Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Indian Ocean On Tour in U.S.

I saw a group called Indian Ocean last night at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia -- and they rocked. I'll review the concert in some more detail below, but before going any further I wanted to mention that they are doing a small North American tour right now. Upcoming venues include Stamford, Chicago (this weekend), New York (early next week), Houston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Missisauga, Canada. If you live in one of those cities, go buy tickets!

Indian Ocean are based in Delhi, and have been together since the early 1990s. Though they've flirted with crossover commercial success, the band has built up a devoted underground following without selling out to the demands of the market. (The audience at last night's concert seemed to know all of their songs.) They play a unique style of music that fundamentally defies categorization. A phrase on the Indian Ocean Wikipedia site takes a stab at it: "Indo-rock fusion with jazz-spiced rhythms that integrates shlokas, sufism, environmentalism, mythology and revolution." Another phrase they use is, "organic fusion." Whatever it is, it works.

What I liked most about the band's performance last night was the sense of personality each of the four musicians brought to the table. They work together quite well as a band, but they are also highly individualized players, each quite different from the others. Indian Ocean isn't quite a jazz band, where one often gets the feeing that the players are "putting in time" until they get to do a solo. And it's also not really a rock or pop band either, where the lead singer dominates and the musicians are for the most part subject to the demands of the song. In Indian Ocean, three of the four band members sing, and no one seems quite to be the "band leader" (the standout vocally is Asheem, who plays tabla, and sings for the most part sitting down). There is no generic formula for how these four very expressive and distinctive musicians create harmonious -- and yet improvisational -- music; they simply seem to know what to do.

There is a hardcore musicians' interview at All About Jazz, but some of what Susmit Sen talks about there goes over my head. For the lay, non-Jazzhead reader, the best description of who Indian Ocean are and what they're up to musically is probably this article in the sadly-defunct magazine SAMAR. First, let's tackle the fusion question:

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." (link)

Fusion here is not an attempt to make traditional music hip or fashionable, nor is it an attempt to keep some element of "Indianness" in pop music. With Indian Ocean, it's something entirely different. They acknowledge that they are part of the "Indipop" movement that started in the mid-1990s, to describe popular music that wasn't written for films. But while most Indipop ended up getting drawn into the Indian film industry (witness the demise of Lucky Ali), Indian Ocean seems to have gotten more deeply invested in "roots." They have matured and grown more proficient, while their filmi counterparts have seemingly withered.

The SAMAR article also has some details on the content of Indian Ocean's songs:

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?"

My favorite song from last night's performance was also derived from the folk tradition -- Kabir's "Jhini".

Since this is a Youtube age, I should point out that the music video for "Jhini" is viewable here. It's not the greatest music video ever, but you can get a sense of who these guys are musically from it. There's also a video that seems to have been shot on a cell phone at a live concert in Mumbai; it gives you somewhat of a sense of what they are like live.

A few more links:

A decription of the band and the musicians at a U-Minn website

Another article at AllAboutJazz

Streaming audio to their album "Black Fridya"

Streaming audio to their album "Kandisa"


RajpaL said...

Amardeep, I am surpised that you havent heard them before. They are big in India now though it took them years to reach their current positions. They played in Melbourne (Acutally opened the Melbourne Fringe Festival) a few years back and I made it a point to meet them as well. After they finished playing I went and chatted to Aseem and he came across as a very nice person. I had come across their music sometime before and when I heard they were going to open the festival, I was amazed at their popularity. They did a fantastic job here and I simply love their music. 'Kandisa' & 'Ma Reva' are my all time favourites.

Even 'Black Friday' is a great album - which is infact the soundtrack of a movie with the same name which never got released due to its story line.

12:12 AM  
Chandra said...

I have never heard of them either. Thanks for writing about them. And it's also great that they have their hands in all types of rhythms. While most east-west fusion type music is pretty bad, looks like they pulled it off.

3:34 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

The Indian Ocean brand of music is by now identified as some kind of a sub-genre of urban popular culture in India. This sub-genre is known as, for some peculiar reason, the NGO music. The better know practitioners of this music are: Shubha Mudgal, Rabbi Shergill, Madan Gopal Singh, Pankaj Awasthi etc. What is especially noteworthy about this sub-genre is not just the desire to produce a new sound but to work with the lyrics especially written to keep the contemporary edge in the foreground. Thus, whereas the Indian Ocean sings Kabir on the one hand, it also engages with the political poetry of Piyush Mishra; Shubha Mudgal likewise sings both the Sufi-Bhakti verses – many of these translated for her by Madan Gopal Singh - and the contemporary poems by Prasun Joshi; Rabbi Shergill sings both his own verses as well as poems by Guru Nanak, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, Harbhajan Singh, Shiv Batalvi and even Bob Dylan; Madan Gopal sings an incredibly large range of Sufi poetry of Punjab as well as his own poems in addition to his Punjabi translations of Rumi, Attar, Rilke, Neruda, Brecht, Tagore and even John Lenon. Each one of them is a listening experience. Very ennobling and inspiring!

1:35 AM  
Sourav said...

