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Jazz Corner: India, The Great Musical Melting Pot

When fusion jazz became trendy following the forays into this experiment by Miles Davis, we in India seized this opportunity and have made fusion our own art form

Sunil Sampat Feb 07, 2018

Indo-French band The Latination. Photo: Alexej M. Gesenius

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It would be very safe to say that every time you generalize about India, you are wrong. There are so many exceptions to almost everything in this country; even exceptions have exceptions! I firmly believe that in India, we live simultaneously in different centuries, in different periods of history, in different value systems, speak so very many different languages with hundreds of dialects tagging along with each language. This very rich diversity in India also brings with it an incredible variety of music. Music from religious ceremonies, from temples and gurdwaras, from weddings and various festivals all co-exist. Then there is also traditional folk music, ghazals, Sufi music to further enrich our choices. Add to this music from Bollywood and movie industries in South India, Bengal and in between, which fills our radio networks.

The phenomenon of Western music, including music sung in Indian languages, loosely falling under the banner of rock or folk, is restricted largely to urban areas, to college and university students and to an age group of under Forties. It has huge popularity.

Who then listens to jazz? Again, this has an urban following but across a larger age group. Jazz following in India was popularized by the big bands and dance bands that played in hotels and night clubs in the then Bombay, Calcutta, New Delhi, Bangalore and other cities. Apart from the party atmosphere this music created, it got listeners interested enough to get to the roots of the music they were exposed to, mainly covers of well-known and popular jazz pieces. However, India has a way of treating other cultures in a unique way. It accepts and assimilates languages, music, and poetry and transforms them into a new product.

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When fusion jazz became trendy following the forays into this experiment by Miles Davis, we in India seized this opportunity and have made fusion our own art form. “Indian” jazz, it would seem is defined by the fusion sound which is popular and widely prevalent. The use of tablas, dholaks, ghatams and other percussion instruments as also the sitar and vocal alaps in the framework of a rhythm section and perhaps a guitar or saxophone, forms a typical ensemble for Indian fusion. Unlike the Latin rhythms of Cuba or Brazil, which have been absorbed into mainstream jazz, we have the opposite happening in the Indian context, where jazz has been absorbed into a modern Indian sound! We did it again. But as we know, generalization about India is usually wrong.

Mainstream jazz is also alive and well in India. There is exciting news that a jazz band from India, has recently performed at the Panama Jazz Festival in Central America. This band, 4 On A Swing, led by Kolkata-based pianist Pradyumna Singh Manot also includes drummer Kunal Netrapal, bassist Sonic Shori and vocalist Sanjeeta Bhattacharya. This band played conventional, straight ahead jazz at the festival. Among other performers at the festival were Chucho Valdez, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci, Brian Bladeand Terri Lynne Carrington. From all accounts 4 On A Swing were well appreciated in Panama where they played jazz tunes such as “Moment’s Notice,” “Solar,” “Giant Steps” and “Au Privave.” Perhaps not “Indian Jazz” but jazz played well by Indians!

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Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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