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Does Fusion Actually Work?

As a student of metallurgy I was explained the meaning of the word “fusion.” When two metals are completely mixed in the molten state; that is they are first heated till they melt and then are mixed together; the product when solidified, is the fusion of the two metals. This new product has technical qualities […]


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As a student of metallurgy I was explained the meaning of the word “fusion.” When two metals are completely mixed in the molten state; that is they are first heated till they melt and then are mixed together; the product when solidified, is the fusion of the two metals. This new product has technical qualities completely different from the two (or more) parent materials. It is not just a sum of its ingredients.

Whenever I hear jazz ‘fusion’, I tend to ask myself if some new, unique sound has emanated from the components. When two separate genres of music are playing together, jazz and Carnatic classical for example, what uniqueness of sound does the resultant sound have to offer? In my experience, the common thread that links the two diverse sounds is the rhythm. Thus a ghatam or mridangam will create a beat which unites the programme. Later, pyrotechnics from the various percussion instruments will have the crowd excited. This is the reality of the fusion concerts I have heard. I recently asked a jazz drummer friend of mine how his “fusion” concert with a Hindustani classical vocalist went. His matter of fact reply was, “Good. We were doing our thing and they were doing theirs!” The jazz trio (keyboards, bass guitar and drums) shared the stage with the classical vocalist, tanpura and tabla ensemble. At the end of such a session, what transpires typically is that while the foot tapping audience were entertained by the ensemble, there was nothing memorable about the music played.

Even with the popularity of arguably the greatest fusion group of all, Shakti, there are no specifically memorable performances. The earliest Indo-Western fusion from the late Fifties where Pandit Ravi Shankar invited jazz saxophonist Bud Shank and a trumpet player into his ensemble, are completely forgotten experiments. It could be argued that Ravi Shankar was thus able to awaken the American audiences to the sound of his sitar, which was alien to their musical experience. But the fusion they played did not have any great musical worth.

My reservations about fusion stem from the fact that when two (or more) very talented musicians from different genres get together to “fuse,” this is what I perceive happens: Each of these masters has to play at a level lower than when playing their accustomed music, so that they may accommodate the others into the new mix. A lowest common denominator thus comes into play. This must surely diminish the overall standard of the music. The novelty of the heterogeneous group plus the gimmickry and musical hyperbole can hold an audience interested, but it does not make for music with any longevity. After all, the “stamina” of any music is surely a yardstick of its success. This is why the music of The Beatles and Elvis Presley still lives on. I think that while the great Miles Davis’ early work will always be heard by jazz fans, his experiments with fusion in Bitches Brew and a few other albums will fade away!

But there is an exception I must recount. In October 2010, a flamenco group led by Agustin Carbonell “El Bola” performed in Mumbai. The music was from the Southern part of Spain and had a strong Tunisian/Arabic flavour to it. It was very passionate, stirring stuff.  Halfway through the performance a group of Rajasthani musicians joined the group with a Kalbeliya dancer. Apparently researchers had traced the roots of this type of flamenco sound to Rajasthan. The resulting fusion had a seamless quality to it. It really worked!!

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