Indian Non-Bollywood Musical Notes

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Friday, August 19, 2005

Indian Music Pieces

These are some of the specially commissioned pieces I wrote on Indian popular music (non-Bollywood) in the early part of this decade. Most were written for Gentleman, but there are a couple for Tehelka too.
You could take a look at these pieces, to gauge what music you might have missed out on.

Jaideep Varma
August 2005

This was a piece commisioned by Tehelka in 2001 to provide an overview of the popular music scene in India. Rabbi Shergill nothwithstanding, how much has really changed? (a 2005 update at the end)

Only the singer-songwriter can save Indian pop

Indian pop is the adolescent who's refusing to grow up. Occasionally, it shows signs of maturity and intelligence but those are aberrations in an overall bleak scenario.

The simple reason is - the absence of genuine singer-songwriters. Elvis Presley may have made rock ‘n’ roll a household phenomenon in the 1950s but it was really the 1960s that saw it attaining artistic respectability. Bob Dylan in America and the Beatles in Britain spectacularly broadened the scope of the popular song and led the way for it to become one of the most significant art forms of the 20th century.

The singer-songwriters were the ones who contributed the most. They were musicians not motivated by trends or markets but by the need to express themselves without inhibitions, without self-conscious limits. They wrote songs about almost any subject under the sun and vitalised pop, rock, folk-rock, country-rock, soul, whatever. They are the giants of popular music, the ones who gave it its voice, as it were. Look at any list compiling the greatest/most influential pop or rock musicians in the last 40 years. More than 95 % will be singer-songwriters (even more so in the decade just gone by). Artists like Elvis Presley (who gave the pioneering impetus) and Aretha Franklin (one of the great voices of our times) are exceptions who prove the rule. The greatest songs in pop/rock are not interpretative; they are personal. It is just the nature of this art form.

This kind of singer-songwriter has never existed in our popular culture. Mainly because film music is the popular music in our country. Indian cinema has produced many wonderful songs with excellent melodies, but all within a very limited format. Ultimately, a film song has to fill a situation in the film. And today, popular Indian cinema, with its accent on ‘timepass’, cannot produce songs of depth and passion. The format in which they exist simply won’t permit it. Even the older songs ultimately suffer from the same sentimentality and melodrama that the films themselves were steeped in.

This is where pop/rock/folk can play the important part it did in the West. For that, we need those kinds of singer-songwriters (clarification: a songwriter isn’t just the lyric-writer) who express private views and feelings and in turn reflect the world around them - a very rare commodity in India. Which is why Indian pop is still desperately trying to find its feet. Impressionable and fearful of introspection, most Indian pop is shallow, transient rubbish, more focused towards the latest trends than personal expressions. The spillover of sentimentality from Hindi Film traditions and ersatz emotion from mainstream international pop often make things worse. An array of quality singer-songwriters, in different genres, can change Indian pop/rock forever.

Still, outside the mainstream, there are perhaps a handful of such people in India - Suman Chatterjee, of Bengal, for example. He’s a ‘folk’ singer influenced by Dylan, Pete Seeger, Rabindranath Tagore and the Bauls, among others. Though his format often seems Western (just acoustic guitar and voice), his sensibility is very, very Bengali. He sings about the Calcutta he loves so much; about a man who had to walk 25 km in the hot Orissa sun for a job and died of sunstroke; of an office peon who has to shrug off commuting injury if he is to keep his job; about a group of boys playing cricket in a Calcutta galli with a ball that turns out to be a bomb; about an old man coping with loneliness in the vast expanse of the city. His voice is compassionate and expressive - tackling a version of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind (with a distinct Bengali touch), or a Tagore song, with such aplomb that they seem to come from the same spring. Since he sings only in Bengali, he’s not known outside Bengal. Maybe other regions in India have musicians of this stature too? Then again, maybe not.

The bluster
What about Indian Rock? Well, for starters, it’s not Indian Rock, it’s American Rock in India. The vocalists sing in accents more American than the Americans themselves, their ‘attitudes’ are postured, their concerns borrowed. Take any rock band, from the ones in college to the established ones. Parikrama, Orange Street, Pentagram, Brahma, even Indus Creed (now Alms for Shanti) ... their music has never echoed the feelings of the people they’ve lived amidst. Maybe some of them can argue that they have a “Westernised” lifestyle (with an accent to boot) and that this is their ‘voice’. Clearly, the timbre of the ‘voice’ is distinctly American. It’s sad, because bands like Parikrama often display scintillating instrumental virtuosity, yet come up cropper when they try to express something original. The horrendously pseudo singing accents of these bands suggest that they cannot escape from being entirely derivative. Their music brims with imported emotions, concerns and accents rendering it largely pretentious and unoriginal. Even when they do covers in rock concerts, they are usually trying to be as faithful as possible to the originals. So, they don’t even interpret the songs, just unimaginatively reproduce them like Xerox machines. And then, they crib that record companies don’t want to give them opportunities. If they tried to express something from their own lives, using the same tools, as products of their/our environment, it is likely that they would come up with something that would make everybody – from record companies to the audience, take notice.

The audience

We shouldn’t just blame the bands, though. The audience in rock concerts come for the screaming and shouting, not for the music. Otherwise, why would they always demand covers and boo when a band launches into something original?

At the end of the day, the music-listening public is amazingly unevolved - unresponsive to innovation and exposure. The college and over-30s generations are still unable to graduate beyond Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, The Eagles, Jethro Tull and The Doors. Good as these musicians are, being hopelessly devoted to them is rather like being crazy about Suresh Wadkar and Mahendra Kapoor while Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi remain unheard. Genuinely appreciating people like Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., Van Morrison, Radiohead, etc requires a certain amount of participation from the listener, something that doesn’t stand up to peer pressure, maybe. The teeny-bopper lot is too strongly weaned on the highly commercial TV and FM music channels to develop and evolve its tastes. Anything that’s not “timepass” is “hi-funda”. That familiar fascination for technique over soul (an international phenomena, sure, but not as comprehensively as in India) manifests in budding singers wanting to be say, Mariah Carey and not Joni Mitchell (or even Alanis Morissette), Michael Bolton and not Marvin Gaye (or even Beck). The media contributes, gloriously, to the shallowness. So, eventually everything – from the paraphernalia to the music, feeds the fad.

The fads
Fusion is not a new fad. Most of the acts in this genre in India produce ‘designer’ sounds that can sound ‘different’ initially, but almost invariably lack passion, and more often than not, sound trite after a while. Colonial Cousins’ music is the best example. “Krishna” and “Indian Rain” stood out from their highly overrated debut album but there hasn’t been much else memorable from them. They’ve been singing the same two-three template songs since, with different garnishing. But still, Hariharan’s superb voice and Leslie Lewis’s good sense of melody at least save their music from being the abject dross most other artists in this genre are. ‘Lady’, ‘Guiding Star’ and ‘Mata Pita’ from their next two albums are certainly listenable, but their best moments surprisingly are in their MTV Unplugged, as the accent there was towards performance. In the ultimate analysis most of their music is merely the juxtaposition of two musical styles. Unfortunately, the soul seems to be lacking.

