If fusion be the food of music, play on

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By Ananda Lal
  • Published 19.01.05

When did fusion really begin? On the coattails of the first colonial encounter after Bengali fisherfolk heard the odd ditties of British traders who landed along with Charnock? Or when ustads in the Mughal durbar heard the occasional English ambassador who may have tucked his favourite instrument into his baggage to while away the time in arduous, exotic India? Or in even remoter memory, if Indian melodies travelled westwards on camel caravans through the Middle East via the Arabs into north Africa and Spain, influencing Europeans during the Moorish occupation? These questions arose while listening to Amit Chaudhuri and band at their Gyan Manch concert titled This Is Not Fusion, in association with The Telegraph.

For all music is fusion. No musical tradition remains untouched by acculturation, though classical pundits still turn up their noses at the perjury committed by colleagues who jam with jazzmen. Just ask those purists how their Raga Kafi or Miyan Ki Malhar got those names to pin them down on hybridisation, or how the violin got such a hallowed place in south India. Listen to Carla Bley's A.I.R. (1971), a brooding, more melancholy interpretation than Amit?s of All India Radio?s theme tune.

When Amit called me last year, enthused about this new project (which in turn goes back to a poetry-jazz evening I conceptualised some years ago where I goaded him into singing classical against Arthur Gracias? sensitive guitar), and mentioned his composition called Spanish Bhairav, I asked whether it consciously echoed Jyotirindranath Tagore?s famed experiment with Italian Jhinjhoti for Desdemona?s Willow Song in his play Asrumati (1880). That?s the earliest recorded instance of fusion I know.

But Amit and gang have gone further. It was a sparkling yet thoughtful gig, melding popular Western songs with Hindustani music. Possibly for the first time ever, a classical vocalist used blues as bandish, prefaced by his explanation that the Gershwin classic Summertime has identical tones as Raga Malkauns, but with the pancham note added.

I think it?s closer to Asavari, really (also a morning raga, nearer the title of Summertime, rather than the nighttime Malkauns), but forget the technicalities. The result was divine and Amit has a problem on his hands: he must spend less time writing to develop his soulful voice in this new direction!

Derek and The Dominos' Layla riff, which Amit identified as Todi, was another stunner that set off a different chain of thought: could Eric Clapton, inspired by George Harrison?s wife Patti, have heard his best friend George playing the bhakti-ful Todi sometime (either on sitar or a record by his guru Ravi Shankar), a tune that stayed on in his mind? Stranger things have happened. But for sure, in composing Purano sei diner katha, Rabindranath Tagore must have recognised the pentatonic Auld Lang Syne as our Raga Bhupali ? a connection underlined by Amit when, before improvising on it, he pointed out that Raga Pahari came from Bhupali, and Auld Lang Syne from Scotland, both montane sources.

With Calcutta?s finest guitarist, Amit Datta, at his searing best alongside gentle glissandos (even playing slide on Freewheeling Jog); Mayookh Bhaumik setting the tabla on fire beating dadra, kaharba, jhanptal and ektal (not forgetting the amazing emulation of a drummer?s soft brushes on his bayan in Summertime); Mainak Nag Chowdhury gliding into a bass solo on Auld Lang Syne; and Debabrata Mitra getting into the act as far as his un- gayaki piano permitted, Chaudhuri indeed has a triple problem. He must repeat this standing-room-only show, go on tour across India, and release it as a disc.

Why on earth, music labels may ask? Because Chaudhuri?s Trucker, compiling backside-of-lorry bons mots beginning with Buri nazarwali, tera muh kala, is guaranteed to become the next mainstream hit, bought by truckers nationwide. But I insist that he incorporate more lines into it, like "No life without wife...? Move over, Sting. Horn please.