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Sanjay Mishra

13 years after its release in the West, Kolkata-born guitarist Sanjay Mishra’s famous collaborative album with Jerry Garcia is available in India

Rolling Stone IN Oct 08, 2008

On August 9, 1995, the day Jerry Garcia died, India-born guitarist Sanjay Mishra held the first pre-release copy of Blue Incantation in his hand – an album that encapsulated the eclectic Indian and Western musical experiences for Mishra.

For legions of fans of Garcia and the Grateful Dead, a band he was the face of, the album meant appreciably more. As Blue Incantation hit the record stores, a month on from Garcia’s death at a rehab clinic in California, it became apparent that this was the last collaborative album the Grateful Dead frontman was part of. Even more significantly, it became known that the album held the last strains of recorded studio music by Garcia; the last guitar note recorded in a career that spanned three decades, countless legends and a distinct world view.

America, true to its consumerist traditions, had by 1995 turned the best-known face of the counter culture movement of the Sixties into a thoroughly marketable proposition. “There were Jerry Garcia caps, T-shirts, shoes, ties and even ice cream. Even before his death, Jerry had become the biggest rock star in the US, as big as Elvis,” recounts Mishra. When Blue Incantation came out, Mishra understandably, was the unknown quantity there: an outsider at the party of cult and commerce.

“For years, I was typecast. Being Indian, people only wanted me to play the sitar. And while we were recording the album, rumour had it that Jerry was collaborating with a waiter at an Indian restaurant; another stereotype,” mentions the Kolkata-born musician, who relocated to the US in 1977 to study Western Classical music. “One could hear groans of disappointment when they heard I play the guitar. There were moments when I thought it was impossible to be an Indian guitar player in the West.”

13 years since its release in the US and as many years after a portion of Garcia’s ashes got sprinkled in the Ganges at Rishikesh by fellow musician Bob Weir and Garcia’s widow Deborah Koons Garcia, Mishra’s album Blue Incantation is now commercially available in India on newly-formed Indo fusion music label Indiabeat’s initiative and distributed by Virgin Records. “You can only imagine what the India release means to me,” is all that Mishra, 50, says.

Things have moved – and fast – Mishra mentions, since the album came out in 1995. He has played alongside Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir, had jazz-fusion legend Dennis Chambers on the drums in Mishra’s 2000-released album Rescue, scored the award-winning soundtrack for the French film Port Djema and has had DJ Logic scratching records for him in Mishra’s latest album, Chateau Benaras, released in 2006. “They haven’t asked me to play the sitar since then. The American newspapers too have stopped misspelling my name,” he adds.

It all began one day in 1994 when the Garcia couple walked into Mishra’s office in the US after Mishra had got acquainted with the environmental researcher Deborah Goons Garcia while working for Greenpeace. Mishra, after a decade-long stint as a student of Western Classical music at The Peabody Conservatory of Music, had by then released his debut album, The Crossing in 1991, an album that he says came from the western classical space he was involved in but which also had Broto Roy on the tabla. “Jerry heard my album and called back to say that he wanted to collaborate with me. He told me that this is what he was waiting to hear,” mentions Mishra, effusive and admittedly reverent still, after all these years. “They say one success wipes out a hundred failures; on a personal level that was the effect.”

In Kolkata, where Mishra was born and where the various musical influences emerging from Park Street nightclubs and Indian classical concerts first shaped his melodic sphere, the Grateful Dead was the favourite band to cover for Mahamaya, a rock band Mishra was a part of in the Seventies. “Years later, Jerry laughed his head off when he heard this.” While a desire to study music led him to the US, his early days as a musician in that country is remembered through a string of rejections ”” indifferent record labels, closed mindsets, an independently released debut album that was “almost completely ignored” and earning his meal by playing the sitar at Indian restaurants in Washington DC. “Till one day Pandit Ravi Shankar walked in and asked me in Bengali if I’m merely fiddling around or have proper training. I was shaking with fear.”

Blue Incantation, as it stands, features Garcia playing on three tracks and on his favourite Doug Irwin guitar. When the din dies, it is really Mishra’s baby. The album has 10 tracks, where barring one, Mishra has done the composing and arrangement for the rest. If Garcia’s playing style too is reminiscent essentially of his Grateful Dead oeuvre, the musical backdrop is a studied and meditative acoustic flowering of Mishra’s varied jazz, Spanish and classical influences. Samir Chatterjee on the tabla brings up a distinctly Indian rhythmic mood to the album. “Jerry was the first to admit that he didn’t understand the technical aspects of raga, which is why he needed the right mix,” informs Mishra of Garcia’s contribution to the album. “He would have never recorded this with a traditional Indian musician because he knew where to go and more importantly, where not to go.”

Says the late Garcia’s wife Deborah Koons, “Jerry liked Sanjay’s CD (The Crossing) and agreed to play on Blue Incantation. He really was impressed with Sanjay’s music. It was pretty unusual ”” someone gives Jerry a CD and having him play on his album, so that tells you something about Sanjay’s talent.” Garcia enjoyed working on Blue Incantation, she tells us. “He liked Sanjay’s music as it was a cool evolution of classical Indian and modern Western music. If Jerry had lived he and Sanjay would have continued to play together,” she adds.

Heroin, a bane the Grateful Dead guitarist was struggling against even during the recording of Blue Incantation, rues Mishra, was one of the places Garcia could not avoid going to. “He improvised but I had to talk to him a lot about the changes as they came in the music. All the touring, attention and the drugs left him exhausted and frail. Mentally he was fine; physically it was taking a toll,” recounts Mishra.

When Garcia finally lost his battle against drugs (though he reportedly died of a heart attack) at the Serenity Knolls Treatment Center in California, along with him died plans of a string of collaborative albums with Mishra. Adds Mishra: “Makes this one souvenir all the more unique and mysterious to me.”

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