The remix fad is another moronic diversion for musicians unable to create anything original on their own. Forget the lesser musicians, even someone of Asha Bhosle’s stature fell prey to this. Consider her abysmal work in pop - from the rubbish turned out with Leslie Lewis, to that awful duet she sang with Code Red – it was sad to see how clueless the great lady was outside the film industry. She justified her foray into remixes with the claim that she was ‘popularising’ older music. Thankfully, she got out of that phase.

The Bhangra fad, that made unimaginative artists like Daler Mehendi superstars, seems passé now. Shankar Mahadevan’s breathless gimmics have, thankfully, been relegated to the past.The fad of Rock bands singing in Hindi hasn’t really worked either. Euphoria may have been “successful” to some extent, but really, they seem to be all style, two styles actually – the Hindi film song and the advertising jingle – self-consciously so.

The business
The entire ‘music machinery’ in India perpetuates the nonsense. Most music companies seem to have a lot of musically un-inclined people working in them, not in a technical sense, but in terms of exposure and interest (a prominent label head once told me that listening to music bored him silly!). While it is possible to understand their problems (audience apathy to something different, high costs of production, etc), the complete lack of imagination they repeatedly display when it comes to new talent is unforgivable. No business (or industry) can thrive without a genuine passion for quality and innovation, without at least some calculated risks. The saturation and creative bankruptcy we see (or, hear) today is the result of this very myopia. A distressing side-effect is that music companies find it much easier to release music from middling American rock bands rather than record Indians as good (or middling) as them because it costs much more to record and release than to simply release available material from abroad.

TV music channels may be compelled to go filmi to survive, but there is no reason why a little innovativeness and out-of-the-box thinking cannot coexist with the drivel. Channel[V] at least is trying (with terrific shows like “Jammin’”), but others (especially MTV) seem content to be promo channels for Bollywood. FM radio could have made a huge contribution to the music scene, but now seems indefinitely mired in ridiculous bureaucratic tangles. Even before this, the signs weren’t too good – characterized as it was by a phoniness and a clone-mentality. Even music retails stores are unable to think differently. Some (like Groove) have even been injecting that same pseudo “youth culture” within its premises. The stores become glorified discos for a while, complete with low-IQ DJs showcasing fake accents.

It’s also interesting to see the array of pop/rock acts turning up to perform in India lately. Aqua and Vengaboys, of course, have a huge unevolved audience here; tapping into this market makes perfect sense for them. For faded bands/stars like Air Supply, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and Bryan Adams, India affords a wonderful market-expansion exercise after they’ve pretty much lost the Western, Japanese and Australian markets. Interestingly, when Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Mick Jagger pass through India, no one seems particularly dismayed that are no performances.

The dampeners
With this being the environment, it’s not surprising that the Alisha-Anamika-Anaida kind of music is being constantly rehashed. Or the template Biddu tune foisted upon some chocolate-faced wannabe. Or the inane formulas repeated with the Dalers, Babas and the Sukhbirs.

You have the Bollywood end of the spectrum, where artists like Adnan Sami, Bombay Vikings and Sonu Nigam offer up worn clichés in glitzier packaging. Even fine folk artists like Gurdas Mann, Hans Raj Hans and Jassi find themselves in the drivel machine, as record companies attempt to squeeze out as much as they can from a new trend.

And you have the pseudo-hip spectrum where pretentious bands like Vedic Chant spew out aural excreta and Ehsan-Loy-Shankar wonder what to loop next. No one worries about songwriting – it has never been on the agenda. There is no precedence - after all, even pre-eminent Indian pop stars like Gary Lawyer and Remo could never showcase the virtues of great songwriting.

An interesting example of overlooking songwriting talent to one’s detriment is the album Piya Basanti, where Ustad Sultan Khan and Chitra sung tunes of a young composer Santosh Shandilya. The tunes resembled film songs mostly and despite a couple of pleasant tracks (especially the title track), it was reduced to an easy-listening album. The Ustad’s earthy, mature vocals went waste. Then, the Ustad himself wrote two songs for an album called Bhoomi, including the stunning “Kate Nahin Raat” and wonderfully demonstrated the virtues of singing one’s age and expressing one’s own feelings.

There are many other talented artists too, who, despite a worthy one-off here or there, haven’t been able to produce a single consistently brilliant album. Shubha Mudgal’s, Suneeta Rao’s and Usha Uthap’s magnificent voices unfortunately haven’t been able to give déjà vu compositions a great shelf life. Shaan and Mehnaaz (particularly the former) show promise; if only they’d do something about the songwriting.

The sparklers

Yet, despite such bleakness, some truly magnificent music has happened in the last few years. In the forefront is Lucky Ali – an unlikely source, given his Bollywood pedigree. But all three of his albums (Sunoh, Sifar and Aks) consistently demonstrate what great songwriting and an honest expression can do. Besides the superb musicianship and his lived-in voice, it’s a personal examination of feelings that is so enchanting about his songs, always tinged with a compassion that perhaps only age brings.

Indian Ocean is easily the most impressive band in India today. Though they don’t like to call themselves a “rock band” (since their music is melody not chord based), their format (drums, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, tabla, vocals, for the most part) is certainly close to rock and their improvisational meanderings suggest the spirit of a jazz band. The most exciting thing about them is that they take traditional Indian hymns, chants and poetry and give them these terrific contemporary treatments (like in the album Kandisa). Nobody in India uses such a universally recognizable format to create such quintessentially Indian music. They give a new dimension to songwriting, that is every bit as riveting. A smart record label would have made them international superstars.

Silk Route’s first album Boondein was a watershed too. With a fresh and unspoiled sound, lovely harmonized vocals and clean melodies (some derived from Himachali Folk), they seemed a real class act. Their follow-up Pehchan punctured that notion a bit, as the songwriting never touched the previous heights and considerable self-consciousness crept into many of the tracks. One hopes that this decline wasn’t record company-induced and if it was, they address that. With the loss of Atul Mittal (the oldest member), they seemed to lose maturity, but Mittal has rejoined and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next.

Anjan Dutt’s Bandra Blues was the first quality lyric-led, acoustic guitar-styled album in one of the two mainstream Indian languages (English). It’s the first album that delved into life in urban-India, in its many dimensions (much like Suman Chatterjee in Bengali). Despite a weak opening, the album had a wonderful, spontaneous do-it-yourself feel that should have been a source of inspiration to budding singer-songwriters. Inexplicably, it was hardly promoted.

