Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Fusion: Confusing the Genre from the Jargon

John Mc Laughlin with Zakir Hussain, the Shakti days, when the world had'nt quite figured out the fusion in confusion

The absence of any good reading material in Bangladesh on music is one that I really find inexcusable, and probably explains why I spend so much time with music forums on the Net.

The truth is in the Bengali language, there is nothing worth a read, and all you get is a cocktail of ‘stars’ letting the world know how ‘important’ and ‘great’ they are, which the dutiful and dumb journalist then proceeds to write out without cross checking, only to eke out a subsistence existence as a contributor to this or that local magazine or newspaper.

Having said that, the above may be termed a generalized and sweeping statement, for once in a while one does come across some very well written stuff on the local scene in English, and one such was the Star Weekend Magazine of 16th April 2005 titled ‘Jazzing Up a Storm’.

What made it more important for me was one of the writers was Elita Karim, the lead vocalist for the fusion band ‘Raaga’, and whilst I have yet to hear the bands album, I have heard rave reviews of the same. I feel all the more encouraged that somebody like Elita who is not only an accomplished vocalist, is also venturing out into writing her thoughts on fusion, and it will certainly go a long way in educating people about Music, when most have sort of made up their mind that this art form is best suited for ‘illiterates’!

In very many ways, I felt more than a little elated that the write-up didn’t fail to identify the first jazz-rock fusion renegades in the music business. It was thus a small surprise that in the third paragraph of the write-up I was able to read something that would surely be ‘music’ to anybody’s ears – by that I of course mean the conceited ears of this obnoxious character called Mac!

“One of the pioneers of the folk music fusion scene was Maqsoodul Haque, who, with his band Feedback in 1996 came out with the album Bauliana, which incorporates Baul music with keyboard and drums.”

Slapping my own back, I said ‘Shabaash’ – dude your ‘moment in history’ now recorded in the ‘great’ Daily Star, a newspaper I have never had much respect for ever, and that’s a very long and old story, which would blacken the mood of this writing should I get into the details.

But wait a minute, yes, we did use a whole lot of keyboards in Bauliana – but did we use the drums?

In fact one of the reasons I quit Feedback in 1997 was we were no longer playing live instruments but were relying on rhythm machines and sequencers!

I thought if machines could run the whole band – why the hell do they need me? ‘Go get a machine that sings’ – and there are machines that sing by the way, Michael Jackson for one is notorious in its (mis) use. Cost’s you a packet too.

What has become apparent is in discussions on ‘fusion’ there appears to be more confusion, and understandably it comes from not knowing the background and history of the genre. It thus becomes copious belittling when the general perception of fusion whittles down to just about ‘blending’ two or more music influences, instruments and calling it ‘fusion’.

To be simple and precise – it appears to me that this ‘new in thing’ is compared to drinking a concocted mix of tea and coffee – teacoe- perhaps? Nah. Worse, some people even believe that by so doing we are doing our music a ‘great favor’?

If there is at all history of fusion, the ideal time to benchmark it, would be the Beatles last album “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely Heart Club Band” in 1967 and the song ‘Within you, Without you’ incredibly marking the Fab 4’s inroad into understanding and performing Indian music, after having trained with none less than Ravi Shankar:
“George Harrison wrote this song after studying with Ravi Shankar in 1965. This was a new philosophy pumped into Pop Culture and an Eastern flavored song. About giving up ego and closing the ‘space between us all’, George was writing a way of thinking into Rock and Roll. Embellished by groaning sounds of sitars and strange instruments the song caught on with the Hippies of the late sixties. Many musicians and people who consider this album a pinnacle for the love generation point to this song as the Beatles understanding what was happening.”
The idea that I am trying to convey here, it wasn’t as if the East was seeking out the West in trying to incorporate a music that we call fusion today, indeed it was quite the reverse and there were very many reasons for that.

By the end sixties the Beatles made it quite clear that Indian music (classical or otherwise) is not something worth fooling around with, and with that, greats in the classical tradition like Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakhha, and Zakir Hussain from India made their Europe and later the US their homes – literally to ‘preach’ music.

Thus, ‘fusion’ as we know it today moved from the East to the West, and lets not be ‘confused’ about it again.

