Hitting a new high

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By Calcutta bands are going places and making it to the most happening shows in India and abroad. By Angona Paul, Amrita Mukherjee and Lubna Salim
  • Published 7.08.11

It was a huge high for Calcutta band Los Amigos. The Latin Jazz quartet made a splashy international debut in March this year — and how! The venue was the International Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta and sharing performance space with our boys were legendary names like Carlos Santana, George Benson, Joey deFranseco and the iconic Afro-Cuban All Stars band.

“We interacted with all these legends. And every night there’d be jam sessions where everyone got together and played. It was like we’d died and gone to music heaven,” recall Monojit Datta, veteran percussionist and Pradyumna ‘Paddy’ Manot Singh, the group’s pianist.

And Los Amigos isn’t the only Calcutta band that is going places. Take a look at ethno-jazz quartet Kendraka, which just returned from its debut Europe tour. The band did 12 concerts over three weeks in Slovenia, Switzerland and Croatia.

Bumpy on contra bass guitar (far right) and his Kendraka mates, (from left) Soumyajyoti Ghosh, Bodhisattwa Ghosh and Jiver, jam with Slovenian guitarist Andraz Mazi in Ljubljana

Once upon a time Calcutta’s bands lagged behind their contemporaries from metros like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore with fewer venues to make themselves heard. But now they’re getting invited to top-notch musical events in India and abroad. Says Varun Desai of Calcutta-based production company Littlei: “The bands from this city are shaking up the music scene everywhere.”

Tune in to Cassini’s Division (CD), one of Calcutta’s older groups, which has made a name for its edgy alternative sound and hard-hitting lyrics. They are now constantly in demand and flitting from one show to another — in Calcutta and outside. CD has performed at high-profile venues like Mumbai’s Hard Rock Café and also played at festivals like Eastwind in Delhi and Concert for Change in Mumbai. Last year, the band released its first album, Ringside View and the video for the track Glowworm is still being aired on music channel Vh1. What’s more, Rolling Stone India, the bible of the music world, declared Ringside View one of the Top 10 Indian albums of 2010. Earlier, in 2009, CD won the people’s choice award at Sutasi, a pan-Asian talent show in Singapore.

This year, CD will perform at the Indian Rock Festival, the country’s most prestigious rock event to be held in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Calcutta soon. The show will be telecast live on Vh1 and MTV.

Meanwhile the uber-experimental PINKNOISE has been making Escape Festival of Arts & Music, organised in association with Vh1 and Rolling Stone magazine. The three-day festival, held on the banks of the Naukuchiatal Lake, hosts about 200 artistes from various creative fields like music, design and art. This year PINKNOISE shared space with acts like Teddy Boy Kill and Reggae Rajahs.

PINKNOISE’s unqiue sound is a result of the efforts of Jayashree Singh, Gyan Singh, Amyt Dutta and Jiver

The four-member band, which plays a fascinating mix of electronic, punk, rock and jazz combined with ethnic elements (their latest set of songs, Dance of the Diaspora, throws in everything from Tamil nursery rhymes to African folk beats) also performed as one of the star turns at the NH7 Weekender Festival in Pune in December last year. Apart from top Indian musicians, the festival saw internationals acts like Asian Dub Foundation, Susheela Raman and UK pop rock band The Magic Numbers. Says vocalist Jayashree Singh: “Though pubs give us our come-back audiences, festivals like these are definitely a big buzz.”

There are, obviously, more opportunities for bands in an age when the entertainment industry is booming. And Calcutta’s bands are grabbing every chance that comes their way with both hands. One-year-old rap/rock band Underground Authority (UA), for instance, made the most of its appearance on India’s Got Talent (IGT) last year. The band, which was barely a few months old then, landed 80 shows in just four months after the show. They even came in second at the Yamaha Asian Beat rock band competition held at Mumbai’s Hard Rock Café and have also played over half-a-dozen Indian cities. “Initially we were apprehensive about being on a show where people ate tubelights. But there’s no doubt about the huge push it gave us,” says Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer (popularly known as EPR) the group’s ‘poet’ and vocalist.

UA’s got top ratings from people who matter in the music and movie industries. Says VJ Nikhil Chinappa, who co-hosted IGT: “In all my years of listening to Indian bands, this was one group that gave me goosebumps.” UA even caught the attention of actor Salman Khan, who judged one of the episodes and asked them to remix the Dabangg tracks.

Friends of Fusion has Rajkumar and Neel Dutt (sitting) on guitars, (from far left) Bijit Bhattacharya on bass, Deboprotim Baksi on drums and percussions, and Arko Mukherjee on vocals

Music, they say, is a universal language, and Kendraka has definitely been getting a taste of that. The four-man band found itself hitting the high notes in some unusual places during its three-country tour. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, the boys made music at Celica, a youth hostel and cultural events venue which was formerly a prison. Later in their tour, they played in a small town Rijeka in Croatia — this time in a subway that’s become a jazz pub called Jazz Tunel. The icing on the cake was Basel, Switzerland, where they performed at the prestigious Bird’s Eye Jazz Club.