Meanwhile, Pakistani pop/rock has been demonstrating its considerable superiority over our scene. Much more passionate in spirit, their clean melodies come with very little posturing – perfect ingredients for top class pop/rock. Junoon’s Azadi was the breakthrough – an utterly breathtaking album, meshing a robust Punjabi sound with elements of pure rock. All the songs - electric and acoustic, gained from the focused songwriting and the scintillating performances. Unfortunately, in their next two albums – Parvaaz and Andaz, they seem to have made a formula of their sound, falling prey perhaps to market forces. Duur by Strings is another classy offering, the title track a true masterpiece in popcraft. With the obvious influences of U2 and Simple Minds driving the instrumentation of distinctly sub-continental melodies, and a heartfelt and unaffected vocal delivery, the East-West contrast between vocal and arrangement works beautifully.

The Pakistani pop scene is superior because it doesn’t have to coexist with an indigenous kitschy film culture. The impact of Bollywood on the creative scene in India, is that of gravitational pull on a man who has jumped off a building – plummeting is the only alternative. A.R. Rehman, for all his prodigious talent, is a perfect example of this debilitating influence. In fact, you can test this theory further, by seeing what happens to Lucky Ali next. He seems to be getting into the Bollywood scene in a big way; let’s see if his fourth album can keep up with the high standards he has set so far. You can offer odds that it won’t. The Bollywood influence invariably screws up the sensibility.

The interesting commonality between all the artists mentioned above is – age. All, without exception, are over 30. This is what brings a certain balance and maturity to their songwriting. But it does make one wonder if the rock/pop culture has become ours yet. It seems to be taking time to come up with the original expressions this art-form demands. It's particularly distressing because as a people, we Indians are exposed to a lot more than people of any nationality. Yet, we seem to imbibe only the shallow aspects of the Western Pop culture. Conversely, in the West, more than a handful of musicians use our tools to produce breaths of fresh air, from George Harrison to Steve Winwood to Tom Petty to Cornershop to Tea Party to Beck and lots in between. In India, how often do we mix the two sensibilities and produce something meaningful and long-lasting?

Yes, pop/rock is, in essence, a Western art form. But then, so was English a Western language. And cricket a Western game. To make this art form entirely our own, the vitality has to come from the fresh talent. Unfortunately, until the younger, more introspective, hot blooded singer-songwriters emerge in India and give proceedings a kick on the arse, Indian pop/rock will remain stunted.
May 2001

Sadly, not a whole lot has changed in the four years after the above piece was written. Marketing pressures have destroyed the mainstream space further. It’s a mess now, with remixes omnipresent.

And yet…

Indian Ocean did two fine albums after Kandisa – Jhini and the film soundtrack for Black Friday. Jhini did not deviate from their quintessential sound, yet produced more than a few surprises. It had a couple of weak tracks, but the four classics (maybe five) on the album more than made up for that. Black Friday, on the other hand, expands their sounds, with newer instruments (including electric guitar on the huge hit “Bandeh”) and several polished and fluid instumental pieces that provide the background in the unnecessarily controversial film. The band is touring all around the world, and yet the Indian mainstream press does not cover them anywhere near how they should (but that’s another story).

Silk Route did one weak album after Boondein and then nothing. They still perform live but apparently ego problems within the band have prevented creative growth. Whether that’s temporary or permanent, time will tell.

Lucky Ali too, produced a weak album in 2004, his first after three excellent ones. The comment about Bollywood adeversely affecting his muse proved to be accurate (much to my own disappointment).

Agosh came up with an interesting album in 2002 called Paisa, but have been silent ever since. Pakistani bands Strings and Fuzon came up with strong albums, and look like they might give rock/ pop lovers a lot to look forward too. Strings, however, is working in Bollywood now – hope they don’t go the Lucky Ali way. Junoon could never recapture the brilliance of their Azaadi album.

However Bollywood too has had some interesting moments. A R Rahman came up with two magnificent film soundtracks for the same film director, Lagaan and Swades. Vishal-Shekhar are doing some interesting work, as are Ehsan-Loy-Shankar sometimes. Shantanu Moitra has emerged as a very promising film composer too, with his soundtracks for Parineeta and particularly Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi.
But the biggest gain in these four years has been the emergence of Rabbi Shergill and the ease with which his self-titled album has shaken up the mainstream. Exemplifying the power of quintessential and universal singer-songwriter music on local terms, and a bunch of powerful singles (starting with “Bulla”) to keep him on music channels and FM charts, Rabbi could be a very important force in the Indian popular music scene.

Passion’s fruits
Strings exemplifies the superiority of Pakistani pop

The Pakistani pop/rock scene is miles ahead of our own. Sure, there is a fair amount of dross too, but going by the evidence on PTV (besides Channel V and MTV) over the last 5-6 years, one can say this with absolute conviction now – on an average, their pop/rock music is far more refreshing. Clean melodies, very little posturing.

The reason is actually quite obvious. Let’s juxtapose a few examples; the cues are all there. Think of our VJs with their ersatz accents and put-on attitudes (with a few exceptions like Cyrus, but for the most part). Consider their presenters, friendly and lively but never pseudo, never trying to be what they’re not. Think of Indian music videos – how many are without the obligatory dollops of glamour? Consider theirs – how many have the distracting glamour? Think of our average TV soap – shrill and melodramatic. Consider the average Pakistani teleplay – understated and realistic. Dammit, consider our cricket team – usually soulless and timid (written before the second India-Australia test – ed). Look at theirs – almost always passionate (despite their infamous inconsistency). No, it’s not a difference in people or culture, not intrinsically.

The difference lies in not what they have but in what they don’t have - the indigenous film influence. Pakistani film culture is not as all-encompassing as it is here. The Bollywood influence has systematically raped and devastated our mass culture, especially in the last 15 years. The utter bankruptcy of ideas in Bollywood today is something anyone with even a little intelligence can see; what is perhaps not so obvious is the sickening shallowness and the lack of genuine self-confidence it has perpetuated, particularly over the last few years. The absolute inability to break away from the tried-and-tested and the facile aping of the West are the two significant manifestations of this.This debilitating influence is very obvious in our own nascent pop scene – in both, the music and the paraphrenalia. Recently, if you saw MTV VJ Maria interviewing the duo from Strings, if you noticed the double-digit IQ questioning, the brainless interruptions, the painfully stupid lapses into unwarranted flippancy, you’d get the picture.

Strings is a well-known Pakistani band from the early nineties. Seemingly influenced by Simple Minds and U2, they had then produced one really catchy, classy track (though obviously derivative) – “Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar”. Now, older and more mature, they’ve come up with something even better. Duur is a collection of fine tunes (including a new version of “Sar Kiye…”), strengthened by passionate performances and dynamic arrangements. Most of the songs have distinctly subcontinental melodies by Bilal Maqsood; Faisal Kapadia’s classical training is not wasted in his unaffected and heartfelt vocal delivery; the arrangements, however, are very Western, with some terrific guitar work. This East-West contrast between vocal and arrangement works beautifully.