An then in 1975 we had the legendary John McLaughlin with his band Shakti – turning the world upside down as this Innerviews review would indicate:

“Formed in 1975, Shakti pioneered a groundbreaking and highly influential east-meets-west collaborative approach. The group, whose name means creative intelligence, beauty and power, consisted of legendary British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, North Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and violinist L. Shankar and ghatam [percussion] player T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram, both of whom hail from South India. Together, they created a fluid and organic sound that managed to successfully combine seemingly incompatible traditions. Hussain and McLaughlin, along with rotating co-conspirators, recently launched a successful reunion tour and self-titled album under the name Remember Shakti. But upon the original group's debut, Westerners weren't quite ready to dance to the worldbeat of these very different drummers.”
Fusion as we know it today started from this point onward and it was just not going out and picking tones and tonality, rearranging them, ‘re-mixing’ them – there was more to it:
“McLaughlin believes the almost complete lack of mainstream knowledge, appreciation and availability of world music at the time of Shakti’s introduction also hampered its initial acceptance. "When I formed Shakti, it was dimly viewed, I should say!" said McLaughlin, a key member of several Miles Davis line-ups and one of the most renowned guitarists in history. "After coming out of Mahavishnu—a very powerful electric band—here I was sitting on a carpet with Indian musicians. Everyone thought I flipped out. It was not well-received at all by the record company or my agent and manager. Artistically, I thought it was wonderful, but they all thought I was a little loopy."
And then comes the chemistry part of fusion, the real hard part:
"Things went the natural Indian way," said McLaughlin. "This, of course, included the introduction of the raga, the various ways of collective playing and the principal improvisations from the soloists. As musicians, we are playing notes, music and rhythms and we hope to play the right melody in the correct way, but this is only part of the process. The other side that is important is the communication of the musicians and the playing and playfulness that comes from that interaction. You can put a piece of music in front of somebody and he may play it perfectly. So what? Interplay and interaction are the integral parts of music—they're as important as the notes. Without them, I don't think I'd be here. You can't just play over someone. There are many examples in jazz fusion in which you have a soloist playing over a steady drumbeat and I find this terribly boring, because I want to hear the interaction between two people. I want to know what kind of imagination and spontaneity they have. Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are."
Mark the word 'spontaneity' and what we have in the Bangladesh version of ‘fusion’ is rather very dim and insipid mind makeups:
“There are a few songs which have been played from the keyboard with the intention of sounding like traditional instruments," says Habib. "I think my favourite instrument to use is the flute. The sound and the way it's played really touches me. The sound of flute makes you very emotional, sad and romantic. All these instruments -- sarod, sarangi, flutes -- have very emotional sounds. So far, I have mixed them with arrangements that are still on the more traditional side but eventually, I would like to introduce these instruments on 'groovy' and modern tracks."
If fusion is only going to be about sounds sampled from any numbers of keyboards and sequencers, and beats taken out of thousands of loop CD’s available anywhere in the world, its fair to call it a ‘musical wallpaper’ – not fusion.

If it is going to be sound and sound alone from sources other than its own i.e. sarod, sitar and flute, 'sampled' as it were from a keyboards and ‘not the real thing’ – the highway of fusion in Bangladesh has far too many STOP than GO signs than one would imagine.

Remember Bob Marley when he said “You can fool some people some time, but not All the people all the time”.

The other sordid term being used is ‘remix’ – which for all practical purpose is a marketing jargon and NOT a musical genre, a point not missed out by Renaissance when they said :
"What we are doing is not remixing music," says Naquib. "We compose our own original folk music. We have our own lyrics, our own tunes but we keep the basis of folk music within our compositions. At the same time we also try to blend western instruments with traditional instruments." he band defines the true meaning of fusion by incorporating instruments such as saxophones and trumpets to add a jazzy feel while still managing to stay true to the roots of folk Bangali music. They also bring in different artists to play some of the traditional instruments such as bashi, dhol, khomok, khonjoni, mondira, dootara, ektaara and naal. “
Note again the chemistry of music in question here.

No one man can conceivably produce fusion music using his own sense of judgment or taste. It has to accommodate quite a few parameters, a large spectrum, one of the most important being the nuances of each and every instrument in question as also an ability to blend in the respective playing style of individual musicians from diverse backgrounds and orientations.

Together with it the most important element in fusion, spontaneity and improvisation:
"When we do not have a dotara, I have to make do with a guitar," says Buno. "Instead of the dhol, we use the drums to produce the same kind of rhythm. We like to use a lot of traditional instruments ourselves. Even in our album, we have worked with flutes, dotara, tabla, mondira and many more. These instruments are actually intermingled with western instruments and concepts like, trumpets choir music and even the blues.”
There are intrinsically three categories of music in South Asia. The Northern Indian music, rich with their gharanas, the exclusive preserve of the Maharajas and the landed elite of yore, the more complex and difficult category from South India, representative of Carnatic Music, with innumerable beats and percussive delights that very few in the world seems to have mastered other than the South Indian greats, followed by Eastern Indian music, which is basically the fusion of all the Indian and so called 'western' forms, together with Sufi, Tantric and Buddhist influences that is so much our proud musical heritage as of today.

