Genre fluidity at ‘The Hindu November Fest’

The Hindu, 19 Oct 2018

By Akhila Krishnamurthy

Ahead of The Hindu November Fest, artistes from Ustad Amjad Ali Khan to Bombay Jayashri weigh in on why genre fluidity will underscore the music of tomorrow

Bombay Jayashri Ramnath vividly remembers an afternoon with her guru, violin maestro Lalgudi G Jayaraman. “I walked into class and he was watching one of Michael Jackson’s videos. He was so immersed in it. ‘Look at how involved he is with his music’, he told me, ‘almost like the man and the music are one’.” Listening to various forms of music, Jayashri is also keen to allow her own music to be shaped by them. Trained in Carnatic and Hindustani, she has dabbled in playback, and collaborated on experimental works with artistes from across genres. All this while retaining her spot in the Carnatic framework.

By her own admission, “music was just music” — at home in Chennai, and growing up in Mumbai. She listened to, and appreciated, Ramnad Krishnan, Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar alike. That adaptability and “urge to sing anything and everything using my voice, which is my medium of communication, is really why I do what I do”.

Genre fluidity at 'The Hindu November Fest'

Cut to Delhi. After nearly a year of composing with the sarod, and spending hours listening to concertos, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan submitted his project Samagam, a concerto for the sarod, to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In June this year, at Orkney Islands in Scotland, as part of the St Magnus Festival, it premièred to a full house. Conducted by UK-based David Murphy, Samagam is very close to Khan’s heart. “My singular intent was to distil the spirit of sharing of our respective artistic traditions and, along the way, find common ground in ragas and medieval modes.”

This “cross-fertilisation” — a word he uses to describe how two diverse musical forms “joyfully explore their inherent DNAs and still manage to find more than enough place to play” — is perhaps among the most significant movements in the music industry today, allowing genre-centric musicians to use their training and foundation to wear a new hat and spellbind a new audience.

Genre fluidity at 'The Hindu November Fest'

Sound for thought

Khan is part of the opening act of the 14th edition of The Hindu November Fest, a pioneering music-based festival that has, over the years, featured over 80 musicians from across the world. It will then travel to Bengaluru and Hyderabad, with three acts: a collaborative performance by Bombay Jayashri Ramnath and Abhishek Raghuram, a double-bill evening featuring Chennai-based Staccato and IndoSoul, and a cinema act by Rekha Bhardwaj from Mumbai.

The thread that connects these disparate musical narratives is the idea of crossover, of a non-conformist treatment. Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor of The Hindu, reflects upon the idea of genre fluidity, saying, “Since its inception, the fest has not only brought together artistes from different genres but also provided them a platform to experiment. Such collaborations have gone beyond jugalbandis, and we have tried to showcase, wherever possible, a new sound. A good example is the concert of late Mandolin Srinivas and Chinese yangqin player, Liu Yueninh, which we staged in 2011. It was an evening during which they bent genres, melded styles, and spoke the same musical language. It is this sort of eclecticism that has made The Hindu November Fest what it is.” In fact, the genre section in the fest’s brochure — which once featured Carnatic or Hindustani, Folk or Fusion — now has more creative coinages like Carnatic-Classical-Contemporary and Global Indian Music.

Genre fluidity at 'The Hindu November Fest'

Outside the framework

So, is this fusion? “Well, honestly, genre fluidity and fusion music are the same. Except we tend to use fusion under a big umbrella to refer to a coming together of two or many musical styles. If we were to break it down, I’d say genre fluidity is the by-product of what can be a fusion experience,” says Nirmika Singh, Executive Editor, Rolling Stone India.

So while earlier, an artiste would collaborate with another from a different discipline, now musicians themselves are pushing boundaries and going beyond their core expertise, thus making genre irrelevant. What do you call a Carnatic song with jazz scatting (Chandana Bala Kalyan), a hip-hop rap oeuvre with unmissable improvisation (Kendrick Lamar), a Hindi song with prog-rock roots (the band, Paradigm Shift) or a commercial Bollywood qawwali with blue grass influences (Slow Motion Angreza from Bhaag Milka Bhaag)?

Genre fluidity at 'The Hindu November Fest'

According to Sriram Emani of IndianRaga — who re-interpreted Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You in a Carnatic framework last year — what is changing is that, because of social media consumption and a continually shifting audience dynamic, music rooted in traditional grammar is finding interesting ways to express itself.

Who needs labels?

Reflecting upon the role of genre, Carnatic vocalist Abhishek Raghuram, who, in July this year, performed a concert with acclaimed German baritone singer Benjamin Appl, says, “Labels are only for the listener. Anyone who learns music develops an innate ability to reproduce any sound and play with it in the language of music s/he knows best. In my case, that is Carnatic.” In his concert with Jayashri, titled Yatra – A journey within, the duo will traverse musical traditions of India.

New soundscape
  • Taking time off a jamming session in their studio on Chennai’s Old Mahabalipuram Road, Karthick Iyer recalls a hot afternoon in May last year. He and his five-piece band, IndoSoul — which uses Carnatic music to create a global flavour — were working on their third album, Two Sides of Karma. In his head, Iyer had a skeletal framework for a song. “I knew I wanted something psychedelic,” he says. The boys warmed up; Sumesh Narayanan, the mridangist, had a flash of an idea that Vikram Vivekanandh quickly translated on his guitar. Reshwin, who is on bass, suggested the tempo; drummer Ram chipped in with an idea for the groove. “As we collectively thought of our inspiration, (Pink) Floyd, I toyed with the melody, digging into my Carnatic roots and layering the overall canvas with two majestic ragams, Kaanada and Darbari Kaanada.”
  • The result of that six-hour jamming session was ‘Need I Say More’. “The attempt was to create the feeling of all five senses in harmony, leaving no room for reason or thought.” An instrumental track, it is ‘Carnatic Global’ and a classic example of allowing influences and core identities to fuse together to create fresh, formless sounds.

Staccato, too, has been defying the boundaries of genre for nearly a decade now. Look at the treatment Nee Maatale Mayanura, a Telugu love song performed as a javali in the Bharatanatyam repertoire, finds in their hands. It becomes electronic — dark and trippy — and yet, thanks to its arrangement, retains its raw, Indian flavour. “All it takes is a little shift,” says Bala PD, the band’s percussionist. “But making that shift happen isn’t easy; sometimes one song takes a year to produce, marinating under the many influences every band member brings, to acquire a distinct flavour of its own.” The game-changer for Staccato, Bala says, was playing at the 2012 Red Bull Tum Tum Pa festival in Brazil where they performed alongside 31 bands from across 30 countries. “It reinforced our philosophy in constantly creating genre-bending music,” he says.

However, genre-bending is not for the musician alone; it is equally a dynamic of the audience. Look at The Tetseo Sisters, a quartet of siblings from Nagaland. They present the music of their land and sing in a local dialect at cafés and festivals across India. Their Instagram page has nearly 32,000 followers from around the world, reiterating the power of social media in making the uncommon, accessible. “We live in interesting times, when it’s hard to label things because there’s such a blurring of lines in music, art and fashion. In fact, in terms of genre, it has never been more fluid,” say the sisters.

Singer Rekha Bhardwaj feels that everyone is adding to the list of genres. “It is an expression of your creativity and it allows artistes to break into the world music scene. I won’t be surprised if one day we have a genre called Khitchdi. But honestly, how does it matter? If the music makes my heart happy, I’m only going to sing along.”


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