RIP Gyan Singh [1951-2012]
Hardly the glib, self-obsessed rock musician, the Skinny Alley bassist was a rock musician all along
Exactly two decades ago, I heard and saw Gyan Singh for the first time. This was at an open air concert at the Saint Lawrence School grounds in Calcutta involving five or six big names from the city’s throbbing rock music circuit. Almost 10,000 people had turned up for what was to be rock-n-roll frenzy.
Gyan, playing guitar and not the bass, was part of a band called Pop Secret. His wife Jayashree was on vocals, his long-time friend Amyt Datta on guitar, two keyboardists (one of them doubling up as a trumpet player), a bassist, a drummer and a saxophonist turned their set into an hour of pure pop. Even though I was part of the dominant matrix at the ground that screamed for their share of Santana and Floyd, their sound, I realized, stood out.
Years later, having met Gyan in person before the release of his band Skinny Alley’s 2003 debut album, Escape the Roar (EMI), I have pondered over whether Gyan has always been part of bands that have sidestepped musical trends and fads and created something that lived at the periphery. If Escape the Roar somewhat adhered to the linear structure of songwriting, their independently-released follow-up Songs from the Moony Boom (2007) was a clear indicator that the band was quickly shedding the last layer of conformity.
By the time PINKNOISE, a new band with son Jivraj joining Amyt and his parents on drums, arrived on the Kolkata scene in 2006, not only had the senior musicians laid the pitch for original music in a covers-singing-and-hearing city but also skewed it up with unmitigated experimentation. Go figure, the band screamed, as Gyan, trademark cap in place, remained the groove meister on stage. Using the full potential of the fretboard, his large fingers — accustomed to playing the guitar before he turned to the bass with Skinny Alley — were often the most energetic visual to his stage persona. No flash, no pose, just poise.
The few occasions when Skinny Alley worked at covers, I was left jaw-opened at the band’s agility with contemporary bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers while other bands, half their average age, were stuttering at the doors of The Doors.
It was around then that I decided to drop the ubiquitously Bengali da that I suffixed to Gyan’s name. Gyan it’ll be, and he seemed to be a super friendly guy too. In being a soft-spoken gentleman with a cheerful ‘hi’ and a warm hug, he was teaching us another lesson: You don’t need to be tough and menacing to be a rock-n-roller. He’s been one for well over four decades, visiting the Calcutta concert circuit in the 1970s as a folksy singer-guitar player covering bands like CSN&Y [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] and Leonard Cohen, later with musicians like Fuzz and Damien Narona and later with the super group, Air Wave, where he played guitar with Datta. Air Wave had Jayashree on vocals, Nondon Bagchi on drums, Lew Hilt on bass and Monojit Datta on percussion.
This is information that Gyan wouldn’t dish out. They have been gleaned out of Datta. At the Singhs’ beautifully intimate apartment overlooking Ballygunj Circular Road in Kolkata, hundreds of books and DVDs surround you in every room. Even inside the loo. Gyan loved his Scotch and never stopped at treating you to a peg or three. And he would talk inspiringly about music, musicians, books, travel literature and often, very often, also be interested in your area of work — hardly the glib, self-obsessed rock musician, he was a rock musician all along.
Indomitable in spirit, cancer, that thug, ate through his body. In his passing at 61, physically, there’ll be a member less in a family like no other I have seen — mother, father and son, all super talented musicians, being part of the same band, bouncing sounds and sensibilities off each other. Nothing else possibly underlines the cross-generational appeal of their music more than their son playing together at a cutting-edge professional level with ma and pa.
Datta tells me that he managed to have a quick word with Jivraj and Jayashree on the future of Skinny Alley and PINKNOISE. They have agreed that for a man who never stopped at playing music, the music should not stop playing.
Shamik Bag is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata and a regular contributor to ROLLING STONE INDIA.