Kendraka’s music, “has influences of jazz, rhythm and blues and more, with a predominantly Indian element”. On tour, they played a mix of material from their 2010 album Tathastu and new tracks. “After our first gig in Slovenia, many of the listeners followed us to the later shows,” says Mainak ‘Bumpy’ Nag Chowdhury, who plays the contra bass guitar and also composes. And there are more new experiences on the way — Kendraka is working on its second album featuring trumpet player David and slide guitarist Andraz Mazi from Ljubljana, and Peter and Gregg Torunski, saxophone and bass clarinet players from Poland.

Interestingly, modern forms of communication are throwing up more opportunities for the bands. Kendraka’s Croatia gig happened after Sonir, the owner of Jazz Tunel, saw its videos on its website. Around the same time, Bumpy was in talks with musicians from Slovenia (the band had already been booked by Stephen Kurmann of Basel’s Bird’s Eye Jazz Club by then). Kendraka is now getting inquiries for the spring and summer of 2012 from countries like Germany, France, and the UK.

The other bands too are harnessing the power of the Internet and using social networking sites to the hilt. PINKNOISE has Jivraj Singh (Jiver) — who also plays in Kendraka — handling its website, Facebook and Vimeo (a video-sharing site) pages.

Their TV appearance changed everything for Underground Authority’s (from far left) guitarist Adil Rashid, bassist Soumyadeep Bhattacharya, vocalist Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer, drummer Sourish Kumar and guitarist Kuntal De
Pix: Rashbehari Das

The bands are all becoming more professional and turning themselves into full-time concerns. Take Friends of Fusion (FoF), which works with Hindustani classical bandishes, ragas, thumris as well as folk songs with a touch of jazz, rock, and the like. The band is now working on their second album, which has elements of electronica. After their recent double nominations for their 2009 eponymous album at the Global Indian Music Awards 2010, FoF acknowledges the need for a manager. Currently, the members themselves manage their Facebook community page. “We always make it a point to respond to requests from fans for songs or videos and upload them on Youtube,” says guitarist Rajkumar Sengupta. The band also has a website.

Meanwhile new kids on the block UA have a full-time band manager, Abhishek Bihari, who interacts with the press and also handles the band on its website and its Facebook page, which has almost 28,000 fans. Some of the band members also blog and maintain online tour diaries. The youngsters, who have seen quick fame, have got their fingers on the pulse of the masses. Even as an alternative rap/rock outfit, the band’s writing songs in Hindi as well as English. “We’re not snooty about the language we write in. It helps reach out to a wider audience,” they assert.

Cassini’s Division too will soon be signing on Manish Savant of AMG India, an artist management group, as their manager. The band is now working on their second album, Animal Wisdom. “It has a lot of African influences,” says singer-songwriter Rahul Guha Roy, “and the songs are about how man has killed the primal instincts that makes animals wise.”

The need for artist management has also spurred events producer Desai into action. Desai will soon launch Gliss, a management/promotion agency dedicated to creating opportunities “and ensuring that the talent of Calcutta gets connected to a national and international audience.” Desai has signed up four bands whose names he will announce in a week.

Marketing strategy is also getting a lot more attention than it did in earlier years. Both CD and UA have band merchandise — while the former has T-shirts, mugs and wallpapers designed by the band’s lead guitarist Sukanti, UA has badges, bags and shirts designed by Calcutta-based firm Onseed.

Pix: Ayan Sil

At another level, Los Amigos is working on a unique endeavour to reach out to a wider audience. “We’re collaborating with city-based Latin dance school Mambo City to develop and promote the Latin dance music scene. So all Mambo City socials now have us playing live,” says bassist Sarthok Chakraborty.

And the strategising is obviously working. With greater visibility come more shows and higher asking prices. UA recalls how it used to earn Rs 4,000 for a gig. Now it earns around Rs 80,000 for an outstation show (plus travel, accommodation, and “celebrity treatment”). CD charges Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 for a pub gig and between Rs 60,000 and Rs 1 lakh for concerts. Kendraka generally charges around Rs 45,000 in Calcutta. “For our Europe tour, we made around 1,500 Euros for each gig,” says Bumpy.

The bands are hoping that their prospects will be even brighter in the future. Datta of Los Amigos sums it up on a hopeful note: “All art needs to be promoted nationally and intelligently like it’s done in countries like Japan and Indonesia. Something like a government wing to handle contemporary performing arts could make a huge difference.”

Till then, let the music take control.