Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thoughts on music in Calcutta and Bertie da Silva in Concert

Indians write in English and have readers all over the world. Indians make films in the English language and get international audiences. Indian artists receive global recognition. Indians create software that is operated internationally. Indian academicians are renowned in almost every corner of the earth.

But when it comes to Indian musicians making music in English, frowns appear, subjective criticism is so vehement, it could almost be mistaken for poetry. WTF? Yet you will find many of these hypercritics energetically wagging their heads to rock, folk, country, hip-hop, or whatever music, which has originated in the Occident. Music with words in English must, it seems, be only from where this tongue is the dominant and primary means of communication.

In 1979, we had considered this anomaly in our vague, post-adolescent angst. It resulted in Blues in the Basement – a concert of original music in English that is still talked about today for reasons that range from nostalgic remembrance to awe. But that was a one-off show, a concert that was never repeated in its format by us, or anyone else. At least not in Calcutta.

A bit of history you thought you knew

Over the decades, a generation or three emerged as good musicians in their own right, composing English songs and tunes of quality with dedication and a strong belief in their abilities. At the same time, popular music in Indian languages, mainly Hindi, began to rob elements of this second-class “English music” and to happily integrate these into their melodies and rhythms, and even in the lyrics. Naturally, it gained an immense popularity that spanned language and cultural barriers across the nation. Such music generated so much demand that it gave the ruling Hindi film soundtrack songs tough competition. This resulted then in producers wanting the non-film musicians to sing and perform in their movies. And a whole genre of crossover popular music was born. Suddenly, the role of Indian musical elements was reversed in this music which was essentially rock and pop from the West.

This then led to the advent of fusion music. It’s not that this form hadn’t been tried in earlier years. From Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin to The Beatles and others who followed, Eastern and Western fusion music had straddled popular imagination. In fact, if Indian and Western fusion music had a beginning, it was in the early Hindi movies. S D and his son R D Burman were pioneers. But the fusion music of more recent times was inspired by global trends in listening. ‘World music’ became a genre in itself. This was a lot of different kinds of music from varied cultural origins attempting to musically come together in an often contrived manner, leading it to be sardonically termed ‘con-fusion’. Indian musicians did not lag behind in adopting this trend.

Over the years, a regional bias had crept into everything, including music. Back in Calcutta, the live performance of original Western music had become almost non-existent. The musicians who played this stuff had been transposed to performing English cover songs at pubs, college fests, and parties. DJs with their electronic and digital gadgetry and their shoddy, unschooled, amateur and eclectic tastes and sensibilities were now catering to the lowest common denominator. Individuals who composed original music banded together to play gigs which insisted on cover songs and tunes so that they could make a living. In any case, making a living from playing original ‘English’ music was next to impossible. Some drifted off into the fusion genre which seemed to have potential and others re-discovered their ethnicity to do Bangla “band music”. Many did it all at various convenient moments.

Once again, everyone robbed randomly from ‘English’ music to add that additional, familiar texture to their songs which echoed their influences and exposed a whole gamut of mediocrity. But no one was complaining – neither the audiences nor the musicians. The Bangla band or rock variety has now become so universally accepted that when one tells an avid fan that some tune or the other was originally from an English song, one is greeted with incredulity.

Within this scenario, there were still musicians trying to do their original English music. Therefore, it was not unusual to find these musicians getting frustrated, jaded, bitter and cynical about their creative efforts. Worse, it began to tell on their music. They now no longer played music for a wider audience. In fact, it seemed like they were almost playing for themselves and a small core group of fans and friends who gave moral support if nothing else, and that too out of a sense of loyalty.

The way it is today

The state of confusion had just exploded. Now, if you were doing original music, (and it didn’t matter whether it was English or fusion), you had no place to perform other than college fests, pubs, and special nights at the various clubs. The one pub that revived live English music performances a decade and a half ago frowned upon fusion, didn’t really care for original lyrics, and only wanted local musicians to make familiar popular music by chart toppers from the West so that their bar business was brisk. All this “original-shoriginal” stuff could be performed by guest bands from other parts brought in for one-night-only gigs at costs that usually equaled two weeks or more payment to local musicians. In fact, this unnamed but obvious pub has been more responsible for the detriment of quality music by local talent than anyone or anything else. But they have their bottom lines all worked out, and nothing will make them change their minds now.

Concerts in auditoriums and similar venues in Calcutta had ceased long ago, especially for English rock music. There were no sponsors keen enough, no promoters willing to take the risk, and they all said there really was no audience. You see, the massive popularity of what is commonly called ‘Indipop’ has given a different tack to brand marketing strategy. In Calcutta, Bangla rock is granted second place, not because the music is of superior quality, but due to the kicking in of a regional bias vis-à-vis the way the sponsoring brand is marketed. Unable to make a decent living from music they would much rather play, talented and creative musicians depend on the whims of unaware or badly informed audiences, equally ignorant sponsors and promoters to make a few bucks more by playing what such crucial elements in their income-earning opportunities want. Apart from a sense of ennui, the cynicism and bitterness also pours through.

The courage of his convictions

Into this disquieting world of modern music in Calcutta, one man has the courage of his convictions to take a deep plunge into not just the unknown, but to do the unheard of.

Having voluntarily removed himself from the scene described above as it was developing, twenty years later, he decides he is ready to not just give it a shot once more, but to either make or break with it. Fatalistic? Not at all. Maturity. Confidence. Conviction. All of that, yes. And knowing that you gave it your best and your all.

In 1979 I saw that light in his eyes, and we did Blues in the Basement together. In 2008, that light was once again evident, and we did Bertie da Silva in Concert together. Both times our gamble paid off. We realized that the audience did not actually know what they wanted to hear. And if it was music very well performed, they would like it for its originality even more. And we were right.

The audience does want stock favourites, but they also want the music we gave them. This much was evident in both years. Sold–out shows, packed venues and a clamour for more proved our point very satisfactorily. It can be compared to eating “chowmin” from street stalls and considering it value for money till you are treated to an authentic meal at a Chinese home. All at once the bar that defined taste has been notched up quite a bit higher.

I am not going to actually do a review of the concert by Bertie da Silva on the 18th of November. I can’t. It would be biased, since I was so much a part of it. And to set any doubts you may have at rest, we have been self-critical, but that is rather a private reckoning and has no relevance to you reading this. Suffice to say we have learned from mistakes and know what to do/not to do next time. Yes, there is certainly going to be a next time. Actually, many more next times.

Doing concerts like this puts a whole lot of responsibility on musicians to offer up much more and better. Concerts like this expect audiences to come for the music alone, so if your music does not meet expectations of the audience you should be ready for the brickbats. And to work harder at your music.

That’s the space we want to carve out. A space for musicians who will be able to perform their original creative efforts for ignorant and unaware listeners and turn them around to their way of thinking. And yet make money from it. This is “alternative” at another level. A collaborative way of working so that new listeners emerge, new opportunities open up, and we can put the cynicism and bitterness to rest.

We may as well give it a shot. We have nothing to lose.


Random Doodler said...

i wish i had been there. But this is only one of those things that you leave behind when you leave the City. I havent heard him play since the fantastic opening at Princeton in 2007. Hope i can make it for another some time soon.

p@tr!(k said...

If you liked the Princeton show so much, I wonder what you would have said about this? Dood, you really missed something! But, not to worry, keep track here and you'll get to know about the CD release soon. This was THE comeback concert...please note - concert - as opposed to a gig in the pub.