Fused Brains, Free Music

Flanked by two towering palm trees amidst a bustling market for used cars on Delhi's Khajoor Road, lies an old, worn down bungalow. Four avid players are in the final innings of a game of tennis ball cricket in the verandah. Upon arrival, we're told that, incidentally, many years ago legendary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz recited his poetry in the same compound. Now it serves as the incubator for the rich and ambient sounds of the music group Indian Ocean, comprising Asheem Chakravarty on tabla tarang & vocals, Amit Kilam on drums & percussions, Rahul Ram on bass & vocals and Susmit Sen on guitar. Indian Ocean throws up an earthy punch of Indian folk, Hindustani classical, and rock, sometimes infused with Sufi philosophies, Vedic slokas and even strains of Bollywood. During a recent trip to Delhi, my brother and I met up with the Ocean to learn more about them and their music.

At a time in which the "fusion" label has been rendered meaningless, the band vehemently asserts that about the only things fused about them are their brains. According to them, fusion is a band like Shakti -- great people trained in completely different styles who come together. "We are uneducated technically" they say, "and are representative of a modern Indian urban setting where one is exposed to all sorts of music from day one. So lets say the fusion, if any, has happened in our head. And the influences are every single thing you have ever heard -- rock, western pop, Indipop, classical, ghazal and qawwali, and a hundred different types of Indian folk music..."

Susmit's distinctive guitar style based on intricate Hindustani classical scales has been a founding influence along with Asheem's soul riveting voice and imaginative layering of rhythms on the tabla tarang (a set of tablas tuned to different notes). Meanwhile, Rahul's deep brooding basslines syncopated to Amit's intelligently improvised drumming provides the essential backbone to the group's sounds. The rhythms employed are not the regular 4x4 rock beats, but the more leisurely 8ths, 12ths and 16ths frequently employed in traditional music from the subcontinent. These longer cycle patterns allow for more improvisation, and force drummers to not just play in beat but also keep with the flow and the roundness of rhythm. "A good tabla player will fill every single crack and do it differently each time" says Asheem, "you're using fingers not sticks, so you can do a lot more stuff."

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of their music, especially when compared to other urban contemporary music, is the use of folk traditions. However, the band vehemently disavows any pioneer status in this area, invoking a longstanding tradition of blurred urban-rural musical boundaries in Indian music. In fact, they argue that mainstream Indian music has always had its roots planted in folk. But the Ocean appears to be among the first groups to successfully combine traditional tunes and rhythms with elements of jazz-rock and Indian classical to create what they call a "distinctly modern Indian" music, a sound palatable to a broad urban audience. Rahul muses:

To me, I like the blues. But if I grew up in southern Alabama, I would have had a different relationship with the blues; it would have been part of my growing up. Indian folk somehow, for us at least, is so close to the soil, and I think we represent the "empire strikes back", where we say "fine, western music, yes." But Indian music is a here and there are great things in it, things that we instinctively respond to and which have certain universal resonances. I mean why do I like Baaba Maal? Why will I listen to Fela Kuti? Why do I hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo? They're using their traditional stuff in interestingly different ways. There's a common thread. Modernity does not imply a complete rejection of traditional, and in that sense Indian Ocean is interesting, because it represents a mix where we're rooted in our traditions but we're not bound by them.

Their repertoire hops from point to point on the Indian cultural landscape. From "Hille Le Jhagjhor Duniya," based on a poem written by a Bihari revolutionary poet called Gorakh Pande, which urges its audience to throw away the old order and replace it with the new, to "Ma Reva," a eulogy to the Narmada river, a tune Rahul learnt from local communities engaged in the struggle for self determination against the large, ecologically unfriendly Sardar Sarovar dam, to "Kandisa," a soul stirring 2nd century Aramaic mass that used to be sung by the Syrian Christian community in Kerala. But even though they borrow freely, Indian Ocean distance themselves from others who use copyright laws to exploit folk music. "These songs belong to everybody," they claim, "and more specifically to the people who sing them. How can anything that has been sung for hundreds of years be anybody's copyright?"

