The Telegraph
Friday , January 25 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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The raga was Kedar, but the instrument playing it was a saxophone. Actually, two saxophones. Brothers Jonathan and Andrew Kay can play this raga as eloquently as jazz.

The Monsoon Duo as the brothers from Canada call themselves have been living in Calcutta for the past three years learning Indian classical music. “We’ve been playing the sax since our school days in Toronto but were drawn to Indian music through the likes of Ravi Shankar,” says Jonathan, 31.

The two professional jazz musicians first visited Calcutta six years ago and contacted Sangeet Research Academy from where they got to meet the man who would become their guru. “Shantanu Bhattacharyya,” says Andrew, 26, touching his ear in reverence. “We attended 10 classes in the five weeks that we spent here but got so interested that we decided to relocate here.” The Kays returned three years ago and since then have been living near Ruby General Hospital.

Indian classical and jazz music are like chalk and cheese. “Sometimes it’s as alien as learning a new language. Classical music is serious whereas jazz is creative but then both forms allow you to improvise upon a set structure,” says Jonathan.

Then again, no one had ever heard of a sax-and-raga combo. Andrew cites how Bismillah Khan popularised the shehnai in classical music and says that at the end of the day a raga can resonate out of any instrument. “It’s not the instrument that matters. It’s the musician,” he smiles.

During their stay in India the brothers have performed all over the country. At Calcutta Club they were performing on both days of the International Evening event, held in association with The Telegraph. “On the first day we performed pure classical music, along with tabla player Apurba Mukherjee. On the second day it was Indo-fusion,” adds Andrew.

Not only have the duo taken to Indian music and language (they speak fluent Bengali and Hindi), but also to the food. Jonathan is said to be a good cook. “I cooked posto yesterday,” he smiles. “We really like Calcutta. It is as much a home to us as Toronto.”

But while the bothers have crossed the seas to come learn Indian music, they are surprised to see the youth here ignoring it. “More because Calcutta is the richest place in India when it comes to art, music and dance. It’s sad that youngsters are trying to emulate the west at the cost of their own culture,” says Andrew.

You can put just about any vegetable into a pan to make avial and it comes out delicious, just like the South Indian band. Avial was in town to perform at Integration ’13, the annual fest of ISI, held in association with t2.

(L-R) Binny Issac (bass), Tony John (in the background, vocals), Mithun Puthanveetil (drums) and Rex Vijayan (guitar)

You guys have named your band after a dish. Is avial your favourite munch?

Rex: Yes, we are foodies and this is one of our favourite dishes!
Tony: We love the dish and Rex came up with this name for the band. We snapped it up.
Rex: The name came up very randomly and the way the word is pronounced is beautiful and simple.

This is your first performance in the city. What took you so long to come here?

Tony: We took almost five years to reach Calcutta! There were plenty of enquiries for our shows but somehow it did not work out.

Are your compositions based on any theme or message?

Tony: Absolutely! It is all about what is happening around us, like social issues, political unrest, deforestation and so on.

The songs are in Malayalam. So, how do you connect with listeners from across India?

Tony: That’s the best part because we do more shows outside Kerala (smiles).
Rex: We feel lucky that way... people need not understand what we sing because we connect through sound. When we came out with the album, the inlay featured the interpretation of our songs. You can also look up our website.

Your favourite Indian bands?

Rex+Tony+Binny+Mithun: That would be Pentagram, Kailasa, Shaa’ir + Func, Midival Punditz...

Besides the language, what’s so Indian about the band?

Rex: It’s us!
Tony: Original Indians and authentic (laughs)! Today, we will perform for the first time with a tabla (played by Calcutta-boy Agnitray Chakrabarty).

Your musical inspiration?

Rex+Tony+Binny+Mithun: Abba, Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Coldplay, Deep Purple, Sting… (pause) Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many other bands. We can go on and on.

Your take on the future of the rock scene in India.

Rex: There are many promising regional bands and all of them should try and meet international standards.

Bengali rock is very popular in Calcutta. How is the scene down south?

Tony: When we started off in 2003, many people were shocked. But now there are many bands playing Mallu rock.
Rex: I feel it’s more rooted when you sing in your mother tongue.

Do you know any musician from Calcutta?

Rex: I know Amyt Datta.
Binny: And, of course, we know Usha Uthup!

Your favourite venues.

Tony: BLUEFROG in Delhi and Mumbai. There are many great venues in Bangalore, Pune and Madras.

Are you composing music for films?

Tony: Yes... for 22 Female Kottayam. And Rex is doing his solo project.