The title track is a masterpiece in subcontinental pop, an absolute gem. Another influence seems palpable in this – Lucky Ali’s; that same compassionate, sense-of-wonder feel in the vocals. The instrumentation is very different though – ringing, staccato U2-like guitars, giving the song a drive that one usually associates with Western rock. The assimillation of all these influences ultimately results in something very fresh – a triumph of integrity over fashion. There’s another version of the same song (reprise) with different arrangements (more “poppy”); though it is weaker, the intrinsic strength of the tune prevails.

However, save the title track, the songs take time to grow on you. The arrangements are perhaps a bit too in-your-face, overstated; the album is over-produced essentially, the soundscape is too busy, too much “dhinchak”. This keeps you from remembering all the tunes until you hear the album a few times and realise the inherent impact of the melodies. (This is perhaps the one thing that also keeps it a notch below Junoon’s classic album Azaadi.) Still, the tasteful gentleness of tracks like “Jaane Do” and “Kuchh To Ho Gaya”, the infectious catchiness of tracks like “Anjane”, “Khwaab” and “Aankhen” (the last reminiscent slightly of the early Bappi Lahiri nifty template tune; definitely a compliment) eventually shine through. Let’s hope we get to hear Strings Unplugged soon – no doubt, it’ll be superb.

Ultimately, there is passion and a no-bullshit honesty in the album, and it is tastefully presented. The true ingredients of top-class pop/rock, internationally. If only we in India could learn from it.

April 2001

Undiscovered treasure
Kandisa by Indian Ocean deserves to be right on top

Recently, someone handed me this album – Kandisa, by a band called Indian Ocean. Damn, I thought, another pretentious, postured, crappy offering from a wannabe rock band. The album cover and the inlay details certainly suggested it. One had come across so many such bands previously, all falling way short of what their hype had suggested. Then, wincing a bit, I played it. Well, what can I say - sometimes it’s a privilege to be wrong.

This is the freshest, most original, “ear-opening” music I’ve heard in a long time. The format sounds like rock, fusion rock, if you like– drums, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, tabla, vocals, for the most part. But, in spirit, they seem like a jazz band, or a jazz band using rock tools (like Grateful Dead live, perhaps) – their improvisational meanderings suggest that. But, as they themselves say, since their music is melody-based, rather than chord-based, they don’t see themselves as a rock band. Their improvisation happens between the take-off and return points in a song, not in a fixed chord pattern, as in most rock or jazz.

Let’s forget the technical quibbles. The most exciting thing about the band is that they take traditional Indian hymns, chants and poetry and give them these terrific contemporary treatments. Punctuated sometimes by semi-classical vocal flourishes and traditional-sounding beats and chants, but never, not once, does any of it sound gimmicky or phony. Maybe a little excessive sometimes (in terms of duration), but never phony. There is no self-consciousness whatsoever. The already-existing vibrancy and immediacy of traditional folk is considerably enhanced by their groovy arrangements and passionate performances.

Take “Ma Rewa” – an utterly beautiful track, based on a traditional hymn about the Narmada river. The guitar-work is superb, conveying the feeling of a river flowing on peacefully, not knowing what travails it’s to face (the whole sordid Sarovar Dam business). The percussion interplay in the latter part perhaps conveys its destruction. Take the title track. “Kandisa” is based on a Syrian Catholic hymn believed to be over a thousand years old, sung in the ancient language of Aramaic. It starts off like one all right, lovely ethereal harmonies and all. Then - a busy, yet unobtrusive beat builds up, the vocals continue, the acoustic guitar carries the melody forward…the magic is underway. The high point is the beautifully-delivered aalaap halfway, it just works so perfectly, so movingly.

The instrumental piece “Leaving Home” is masterful, working with a chant (rather like the Malgudi Days hum, only more upbeat) and leading on to a tastefully groovy interplay of all the instruments. The martial strains of “Kya Maloom”, the exuberance of “Hille Le” (idealistic Bihari lyrics by Gorakh Pande set to African-styled chants, rhythms and guitar; the vocal delivery is very Indian, though – it’s all quite delightful), the moody and celebratory complexities of “Khajuraho” – they all brim with vitality and innovativeness.

The interesting thing is, because often you do not know the language the lyrics are in (with only the inlay guiding you to its theme), the focus on the music is total. The vocals then become just another instrument, and a mighty fine one it is too - will make even the purists happy.

Though Indian Ocean have something of a cult following in Delhi, the city they come from, one can’t help thinking what a national treasure they would be, if people are exposed to them properly. And the tremendous significance a band like this could have on the international stage. No other band in this country uses such a universally recognisable format (identified with rock), yet produces such quintessentially Indian music. Indeed, nobody in India fuses Indian and western sensibilities so immaculately. This is a recipe for surefire mega-success, which would be very well-deserved. Forget the rest of India, for starters it would be nice if their current music label could catch on.

January 2001

Contemporary Truths
The music of Suman Chatterjee

Since the early-nineties, the history of the popular Bengali song is being re-written. Yet, even in Bengal Suman Chatterjee remains a cult figure despite creating a body of work that will outlast the next few generations much like Rabindranath Tagore’s has. Much like Bob Dylan’s will, at the other end of the world.

Suman Chatterjee has made the Bengali popular song a powerful expression of contemporary times. This is in contrast to the abstractness and romanticism that has prevailed in metropolitan Bengali music (and popular Indian music overall). Rural folk music, in fact, has always been more real and relevant, but since very little of it is recorded, it almost entirely eludes the popular consciousness. This, in fact, was the great revolution in western popular music in the sixties, when suddenly artists like Dylan and The Beatles figured that anything could be the subject of a pop song. And there too this consciousness came from the traditions of rural Folk music, particularly in North America.

Chatterjee was also greatly influenced by that movement…but much later. In 1966, at the age of 16, Chatterjee had given his first radio recital. He’d become a trained Indian Classical vocalist and was considered a very promising artist. After delving into Rabindra Sangeet, however, Chatterjee began to feel the itch of his own expression, which resulted in profound dissatisfaction. He left India in 1975 and became a broadcast journalist in West Germany and later the US. It was here that he began to understand and appreciate the enormity of what had happened in the world of popular music. It was the folk singers who influenced him the most – Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Tom Paxton…and also artists like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. He also studied Western Classical music and learnt the keyboard and guitar. In 1979, Chatterjee began to compose his own songs. But it was only 10 years later, in 1989, when he came back to Calcutta, with a one-point-agenda – to use the tools and skills he’d finely honed to express his personal feelings and those of his own people through song.

In 1992, he released his album Tomake Chaai (I Want You) and the rest is history. His superb voice gave shape to essentially intimate songs, musings about love and life, old age and urban loneliness, everyday struggles and their inherent nobility. Despite functional production qualities and a back-up band that sometimes sounded like a roadside wedding party orchestra, the songs were riveting – thanks to the immensely powerful songwriting. His one-man guitar-playing on some of the tracks was astute and evocative. Even though lyrically Chatterjee was literate and inventive, like Bob Dylan, it was his tunes that gave the songs their memorability. The album became a success and inspired a whole generation of Bengalis to become guitar-troubadours.