Despite the social meanings behind most of their songs, the Ocean are adamantly a "non political" band where melody, music and rhythm take precedence over politics. To rest his case, Rahul humorously quotes American folk singer Holly Near by saying "there's nothing more boring than a bad political song." This set of priorities has perhaps ensured the progressive evolution and creative layering of their sound. Through the years, however, the group has also earned the reputation of harboring a social conscience. Their second album, Desert Rain, was recorded live at Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust's annual festival commemorating the life of the noted street theatre activist murdered by government thugs for staging anti authoritarian plays. Individually, they have been vocal in progressive movements, without compromising their deep felt spirituality. To them, for example, there exists a distinction between organized religion and spirituality. "As long as something gives you peace, how can you argue with it? We don't chant slokas to convey Hinduism. We're chanting them for their musicality, their interesting rhythms and phonetics, and the profound Vedic message that represents the lofty ideals of society."

A case in point is "Kya Maloom," one interpretation of which relates to the Indo-Pak skirmish in Kargil. Laden with erudite Sanskrit verses (Teevra Andhi, Mrityugami Badalon Sang Chale, i.e. strong winds blow with the clouds of death), the song portrays an utterly contemptuous Lord Shiva stumped at the insanity that makes people kill each other at 18,000 feet and minus 30 degree centigrade for such meaningless cause. Another track, "Bol Weevil," named after a particular resistant strain of insects, celebrates the pride and dignity and the Adivasi tribes. It goes: Makhedar Aave, Kukri Maange Re (the government functionary comes and demands the chicken as bribe), but we're adivasis, the sons of tigers, and therefore we won't give in.

The Indian Ocean music factory shuns prefabricated assembly line efforts in favor of what they call "Atma ki Pukar" (Call of the Soul). Most of their lyrics are borrowed from communities, activists and poets to which the band then adds the musical component. "Were jamming, then suddenly someone gets an idea, a spark. And then if we all like it, there is six months of polishing, building around that. Its fought out, contested, full of screaming matches and hurt egos." This organic approach to musical composition requires a well-knit group, a family of sorts. Their unassuming personalities seem congenial to such a process.

The onslaught of cable TV in India has been crucial to Indian Ocean's success. Video formats encouraged by Channel V, MTV, Music Asia and a host of other emerging music channels have led to the rise of "Indipop." While this boom has produced a slew of commercially oriented pop with little musical value, it has also simply given many people the opportunity to make different kinds of music, including styles that combine the traditional and the modern. According to the band, only after this Indipop explosion did "an indigenous, modern sound emerge, which reflected our own acceptance of us. All through our growing up all that played in discos was western music -- their cultural agenda, their sounds, and their emotions. That's what was resonating with the elite."

Success has only come gradually and, to come this far, the quartet has had to deal with many challenges, including overcoming their middle class instincts, where the overriding mantras are job security and "good" family life. Bravely, even before they experienced significant commercial success, the quartet decided to quit their jobs to become full-time musicians. Another issue that they had to contend with was the concept of a band as a hierarchical group defined through a group leader. Working against these forces, Indian Ocean has managed to create a democratic musical collective, where each member can contribute richly to the musical and intellectual elements of their sound.

Based on the success of their concerts in India and abroad, Indian Ocean's future looks bright. Projects in the pipeline include a couple of Hindi film soundtracks, a string of international festival dates and an upcoming album. Having been selected the "pick of the festival" at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Fest, the band has played to new audiences in New Zealand and the United States, and is already slotted to play later this year in Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Europe. In June, the group played to full houses in New York City in a series of "peace concerts" to benefit the victims of recent state-sponsored religious violence in Gujarat.

Indian Ocean urges young aspiring musicians to continue with their struggles and convictions. "It takes time" they say, "but if you're true to what you do, it will work out." Rahul adds, "Of course you may be blessed with phenomenally bad luck." But you certainly do not need a tradition of hundreds of years to back you up. You can feed into that tradition when you want to, take what you want from it, and you can reject what you want. It does not have to be accepted in its entirety.

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