Last if not the least – is there any instrument above that we can call indigenously Bengali or from Bangladesh?

As far as I know, other than the good old ‘dug-dugi’, our part of the world has not produced any instruments, thus the harmonium, dotara, tabla, ektaara etc, have all come in from regions other that 56,126 square kilometer we call our ‘motherland’ our great “Bangla-Land”!

Bottom line, call it folk music or whatever, Bangladesh ‘country music’ has traditionally been fusion music and it would be a shame to think of it any other way.

Fusion is in our inherent bloodstream, that's the way it was and that's the way it is going to be.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Boishakhi Blues: Do our "little" in a large way?

The first time I recall going to a Pahela Boishakh event was 1965. The place was idyllic Madhabdi near Narsinghdhi. It was Dad's idea that I come along to what he promised would be a day of fun, and for the first time in my life I was exposed to the great tradition of the Hal khatha, which is basically the opening of new books of accounts for traders; indeed any business, a new book was/is opened every year on Pahela Boishakh.

I spent a full day of mischievous fun at Madhabdi, which at the time was a sprawling center for the dyes and chemicals business in the then East Pakistan, and one my father was associated with - hence the invites.

There was no singing or dancing, as one would expect these days, but I couldn't help overlook that everybody wore new dresses, and yes a lot of mishti and good food to go with it. Exhausted with all the running about - (with Zamir Ali my minder trying his best to keep me in best behavior), I dozed off the afternoon at a 'gaddi' of a 'mohajan' and when it was time to return - I was in for a surprise.

From boudi, the wife of a mohajan who had earlier hand fed me her deliciously cooked shorsho ilish fish was a New Year's gift! A pair of pigeon in a neat basket. The male was brown in color and the female white. From that moment on, the ecstatic 8-year-old in me went flying to the seventh heaven with the beautiful birds. In retrospect, I don't think I ever quite managed to 'home' my way back to plain grounds!

The pigeon's touched my spirit and I soon found myself becoming obsessed with them. I would feed them, and spent sleepless nights worrying if the ugly tomcat would make a 'feast' of them! In school I would point at the pigeons flying in and out of the portico to my friends that they were 'mine' and back home it would be pigeons again. I would spend hours watching them in mouth agape wonder till Mum would raise hell that it was time to get to studies.

Dad was a great pigeon aficionado as I soon learnt, and by the time we left Narayangang (where I was born) to move to Dhaka in 1968, our flock of pigeon was close to 50. Our family was very poor, but Dad to keep me (by then an 'out-of-control' prankster on way to becoming a delinquent) occupied, spent a whole deal of money and purchased several other species, with one of the most prized pair being the 'lokkhya' - pigeons with tails resembling that of peacock.

It was a great wonder to see the original pair breed and re-breed to a staggering 6 pairs and I probably oversaw a dozen eggs, that hatched these beautiful little chicks without feathers, and became adult pigeon that went flying, and yet came back to me before dusk.

When they mated, I would think they were attacking each other and rush in to intervene, till Dad quietly explained to me things about "the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and the moon up above - and a thing called LOVE". Education?

It was freedom of the pigeons, their ability to fly and go wherever the felt like going, that had me zapped, and to think of it - freedom has in many ways been my life long goal, in a world where you are only as free as you think you want to be. An unfettered mind is life's greatest deception, yet we pursue it with so much vigor - simply because it cannot be any other way, in a world where we bask in insolent arrogance in our propensity to deny freedom to our fellow man.

I think the pigeon serves as a reminder, that it is perhaps the only domesticated bird that has lived with man for ions, yet both creatures have complimented each other on freedom or the lack of it……with the pigeon having the upper hand - NOT man.

I woke up this morning to the 'bak bakum kum' sound of a pair of pigeon's. In Adabor where I live, forget pigeons, one doesn't even see sparrows, and this wonderful sound and sight brought me into a very contemplative state of mind. With Choitro Shongkranti and Boishakh festivities set to begin in a couple of hours, and while we take stock of the year gone by, can we all do our little in a large way that individual freedom is respected?

This day (12th April) 18 years back Dad went 'flying off' from this world, way beyond to the world of our shapeless, formless Maker, and tell you what, I think he has been most certainly employed as a pigeon keeper!

I will be going over to his grave later in the evening and not that he needs one, say a prayer for his soul, and also may the Lord gOD send us more pigeons courtesy him this and in future Boishakh.

With that, Shubho Noboborsho to everybody.