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New Age notes

Ace percussionist Bickram Ghosh was tired of being drowned out by other louder instruments when he was playing in fusion concerts. There was no way his tabla could compete with the sounds being produced on stage by his fellow musicians. To get around the problem Ghosh added an instrument called a handsonic — it’s an electric hand drum — to be played alongside his tabla. Says Ghosh: “I was looking for a punchy, racy sound. So I used the handsonic, which I picked up from the US.”

Other musicians are also giving their instruments a make-over. Gifted sarod player Prattyush Banerjee has carried out an even more complicated experiment. He has overhauled the traditional sarod, plugged it into the mains and created a new instrument which he calls the jyotidhwani.

Banerjee has also replaced the skin of the acoustic sarod. Plus, he fitted it with a new pick-up (a small microphone). Says Banerjee: “This gave the instrument a great deal of variety. I can now play a typical raga as well as Western chords.”

Ghosh has put together a new album, Electro Classical, which features the electrified version of five classical instruments. The five musicians — Ghosh, Banerjee, sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, veena player Rajesh Vaidhya and mandolin player Snehasis Majumdar — have actually given a new twist to fusion music with these instruments.

Banerjee (who has trained on the sarod since he was eight with maestro Buddhadeb Dasgupta) has collaborated with musician Pete Lockett on a yet-to-be-released album, Made in Calcutta. The album is being produced by Ghosh. Banerjee plans to replace the electric guitar at fusion music concerts with the jyotidhwani soon. Says Banerjee: “My jyotidhwani is perfect for that eerie note in the background score of a suspense thriller”.

As for the “electrified” version of the sitar, Purbayan Chatterjee started working on it two years ago. The result: the new instrument offers louder and better sound projection. Chatterjee, who has been playing the sitar since he was five,is now venturing into experimental music.

Chatterjee added two good guitar pick-ups , volume and tone knobs on his instrument. Then he got a three-way switch so that he could use both pick-ups simultaneously.

Cut to the Chennai-based veena player Rajhesh Vaidhya, who modified the traditional veena by adding in-built microphones, processors and electrified strings. The “electrified” veena is something that Vaidhya can use for both his classical and fusion concerts. “I’ve been able to play at a very fast pace in Electro Classical thanks to my modified instrument”, says Vaidhya.

Another player going places is Snehasis Maj-umdar, who has come up with a double-necked mandolin. “This has two necks or two octaves that increase the range of the instrument and its volume,” he says.

Majumdar uses nine strings to create western and Indian sounds on this instrument. “I can reach out to a wider audience with this version of the mandolin,” he says.

So what difference do these new instruments make? “Because of the long sustained notes, I can play the alaap of a Hindustani classical composition better on the electrified instrument. The taan, gamak and tihai also sound better with the electric instruments,” says Banerjee. At the other end of the spectrum, the sarod and mandolin can provide back up or play chords in a fusion set-up.

As for Ghosh, he uses the handsonic for the bass guitar tone mostly during fusion concerts. “This combination creates a dense groove which, in fact, is the backbone of my sound in albums like Rhythmscape or Electro Classical,” he says.

And is it possible to play pure classical music using these instruments? Ghosh and the others insist that it is and say they will be using these instruments in classical concerts soon. However, sarod maestro Pandit Tejendra Narayan Maj-umdar is cautious: “The modulation that is possible with electrified instruments is remarkable. But I’d like to see how well these modified instruments execute a raga.”

So what makes the album Electro Classical special? Says Ghosh: “I realised sometime back that a large number of Indians didn’t attend classical concerts. They missed the familiar sound of pop and rock concerts. This sound was constituted by the electric tonality of instruments and also the grooviness of popular music.”

Taking a cue, these musicians will now perform a string of concerts across the country, including top nightclubs and lounges where there is a ready audience for this kind of rhythm. They hope their music plays on.  

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