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Festival Review: Mahindra Blues Festival, Mumbai

The ninth edition of the festival featured performances by Beth Hart, Charlie Musselwhite and more

Sunil Sampat Feb 15, 2019

American singer-songwriter Beth Hart headlined day two of Mahindra Blues Festival 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

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What does “The Blues “ mean to you? Does it represent a certain type of sound, is it a collection of electric guitars and harmonicas? Is it a bunch of musicians singing about their poor luck at poker or with women or is it just music that suggests party time?

Whatever your concept of this genre of music might be, a little bit of each of the above ingredients was found, alive and well at the ninth edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival held, as usual at Mumbai’s iconic Mehboob Studio last week. This event has captured the ”˜social’ imagination of the people of Mumbai who look forward to this annual event much as an earlier generation used to look forward to the Jazz Yatra. It is a time and place to catch up with friends — you know they will be there, get a drink or two, hear the music either in the performance halls or on the giant screens provided for those choosing the comfort of chairs. The organizers of the Mahindra Blues Festival have mastered the art of providing the right atmosphere and facilities for both these groups! The music and musicians need not be from the top of the tree but somehow the mix and balance of the acts works beautifully for the two day event.

Musicians occupy a very special place in this universe and they bring with their music a special, almost spiritual experience. Blues and jazz musicians, because of the space they have to improvise, tend to tell stories in their solos. These cannot be tutored or learnt in a classroom! These stories relate the unique experiences of the artist’s life. They are stories from the school of ”˜hard knocks.’

American singer and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite playing a headlining set on day one of Mahindra Blues Festival 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

These are the fascinating stories that one discovers at live blues (or jazz) sessions. The curiosity this year focused mainly on two well known American artists, Charlie Musselwhite and Beth Hart, as also to discover where the other blues men — Sugarray Rayford, Brandon Santini and Kolkata’s young Arinjoy Sarkar came from, musically.

Charlie Musselwhite. Photo: Rajesh Parikh

Hart literally wore her heart (Hart?) on her sleeve and sang every emotion she had lived. At first hearing, she came through as a 21st century version of Janis Joplin, who also never held back any emotion and expression in her singing. Both Joplin and Hart seem to have had a rocky ride in life, reflecting vividly in their music. The singer-songwriter almost literally belted out her tracks and had an instant connect with the audience, like her or not!

Brandon Santini performing on day one of the festival. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

In an earlier interview with Rolling Stone India, Hart had been equally forthright and no holds barred in expressing herself and her feelings in word. She was clear that she was neither a blues nor a jazz singer although she grew up with her mother listening to Billie Holiday and her singing today seems to be about exorcising the “blues” in her life experiences. Her renditions of “Fire On The floor”, “My California,” “Mr. Jazzman,” “Chocolate Jesus,” “Sister Heroine “ and others, each had a tale to tell and whether the audience got the not so subtle subtleties involved in the lyrics, they were certainly zapped by the intensity of her delivery.

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Musselwhite, just having celebrated his 75th birthday the previous month, came through as the wise, introspective blues man that he is. He is a relatively uncelebrated giant in the business and clearly has many great life experiences to share through his songs. He is also a fabulous exponent of the harmonica and his band made an impact as the last act of day one of the festival.

The ingredients that have contributed to Musselwhite”˜s music are fascinating. Having moved to Chicago several years ago he lived in the neighborhood with plenty of jazz clubs for which that city is famous. He said that he would often hear the likes of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons on their saxophones, and he was a huge fan of jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, jazz guitarist Grant Green — all of whom he described as ”˜blues’ players and he could not get enough of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” These musicians, he said to us, taught him how to hone his blues craftsmanship so he could express himself better. He surprised us by waxing eloquent about Ravi Shankar’s music for the Fifties Satyajit Ray classic film, Pather Panchali. “Pure blues, that’s what I heard in Shankar’s music, as I watched the film,” said Musselwhite in a chat with us. The veteran also brought all these experiences to the festival, Musselwhite is also a believer in Lord Ganesha and has his tattoo on his arm.

Sugarray Rayford thrilling the crowd on day two of the fest. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

The harmonica was a recurring theme at this festival. Santini is a fine exponent of this instrument. He was also the youngest of the American quartet of musicians at the festival and displayed influences in his music from a much later era — the Nineties. Santini spoke of how the music of jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, organists Jack McDuff, John Patton and Jimmy Smith had brought a sense of expanse to his style of playing. It was very interesting to see the contrast in playing styles between Santini and Musselwhite. They are both masters of the instrument, but represent different eras in their styles and in the contrast in the blues form itself over 35 years.
If Santini was the youngest among the Americans, a still much younger musician, Rohan Singhal was the most pleasant surprise of the festival. Singhal is just 13 years old, hails from Indore and plays the harmonica like a seasoned veteran. He played in the Garden Stage on both days and wowed the audience. The young musician has also made his first, privately distributed album, Blues @13. It is a tribute to the scouts sent out by the organizers that they unearth raw talent like Singhal — and others they have discovered over the years. This exposure for Indian talent, playing at a festival with the topmost in the business will surely boost their performance and confidence. Another blues band, Blue Temptations from Shillong who won the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt 2019 also played in the Garden. Interestingly, Singhal sat in with them for one number. It was a beautiful collaboration.

Shillong blues band with Indore harmonica player Rohan Singhal. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

Sugarray Rayford, to us represents a down to earth, gospel-based bluesman — all soul and gut feel. He has also emerged from a lot of struggle with family life and poverty, the very factors that gave birth to the sound we call the blues. He played mostly original tunes but his version of “Comfortably Numb” from the repertoire of Pink Floyd found resonance with many in the audience.

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Last but by no means least, was the Arinjoy Trio from Kolkata,who played at the Soul Strat Saloon stage. Their set was inspired and eminently listenable and has made them new fans.

Kolkata blues rockers Arinjoy Trio. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

The blues they say is a story not of the pains and agony of life, but rather a celebration of release from these troubles. It was pretty evident that the large audiences on both days, whether they immersed themselves into the music or just surfed on it’s surface went away a happy lot and are sure to be back next year.

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