Suman Chatterjee never looked back. Several albums later, he has only solidified his body of work. He’s actually got better, and shows no signs of resting on his laurels. Suman Chatterjee’s muse is life, often its seamier side; he has a breathtaking ability to turn anything into an intimate song…like newspaper items. He’ll read about a man who volunteered to walk 25 kms in the scorching sun to get himself a job in Orissa and make it a trenchant song (“Sanjib Purohit Haatchhen”). Or about schoolboys playing cricket on election-day with a ball that is actually a bomb (“How’s That?”). Or about a little girl who swallows an object by mistake and dies due to doctor-negligence (“Paaprir Gaan”). He explores various points-of-views in the songs; that is truly a gift. Even more amazing is his ability to go through many different emotions in the SAME song. Examples are “Aamaader Jonne” where he lovingly catalogues Calcutta’s proudest possessions and “Teenee Briddho Hollen” where he goes through a whole gamut of great Classical musicians, both Indian and Western, who mean the world to the narrator. His cover versions are also special – his version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” for example. After wrestling with a literal translation for 14 years, he finally changed the rhythm, incorporated a bit of his own melody and changed the refrain to give it a quintessentially Bengali feel. He did something similar with Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and Seeger actually was delighted when he heard it. “This is how folk songs are born,” he reportedly said.

Indeed, to express local expressions intimately and powerfully using universal tools is Suman Chatterjee’s greatest achievement. Now if only the rest of India could catch on.

September 2000

Urban India’s Guitar Poet
Why Anjan Dutt's Bandra Blues is important

On the sleeve of Bandra Blues - the first English album by Bengali singer -songwriter Anjan Dutt, he reveals that although he's been thinking up his songs in English for 5 years, a "middle-class Bengali reluctancy" was making him write and sing them out in Bengali. Now, egged on by his well-wishers, he says he's proud of bringing out his first English album, proud of "being an Indian who thinks, feels and sings in a language he's also comfortable with".

Anjan Dutt's Bengali songs have been largely derivative (often to a fault), stylistically and melodically. The influences of Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver, Donovan, Don Maclean have been palpable in his treatments. In spirit, the incomparable Suman Chatterjee has obviously been an inspiration too; no-one has used Western folk music formats to write quintessentially Indian (Bengali, in this case) songs as well as Chatterjee has. Anjan Dutt's keen sense of observation (which also makes hima very fine actor), a wry sense of humour and the gift to balance twin sensibilities have shone through a lot of his work. Though Dutt doesn't have the greatest voice technically or the consistency to fill a complete album with outstanding songs through and through, at his best, he has been pertinent, entertaining and compelling.

Bandra Blues' best moments have all these qualities. Strangely, the 3 least impressive tracks open the album - the title track is somewhat pat; "Ali Baba" is a drag and sickeningly self-conscious (it's a first-person account of a slaughter-house boy, yet uses the line "ain't that cold"!); "Mizo Boy" exemplifies the perils of excessive derivation. The first signs of brilliance appear on "Two People" - an emotionally resonant song about the night a couple decide to split up and the early morning thereafter. Its deeply ingrained feeling of regret gets under the skin. The tempo picks up with the delightful "Daily Diet" - a catalogue of urban exposures. This is Dutt at his best- witty, verbally dexterous and infectiously energetic. "Middle Man" is a sister-concern of "Daily Diet" - a devastating account of the discontentment relentless upward mobility can lead to. The bluesy "Love Is An 8-Lettered Word" evokes Dylan in title and even in tune somewhat, and is a wry lament about Calcutta (the 8-lettered word). "Hashmi and Being Free" is about playwright Safdar Hashmi's death - there's even a Randy Newmanesque play on the word "free" here. Dutt saves the best for the last- "Mr. Brown" is a beautiful song about (presumably) his old music teacher who taught them just one song - the folk standard "500 Miles". The nostalgic narrative is interspersed with verses from "500 Miles" and it works superbly.

There are at least 2 songs on this album that Dutt has translated from his Bengali original - "Two People" and "Mr. Brown" ("Mr. Hall" originally). Both are among the best tracks on the album and though both seem more resonant in Bengali ("Mr. Hall" particularly, as the English rendition of "500 Miles" punctuated the Bengali narrative; the contrast added to its poignancy), their impact isn't diminished by much here. At times, in some songs, Dutt's self-consciousness induces a slight American twang that punctures the immediacy but thankfully, such moments are few and far between.

Bandra Blues is an important album in the nascent Indian pop scene. One, it is the first lyric-led, acoustic guitar-styled album in one of the 2 mainstream Indian languages. Two, it's the first album that delves into life in urban India, in its many dimensions. Three, there's a do-it-yourself, spontaneous feel in the album - definitely a source of confidence for budding singer-songwriters. Though there is something repugnant about pen-pushers like me suggesting that Dutt hasn't perhaps pushed the envelope enough, he'd probably agree too that consistency is not the album's strength. Still, the sparks of brilliance on the album are adequate for it to be highly recommended. I would personally place it with Lucky Ali's two albums, Junoon's Azadi and Silk Route's Boondein as the albums that have genuinely taken Indian pop forward. What's perhaps worrying is that quality Indian pop is still an over-thirties club.

February 2000

Ear Candy
Pop, rock, world music is fine – but what about the soul?

Three recent Indian releases exemplify some of what is wrong with our non-film popular music…and a little of what’s right. All 3 albums have interesting moments but the one thing common to them is also their primary shortfall - a lack of heartfelt emotion overall. Or basic integrity, if you like.

by Silk Route (BMG Crescendo)

The biggest let-down in the history of indipop till date. Expectations were high after their superb 1998 album Boondein. With cassettes priced at Rs 100, Pehchan was certainly the highest-priced indipop title ever. The marketing people appear to have gone on an overdrive with this album, and not entirely unsurprisingly seem to have royally screwed up. The first blunder was choosing the song “Sapnay” for the video. Somebody must have convinced the band that they should milk their romantic image for all it was worth. So, they choose the soppiest, most insipid song in the album, create an asinine, clichéd video around it, complete with lead singer Mohit throwing utterly ersatz intense gazes away from the camera. Then, the overall album presentation - cover design and inlay, seems to be the result of marketing brainstorming sessions. The album has just 8 songs, two songs less than what Boondein did, perhaps another brainwave designed to optimise future output – god hopefully at least knows what’s going on here.