I too attended the same concert, and there's really no questioning their talent on-stage. Just incase you remember, I was the one who desperately requested Boll Weevil.

Indian Ocean has a unique sound. It represents the sum total of the different kinds of music that we in urban India experience. I agree with the point you make about the Indipop movement in the mid 90's in India. However, most Indipop was essentially western pop music. There is also a booming rock music scene in the college circuit in India (another place where Indian Ocean is highly respected) but most of the music you hear is very clearly influenced by popular western rock bands. Only a handful of bands have probably tried this kind of music and very few have done it successfully. Bands like Euphoria which looked promising in the beginning have sold out to churn out Punjabi pop tunes. Indian Ocean is probably the only band that presents the real folk music of India.

2:20 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

Another way one can put it is that the uniqueness of Indian Ocean is in its desire and conscious attempt to completely depart from the staid touristy kind of music - a slightly modernised version of what was once known as All India Radio's Vaad VriNdya Gaan - which a band like Euphoria represents and to produce music of intervention. This has in fact been largely due to Rahul Ram - the lead guitar base player - and Sushmit Sen - the lead/ rythm guitarist of the group. In the Indian Ocean, there is a much greater sense of the group cohesion, the Euphoria, on the other hand, remains primarily a one-person show, namely its boyish-looking lead singer, Palash Sen's. The two group present two very different kinds of politics. Secular and combative for IA as against Shiv Khera type of feel-goodish for EU. Moreover, Euphoria's music as music fails to go radically beyond traditional sounds whereas the Indian Ocean does a lot with "calls" and what, in a different context Zizek has called, the "soundscapes".

Having said that it must be remembered that Sushmit Sen is primarily a single string guitar player, which can be a very frustrating limitation, and that Aseem, with his booming voice, very often goes off note or what in Hindustani music is known as "besur". Their main singer to me has always been Rahul Ram and not Aseem.

Finally, it is wrong to say that Euphoria has "sold out to Punjabi pop tunes". Palash Sen simply does not have the lungs and musical capacities to carry out even an average mimicry of the Punjabi pop. Punjabi pop should not be presented as a pejorative category. For instance the recent Jugni by Jasbir Jassi is absolutely astounding both as music and as poetry. The so-called Punjabi pop singers such as Daler MeNhdi, Sardul Sikandar, Sukhwinder etc are way too ahead of the rest of them - with the sole exception of Sonu Nigam.

Finally, Saurav's point about the Indian Ocean 'presenting the real folk music of India' is highly questionable. But, the Indian Ocean remains a fantastic group and deserves every bit of the accolade and applause it has earned.

8:36 PM  
Sourav said...

By the term "churning out Punjabi pop tunes," I meant to convey the fact that Euphoria compromised on it's creativity and originality for more mainstream (and obviously financially lucrative) music. That was not the impression I had when their first song Dhoom was released back in 1999.

Though Indian Ocean has tried venturing into commercial avenues on a lot of occassions (note their newer poppish songs as opposed to the ones before), they have still maintained a distinct style. Euphoria/Palash Sen on the other hand have opted for a more glamorous outfit.

As for Asheem being 'besur', I usually don't judge them on the same basis as I would judge a Hindustani classical musician trained exclusively, considering that they have absolutely no training. Asheem even told me he learnt the tabla by himself.

And you're right, it isn't correct to say they represent the "true" folk music of India. But the influence that Indian folk music has on their music is undeniable. And it goes beyond just the everyday dumroo or dhol behind a pop tune that characterises much of fusion.

4:00 PM  
Samuel said...

Does anyone know the language the song Kandisa is sung in?

9:38 PM  
Amardeep said...

Samuel, It's Aramaic.

9:42 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

Aseem's is a family steeped in classical music and big time classical musicians used to visit his house - this is what was reported about Aseem's childhood. He is a reasonably talented musician. As for straying from the note - which is not the same thing as straying from the purity of canonical music - there are unfortunately very musicians left who do not. So one does not hold that against Aseem.

In one of their concerts, Rahul Ram had announced it to the listeners that they did not know the actual language of Kandisa and that they were merely producing rythmic sounds that seemed to them to approximate the original Kandisa they had heard somewhare in South India.

8:11 AM  
John said...

Hi guys,

Just a quick explanation to the song 'Kandisa' it is a prayer of the Assyrian Church of the East in the Aramaic language, not the Syrian Church. The Assyrian Church of the East has a Diocese and an Indian Bishop in Kerala. Kandisa is actually Qadisha and it means Holy. The words to the prayer are as follows:

Qadisha Allaha Qadisha khiltana
(Holy God holy almighty)
Qadisha la mayoota
(holy immortal)
ith rakhim allehm
(have mercy upon us)

This language is still used today all around the world wherever Assyrian Church of the East is.

PS. Its a VERY VERY nice version by Indian Ocean!

5:25 PM  
Angad Sachdeva said...

amardeep, i dont know if you have listened to indian ocean's "desert rain" album. if you havent, check it out. its their best work to date and is a great mix of jazz and folk.

5:45 PM  

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