Ocean, they earn a large amount of money but they are making their money only through live performances. In fact their next album is being given out for free on the internet. I spoke to the guitar player, who’s an old friend of mine. I asked them why they are doing this, because I was very curious. He said “The record labels are the only ones who make money out of it, we get nothing out of it so we might as well give it for free.”

WTS: In a city that has a lot of rock and metal bands what is it like being a blues rock band?

Deepak: It’s nice. We enjoyed it, it’s something very different and new, and I think it’s still fresh, it still sounds good to people.

WTS: Ministry of blues only plays covers. Why won’t you play originals?

Vinoo: We haven’t got around to it. It’s not a priority.

Philipe: What we really like to do is take up covers and uncover covers. Most of our songs, I would say, are quite far from the originals.

Vinoo: They take quite a bit of work as well. Each song takes quite long! It takes a few days before we’re happy with it. There are a few songs we don’t play because we aren’t completely happy with it.

Philipe: Every college band says “Ok guys…Hi! Welcome to the show, we are going to do one of our own compositions”. We played in Vellore and the only criteria they gave the student unit, was to get a band that will not play their own material. The crowd doesn’t enjoy it! And also with this genre that we’ve picked up, it’s been done to death.

Deepak: In this genre there is a style, it’s a standard pattern of music so I’ll just be changing the lyrics. Now for example Eric Clapton, he recreates songs in his style. Its legendary that’s how blues rock is!

Vinoo: If you’ve heard him play ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, he has put a reggae beat to it!

Deepak: I grew up listening to Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman’, that’s not his song. It was done many years ago before Santana was born!

Philipe: That’s how music is, it’s what you bring into the whole thing. Otherwise it’s just an ego thing, “This is my own comp, I’ve got my own song!”

Ralf: Some of the numbers that we do were written in 1930s, nobody even knows about those artistes. We do it our way, not the way it has been done before. That’s how we like to do it. We don’t want to play a song like how it sounds on TV.

WTS: What are the criticism/compliments that you get from fans?

Deepak: Even now we hear from people that it was a good show or a bad show. There are fans who say you guys started out really dull. You should have done this song in the beginning. The song list is not changing as fast as it should. Because the guys come for all our shows and we’re not able to change that fast.

Philipe: I told him don’t come to the show, take a break! (laughs)

Deepak: This American comes up to me and says, “You play all kinds of blues, Texas blues etc. and the range is pretty wide.” It’s not just one kind of music we’re playing.

Philipe: Compliments, well for one, in the 30-35 years that I’ve been playing, touchwood, I’ve never been booed. Never. It’s just value for money. You may not like the music, but you will listen to it.

WTS: How long does your sound check generally last?

Deepak: Five minutes and we’re done.

Philipe: There was this time when we finished our sound check and the sound guy says “Are you guys a serious band? A five minute sound check? I’ve never done it in my life, you know.”

Deepak: It has taken so many years. If you’re professional enough you’ll understand what is the limitation of sound, and that it’s not going to get any better, hanging around there and keeping the audience waiting, it’s just not worth it.

Rauf: It all depends on the kind of instruments there are, how many members there are etc. For us, experience definitely comes in hand. With Philipe, the sound that comes on stage is so amazing, because of his experience, his tones etc are just perfect.

WTS: Each one of you seem to have fairly busy lives, how do you manage to find time to jam together?

Philipe: You can make time if you want to. And you have to make time for that. We have nasty working hours. Thank God we have five day weeks! Friday evening we drop what we’re doing and head out to this lovely little basement. It’s heaven. It’s got lovely speakers, an electronic drum kit that sounds like heaven, and the amps there are awesome, so the mikes are plugged in, and in about ten minutes we get started. I think we take longer opening the beer. (laughs) Fridays are mandatory. We jam every week unless we’re travelling. Tightness has to be worked at. Don’t forget that you’re out there, if you’re not good enough don’t go onstage. You have no right to be onstage if you’re not good enough.

Deepak: Keeping the band tight is something that can only come with practice. It’s like a plane flying , I don’t think you can go on if you cut your engines! (laughs)

WTS: How have you managed to stick together for so long?

Philipe: Friendship! Never has anything gotten to a nasty, personal level. Never, never. We don’t get personal. We have disagreements but not anything personal. We wouldn’t carry it home.

Deepak: In the music room there would be a lot of disagreements, but then we look at the bigger picture. If I get pissed off, I know that more than anything, I like playing with them. So it’s just about keeping your emotions off of it and enjoying what you’re doing.

Philipe: It’s like a lousy marriage (laughs) and we have thumb rules, if it’s getting out of hand just drop it. Then after a while it all gets back to normal. We make use of stuff you learn from marriage counseling. If you lose your temper with your husband, count to ten, take a walk in the park, things like that! (laughs)

Deepak: Another thing about this band, it’s very interesting. The other name we thought of was Seven Down.

Philipe: That’s because Vinoo is seven years older than me, I’m seven years older than Deepak and Deepak is seven years older than Ralf. Exactly.

Vinoo: That makes him (Ralf) 21 years younger than me!

Deepak: So they can’t fight. It’s like a father and son relationship. It’s not allowed. (laughs)

Ralf: (To Vinoo) Dad, where’s my pocket money? (laughs)

WTS: How would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t been to any of your gigs?

Philipe: Aggressive blues rock. High on energy.

Deepak: We transform into animals onstage! (laughs)

WTS: Do you think people’s focus will ever shift to live performances from Bollywood?

Deepak: The good thing that’s happening is bands that are playing live are now associated with Bollywood. Take for example Kailash Kher’s band, I watch it on YouTube all the time. Superb! He’s a great singer. So, live music is coming up. Kailash Kher’s concerts have around 8000-10,000 people!

Philipe: But Hindi rock/pop will always rule. Anyone who is going to contest that is a clown. It’s never going to happen. You will never make that kind of money, never have that kind of crowd. The only time when you had such an audience was the early nineties.

Ralf: Then (sings) Video killed the radio star!

Deepak: Then the discotheques came in, the DJs came. In my opinion, there is too much out there, as far as entertainment is concerned. Online EPs, everything – we’re being bombarded with lots of entertainment. Even during gigs, after about five songs you can see the crowd getting a little restless. Our kind of music is one where you have to build that taste, acquire that taste. At least right now. The only thing that can be done is promoting the bands, and they should keep playing. It’s going to take time.

Philipe: But I think one of the main things that’s happening in terms of playing live is the live webcast. Motherjane did that. They had a live webcast when they were playing at Opus by the Creek.

WTS: Deepak, don’t you feel like overplaying sometimes?

Deepak: I overplay all the time. I’m the only one who does more than what’s required.

Vinoo: Actually all of us do.

Rauf: It also depends on how much alcohol we’ve had.

Philipe: He doesn’t drink by the way. Good boy! (points to Rauf)

Rauf: I’m more of an adrenaline junkie.

WTS: Have you guys had any embarrassing experiences while performing onstage?

Deepak: Oh a lot of them! All the time, at every show. Serious goof ups!(laughs)

Philipe: There was this crazy goof-up in this solo that we do. He just completely goofed up onstage (points to Deepak). I was cringing! I was up there thinking “I wanna die right now!” It was that bad! (laughs) and then we come back home, and we see mails from people in the audience which read “that piece by the drummer and the bass guitarist was superb!” (loud laughter)

Deepak: So when we goof up, we just look at each other and smile, and the way we cover up is also great.

Philipe: One thing we’ve learnt to do is smile and act like nothing happened when we know it’s a disaster!(laughs)

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