It’s particularly mystifying when you hear the first two tracks on the album. The breezy “Jadu Tona” and the gentle “Door Chala Aayaa” are as good as anything Silk Route have ever done and easily the best tracks on this album. Exquisite musicianship and lovely harmonies are still their hallmark. One would think they’d have wanted to put their best foot forward with the video. Because after these two tracks, it’s pretty much downhill. “Dastak” is still interesting, what with its theme of evoking spirits and Kalyan Baruah’s superb guitar-work, but overall it appeals to the mind, not the emotions - always dangerous ground to tread. The momentum just fizzles out, especially after it’s followed by “Morni” – a traditional tune, prettily arranged but just not compelling enough. “Tu Woh Nahin” and “Chakkar Ghor” have the same problem perhaps - they just don’t strike the emotion-chord. “Lullaby” – the English track is crap – more for the pseudo accent and self-conscious fakeness that permeates the song than the clichés it is soaked in, musically and lyrically. It is amazing that they didn’t use their song “Higher” that they once performed on a 1998 Channel V show – it was truly lovely. But those were different times it would seem; the band appears to have lost considerable maturity since. Whether there is a connection with losing their oldest member Atul Mittal or not, one cannot say, but the difference is certainly palpable. They seem to have made a formula of their sound. If that is record company-induced, the band would do well to change their label before it’s too late. The album has been a flop and they could become history very quickly. The audience has a very short memory.

by Sulaiman and Salim Merchant (Virgin)

Actually, the Merchant brothers are not artists but the producers of this album, which is being hyped as India’s first World Music album. The concept is interesting enough – eight traditional folk songs from different areas of India, rearranged to give a contemporary feel, each song using a specific regional musical instrument.

It starts out marvellously – with Ustad Sultan Khan singing a song in Brujbhasha – called “Kate Nahin Raat”. Though the arrangements are exquisite and the Ustad sings wonderfully, the real strength of the track is its composition by the Ustad himself (thus rectifying the problem in his other album out- Piya Basanti). The closing track is also composed by the Ustad - a Rajasthani lullaby sung by Shubha Mudgal. As it turns out, these two tracks are the highlights of the album They do deviate from the overall theme of being traditional songs though.

Thereafter, some of the tracks are nothing but remixed folk. Mind you, the traditional tunes are lovely, the vocalists are excellent, without exception. But the beats and the weird instrumental insertions take away from a lot of the original charm. The Maharashtrian song – “Jaysuree” and the Bengali Baul song are good examples of that. The devotional Gujarati song –“Ruddi Ne Rangeeli Re” even more so. A ugly concoction of loud samplers and electric guitar snarls gangrape the lovely little tune that even the flute and sarangi cannot save.

The arrangements are more tasteful for the Dogri and the Assamese songs. They work almost in the same way Nusrat and Michael Brooke’s “Mastt Mastt”worked; funky, without losing the earthy quality (though the hip female chorus that appears for a short while on the Assamese track does try to molest it). Maybe that’s Real World studios’ most important contribution to the album. The Rajasthani gypsy song – “Talediya Malediya” is lovely, but the soundscape is just too damn busy with extraneous, and might one add unnecessary, instrumentation. It seems the dandy Merchant brothers were too keen to imprint the tracks with their individuality, lest someone wonder what their musical contribution was. The two songs composed by the Ustad haven’t been similarly manhandled however; perhaps the Ustad put his foot down, no samplers! More power to him.

Still, one has to give credit to the Merchant brothers for at least embarking on this project. Bhoomi is definitely worth listening to, despite its warts. Unfortunately, it is self-defeating to provide such a distracting (and frankly, often cacophonous) common thread to music from a continent that pulls together as a country in these times. The luminous beauty of the originals is affected and it becomes more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional experience. Maybe, next time around, there’ll be a little more restraint.

Drive Carefully For Our Shake!
by Orange Street (RSJ)

Rock Street Journal (RSJ) is a hard rock magazine that has been popular in the college circuit for years. Now, they’ve set up a music label to popularise the indigenous bands even more. The idea is to finance a band’s studio album, which they give out free (on cassette) with their magazine. It’s a very laudable idea no doubt. On the consumer side though, it isn’t quite as exciting. Frankly, it’s the magazine that’s really being given free with the album. If you remove a couple of Sam Lal pieces, RSJ is worse than a college rag and at Rs 100 is a joke. Also, choosing 2nd grade T-Series cassettes to put this music on is sad. But hell, at least somebody’s trying. This is the first album that was distributed with the November issue.

Orange Street is a Delhi rock band, though they sound like they’re from Seattle or something. The band would probably take that as a compliment, but it’s not, in fact, that’s what’s most wrong with it. The ersatz American accent is hugely off-putting and their overall swagger seems to be totally derivative and not from within. They believe they’ve “written songs for people to remember and not to make any political statements or sympathise with tragedies”. This is usually what people say they have nothing to say, and “say” doesn’t mean literally in words, but any worthwhile feeling or thought fit to express, from within or without. The electric bluster is meant to compensate, and boy, does that reveal their lack of evolution. Also, trying to compose compelling songs electrically is much more difficult than doing so acoustically. Rather like the trend in the English theater scene in Bombay in the early-nineties, when many were attempting absurd plays before they’d understood the basics of conventional theatre. The band seems to have an unhealthy, but sadly typical, obsession with techniques (like getting the drum sound more right than any other Indian band!). A little more thought and energy put into their songwriting could have made this a really classy offering.

Still, there are actually some positive things about the album. The musicianship is uniformly good, often excellent. The funky guitar-work (electric and bass) in “Paint The Sky” and “Saint Sinner” (get past the accent and there’s a lot to enjoy in this song), the solo in “Hey”, well, they rock. Anirban’s vocals are energetic and often affecting; wish the Vedder-Cobain influence was less palpable. “Again!!” is the song where everything comes together just fine – infectious tune, tightly arranged, nice words, sung well. “Over And Under”- partly acoustic and “Candywalk”- fully so, suggest the heights the band can touch if they stop simply playing with their instruments but use them as tools to communicate something of substance (which, incidently, can even be as happy as most of the songs here). It’s useful to remember that rock concerts are one thing, studio albums quite another. The music system is a great leveller – if you’re competing with the world’s best music, you’d better have something to say.

February 2001

The Finest Indian Non-Film Album
Why Lucky Ali’s Sunoh is a contemporary classic

Pop is essentially a western genre of music. It achieved global popularity because its spirit and tools of expression caught on with the youth all around the world. In the west (notably North America and Britain) as the music scene matured, pop (rock, soul, folk, country included) graduated to something beyond just music for the youth. Unfortunately, almost everywhere else it has not really evolved. Shallow trends and mindless fads have given pop a bad name amongst serious listeners of music. Indipop has typified this decadence.

The best sub-continental album for a long time was Nazia Hassan’s Disco Deewane (1981). Based in London, its composer-arranger Biddu never quite achieved the same balance of catchy melody and artful production for an album’s worth again. But then, nobody else in India or Pakistan did either.

Till early-1996. An album called Sunoh suddenly had many pricking up their ears. The album was by someone whose first name was Lucky; whose father was a legendary Hindi Film comedian; whose first music video was shot in Egypt. All this made one expect a gimmicky, forgettable product and certainly not subtlety which, in fact, was the hallmark of the album.

