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On fusion trek, strumming a dialogue

Ravi Shankar was a “cool weird sound” he didn’t really understand as a kid. But it opened the doors for him to the magical world of Indian music, which he was to explore in depth later with the likes of Zakir Hussain, Vikku Vinayakram and recently, Vikku’s son Selvaganesh.

Now Swedish bassist extraordinaire Jonas Hellborg has followed lore of his jazz-rock exploits to India, to make live music in the land of his fascination for the first time. And Calcutta, which seems to be experiencing a second coming of jazz’s salad days of late, will be the first stop. With American guitarist and music-mate for the last decade Shawn Lane and Italian drummer Andreas Marchesini, Hellborg will do his first Indian gig at Someplace Else on February 8, at 9 pm.

Invited by Congo Square, a city-based forum of jazz lovers, Hellborg, Lane & Friends will perform in a full-fledged concert taking on board local rock outfit Skinny Alley at Nazrul Mancha on February 10. They will also hold clinics on Friday and Saturday for budding musicians in association with the Calcutta School of Music.

“Shawn and I have been doing clinics and workshops for a number of years. What we do typically is try and assess who is there to listen to us and talk to us. It’s a dialogue and we don’t come with a prefixed programme. Here, we will probably focus a lot on western music and how that fits with Indian music,” explains Hellborg.

The 45-year-old maverick bass guitarist, whose slap technique, lead lines and revolutionary chordal approach have broken fresh grounds in the jazz-rock idiom, feels the Indian system of teaching and explaining rhythms can help westerners understand better how rhythms function and work together. “Music is not just about technique. It’s all about hearing, which is well understood in the traditional Indian method of teaching music where you sing out the stuff before you play it,” he elaborates.

On the flip side, Hellborg believes Western classical is “too much mired in” grammar and technique. “It doesn’t matter how you make the sound. The important thing is that you make the sound.” A left-winger with Swedish soccer club IFK Gothenburg’s age-group teams as a kid, he taught himself to play the bass at 12, and never returned to soccer since.

Although his early influences were blues and heavy rock acts like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Deep Purple, Hellborg admits it was John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, which were the starting points for him. “That’s when I stepped from hard rock into the jazz field, and it helped since there were hard rock elements in Mahavishnu.”

But, it was Shakti, which changed his perception of Indian music. “It was the first and one of the few successful blends of cultures in music that has happened, and it takes a lot of understanding on both sides. There’s a lot of dumb recordings, which have been done, where you take some western beat and maybe bootleg some Indian soloist and call it fusion music. That’s not acceptable. You must speak a common language,” he argues.

After Calcutta, a concert is lined up in Shillong on February 15, followed by a couple of gigs in New Delhi, on February 16 and 23, the latter at the Great Indian Rock festival. The jazzmen then go up to Dharamshala to play on March 2 to mark the Tibetan New Year.

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