Lucky Ali was 37 when he released Sunoh – his first album. Despite being a star son, life had not really been smooth, he’d tried several professions without much success, experienced despair and generally paid his dues. Apparently, he had lived with some of the songs on this album for many years with the hope that one day the time would be right, when he would be able to record them the way he wanted to, without any compromises to any record company. His partnership with Michael McLeary – record producer and co-performer, turned out to be a crucial one. In their basic form, the songs were personal expressions of Ali and his friend Aslam - the lyric-writer. Sung in Urdu, the songs seemed steeped in sub-continental ethos. McLeary’s sensitive and thoughtful arrangements, however, gave them a unique sound – straddling genres and cultures. This was subtle, tasteful pop – not something Indian pop had ever been known for. By using snatches of Arabic instruments in some tracks, the accent on cross-cultural appeal was even more pronounced. Western and sub-continental sensibilities met immaculately, without straining to be noticed. Without seeming pre-determined or contrived.

The tunes were lovely. Lucky Ali’s singing, too, was a first for indipop. No flourishes, no “attitude”, no bluster. There was a strange, lived-in, sadness in his less-than-perfect voice that gave a delightful bittersweet quality to the more upbeat tracks. The songs had character and maturity, as Ali sung his age, and also demonstrated the fact that sadness and sentimentality can be mutually exclusive – something most Hindi film composers have never quite been able to comprehend.

Interestingly, the album was a big success and made Lucky Ali a veritable star. This was largely due to the flagship song – “O Sanam”. Yet, there wasn’t a single filler on the album. The restrained jauntiness of the title track, the wonder in “Pyaar Ka Musafir”, the pathos in “Milegi Milegi Manzil”, the mischievousness in “Yeh Zameen Hai, Yeh Aasmaan Hai”, the sheer, unadulterated, yet laid-back joy in “Kya Mausam Hai” were all part of the same soundscape. “Aap Par Arz Hai” and “Jab Hum Chhote The” were wonderfully inventive – the first a ghazal, arranged in a western way; the latter proceeding in jazz-like rhythms. “Tum Hi Se” was also a first in Indian pop – a heartfelt, yet catchy, acknowledgement of a higher power.

Lucky Ali has often said that a theme of traveling and restlessness runs through his music. This personal expression is perhaps most palpable in this album than anything else that he’s ever done. Even today, after 4 years, the songs in Sunoh sound fresh and inventive – truly the stuff classics are made of.

Everything Lucky Ali did thereafter showcased his quality, be it his next album Sifar or the one-offs he contributed to various ventures (like Bhopal Express). But Sunoh will always remain his most important album. After all, Indipop came of age because of it.

August 2000

Classy Encore

Aks - yet another superb album from Lucky Ali

Just like the song “Mausam” was enough motivation to buy the album Sifar (1998), this time around “Kitni Haseen Zindagi” is enough reason to pick up Lucky Ali’s latest album Aks. The arrangements are breathtaking – effervescent acoustic guitars, moody flute, jaunty morsing, uplifting hums, and above all, Ali’s wondrous, joyful voice, just happy to be alive. Rajasthani rhythms merge with western pop sensibility (the classy variety) resulting in breathtaking magic. That man Mike McLeary again – producer and arranger extraordinaire. Beautiful melody, stunning arrangements, lovely lyrics – what else is there?

And just like Sifar had a lot else to recommend it for besides “Mausam”, there’s lots of interesting music in Aks. The album opener, the likely flagship song – “Tere Mere Saath” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Upbeat and classy, this one’s the most derivative track in the album; it sounds like a couple of songs you think you’ve heard before (especially the first guitar solo, which becomes a chorus – very similar to George Michael’s “Faith”) but can’t necessarily put your finger on. It seems very much a song designed for the charts, yet it has Ali’s quintessential reflective touch. The arrangements are artful and the track is delightful eventually, and that’s all that counts.

“Kaisi Tanhai” has a groovy beat and sophisticated arrangements. Repeated listening actually increases its pleasure. This is true for most of the album. The moody “Behti Nadi”, the interestingly angry “Mehboob” and the reggae-influenced title track – all are songs that grow on you while showcasing innovative arrangements and superb playing. “Pyaar Ki Duniya” is another wonderfully unusual track that builds up beautifully – the use of the “Ek Pal Ka Jeena” chorus from Kaho Na Pyaar Hai is baffling though.

“Tu Kaun Hai” (used previously for the film Bhopal Express) is an absolute masterpiece. Superb lyrics by Piyush Pandey, imaginative percussion by Joe Legwabe, flowing guitar-work by Mike McLeary, Lucky Ali’s voice straining with yearning…all this captures the feeling of a train rumbling on, so immaculately, so perfectly.

“Ek Na Ek Din” continues the magic. Beautifully sung, masterfully arranged, superbly played. The closing track is the gentle “Sandesh”, reminding us for the first time on this album that the intimacy and quietness that characterised Ali’s first album Sunoh – still his best work, has been lost somewhere. “Sandesh” again demonstrates how effective that aspect of Ali’s music is; perhaps it is his hallmark.

If anything, that is the only shortfall in the album, which it has in common with Sifar before this. Sunoh had an intimacy and an emotional directness that was accentuated by the sparse arrangements on it. Both Sifar and Aks clutter the soundscape with too many instruments, perhaps diluting that quality somewhat. Still, this works slightly better in Aks because most of the compositions seem to have been written as band songs (a superb band it is too).

A lot of people don’t realise that the most special thing about Lucky Ali’s songs is his voice. What it lacks in technical proficiency, it makes up amply in feeling. His vocals have a very human, lived-in quality that is very rare in Indian music, especially film music (like Mukesh, maybe). Instead of celebrating this quality, a lot of people harp on about his “weak” voice. Boy, these people must really hate Dylan, Tom Waits and Randy Newman.

I don’t know about you people out there – but I’ve discovered that I get as much pleasure out of a Lucky Ali album as I do out of a Dylan, Beatles, R.E.M. or a Van Morrison album. There is something about Lucky Ali’s songwriting (besides the superb musicianship, courtesy McLeary), some hard-to-explain quality that enchants one greatly, that is often moving - a personal examination of feelings, always tinged with a compassion that perhaps only age brings. And there is something very Indian about the expression, despite the arrangements. Also, his consistency is special - he’s yet to write a throw-away song, which is amazing.

Most write-ups about him moronically pun on his first name. But honestly, he’s not the one who’s really lucky. We, his listeners, are.

January 2001

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Plasticising The Universe
Two recent releases conform to the norm

Every succeeding generation finds marketing gimmicks and hype more pronounced than what it was before. But when it starts to affect the choices being made as far as the consumer is concerned, it can get really sad. Like two new albums do – Piya Basanti by Ustad Sultan Khan and Chitra (Sony Music) and The Complete Bhupen Hazarika – a tribute to Hazarika’s tunes (Virgin).

These two recent non-film releases (which, strangely, qualifies as pop in India, by default) by two venerable artists have rightfully received media attention. First and foremost, and we should get this out of the way, both these albums are worth listening to.

In Piya Basanti, sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan’s vocal chords are a revelation. His voice has a lived-in earthy character, besides the technical excellence being a follower of legendary khayal singer Ustad Amir Khan has bestowed upon him. The accomplished South Indian playback singer Chitra provides a sweet counterpoint to the Ustad’s ostensible gruffness and it all works quite nicely. Santosh Shandilya’s compositions are, not unexpectedly, the weak spot. The songs are pleasant and hummable, but not exactly unforgettable. For the most part, they could easily be film songs and not even the most memorable on that score (the title track and “Shaam Dhale” are impressive though). The arrangements are sometimes experimental – like the two solo Ustad Sultan Khan tracks. In “Koi Pyaar Se”, a ghazal is set to jazz-like rhythms; in “Dhee More”, the Ustad’s semi-classical flourishes are punctuated by Braz Gonsalves’ breezy saxophone, as languid jazz rhythms wash over conventional Indian arrangements (including sarangi). Interesting perhaps because of the novelty, but a forgettable hodge-podge at the end of the day. Overall, all this reduces Piya Basanti to an easy-listening album, which is sad, considering the opportunities it presented to produce a mature, meaningful work. To have a voice like Ustad Sultan Khan’s singing love duets that Sonu Nigam could have sung too is a bit of a travesty. Maybe, if the Ustad’s own compositions were given a shot rather than exercising the “commercial” (and safer) option of using Shandilya’s tunes, who knows what magic could have happened? Certainly, we’d have a more interesting set of songs where the Ustad would have sung his age. However, the only truly sickening thing about the album is its packaging, which is dominated by the models from the slick video of the title track, with small mug-shots of the artists and the composer tucked away in the corner. This is typically shallow thinking from the marketing team and the ad agency involved in its design of the jacket – but then again, we’ve come to expect such displays of sad taste from this lot.

This plasticisation, unfortunately, spills into the music in The Complete Bhupen Hazarika. Though Hazarika himself sings three full tracks in the album, his absence from the vocal booth is conspicuously missed. Fine artists like Hariharan, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Shaan, Hema Sardesai and others sing most of the tracks and they do so competently, but magnificence isn’t about competence. The character and soul of Hazarika’s voice would have lent an edge to the songs that is palpable in the songs he does sing, like “Ganga” and “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” - easily the best songs on the album. However, those who are familiar with the stunning “Ganga” (inspired by a Paul Robson song, where he castigated the Mississippi river for flowing on peacefully despite the travails of humankind) will shake their heads ruefully. The electricity of the song has been diluted considerably by this jazzed-up, ersatz version, doubtlessly to have it cater to the “younger generation”. Yet, such is the inherent power of the song that it is still the highlight of the album and Hazarika’s singing contributes to that. Allowing Hazarika’s personal expressions over interpretations would have made more sense, one feels. But hey, since when have sensitivity and quality become the top priorities in our Pop Industry?

Both these albums, though pleasant and with merits, suffer from the same thing – the absence of the singer-songwriter in full bloom. Ultimately, the Indian pop industry is very similar to the Indian film industry – excellent voices, talented actors but very few quality songwriters, very few worthwhile scriptwriters. Are the myriad business interests in between stifling that talent? Rhetorical question.

October 2000

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Tasteful Monotony
Four recent releases please - superficially

A slick “Fusion” duo from Mumbai, a veteran Rock band from Pakistan, a Punjabi Rock duo from Vancouver and a female Indian vocalist from the US (backed by three-fourth of India’s finest band) – what common connection could one possibly make from their new offerings? All four albums – Colonial Cousins’ Aatma, Junoon’s Andaz, Balle Balle Boys’ Laddoo Kha and Renoo’s Yeh Yaarana have a lot to recommend them by. They are all pleasing to the ear, boast of tasteful arrangements and competent performances, yet fall short of the one thing that could have lifted them out of the realm of the forgettable. Good songwriting.

Aatma by Colonial Cousins (Sony Music)

Hariharan’s marvelous voice coupled with Leslie Lewis’ sense of melody, the meshing of the former’s semi-classical flourishes and the latter’s pleasant derivative pop tunes – should have been a winning combination. But, despite eminently listenable tracks like “Krishna”, “Indian Rain” and “Lady” from their first two albums, the limitations of their songwriting talent trips the duo. They’ve been singing the same 2-3 template tunes over and over and it’s beginning to get on one’s nerves. This, their third offering, once again has “Guiding Star” and “Mata Pita” as its affable highlights. The rest is repetitive elevator music, showcasing their Designer Music. “Sundar Balma”, with a self-conscious female voice reciting mindless inanities through a jingle-like tune, marks their nadir. The smartest Colonial Cousins buy will be their compilation album, at least three more albums down. If they’re still around as a duo then.

Andaz by Junoon (Universal)

They at least have pedigree. Their album Azadi will always be one of the classics of subcontinental pop and by the looks of it, not something the band itself is likely to touch again. This is their third offering since that magnificent album and it all seems downhill really. Parvaz, before this, had made a formula of their sound and despite one terrific song called “Bulleya” the album was a cropper. This one’s worse. Not even one track is even halfway compelling. Well, all right, the instrumental track “Jugal Bandi” is interesting, but that’s one-twelfth of the album. Andaz is the sort of album you play in your car when you want to converse with someone. In their case, perhaps no Greatest Hits compilation will ever be able to top the sheer brilliance of Azadi in toto. Sad.

Laddoo Kha by Balle Balle Boys (Gas Music)

Now, this sounded promising. This Sikh duo from Vancouver, Canada, combine the best of both their worlds. Jaunty Punjabi tunes set to tasteful, crisp rock and roll. Unpretentious and upbeat with some genuinely funny lyrics. So, what’s the problem? Ho hum, they all sound the same. Once you’ve heard the title track and “My Name Is Manjeet”(oho don’t miss that robust pronunciation puttar), they repeat the template. It’s fun, fun, then hmm, umm, yawn. It’s a pity, because the basic buzz is there.

Yeh Yaarana by Renoo (BMG Crescendo)

Probably the most compelling album in this lot, mainly because of the presence of the backing musicians. Renoo Nathan gives the songs voice, competently, just about. The songs are composed and arranged by three members of the superb Delhi band – Indian Ocean. The arrangements are very tasteful and interesting. In some, like the title track, they’re delectably groovy. Unfortunately, the songs face Bollywood-wards and that is enough to take out their sting. Mind you, they’re much classier than anything you’ll get from Bollywood, but ultimately they do not transcend the innate clichés of that spring. Songs like “Zaalim” start off by promising so much, but veer into familiar territory. “Kai Na” and the title track do impress though, but the album on the whole leaves one somewhat unsatisfied. Great backing cannot alone make songs great. Stronger vocals would have certainly lifted the album, but by how much? Ultimately, the songwriting is not distinctive, and that weakens the core, the soul.

Mind you, all four of these albums are still far superior to the abject dross that continues to be spewed out into the Indian pop scene. Unfortunately, the natural talent of the artists is somewhat wasted on these efforts. Good songwriting could draw out classics from the same bunch.

June 2001