South Asian Soundscapes

Every environment has a distinct sonic landscape, a set of characteristic noises that are unique to that location. It might be the squeak and crunch of a foot on rubbery sand, the rattle and scrape of a ski on a freshly groomed ski slope, or the crisp crack of a branch resonating across an otherwise silent forest – each sound has the ability to transport the hearer to a moment beyond the present, helping to evoke a sense of place.

This is especially true of South Asia, somewhere frequently defined by the assault it performs on every human sense. The first thing most people notice when stepping onto this sub-continent is the hot touch of humidity on their skin, and then the collage of unfamiliar objects and alien situations that flood their vision. Next, an exotic mix of smells raids their nostrils, infused with the tang of spices and the musty sweat of determination, all of which is brought vibrantly to life when the first taste of South Asian cuisine is introduced to their lips.

And then sound washes across the scene like a wave tumbling onto a beach, irrepressibly encroaching from every direction. It is inescapable and totally pervasive, unrelenting in intensity and exhausting as a result. Yet it is one of South Asia’s greatest characteristics, something that no visitor can forget, nor would they ever wish to forego. To those people, the following soundscapes will be familiar, each part of the sub-continent’s complex tapestry of noise.

Traffic Jam (Flickr credit: meg and rahul)

Traffic Jam

A tired engine groans beneath a heavy burden, echoed moments later by another vehicle carrying far more than it was ever designed to bear. Metal scrapes against metal; bumpers rattle across the tarmac. Each pothole induces a muffled thump, accompanied by the aching creak of rusty suspension. A horn bellows, not out of aggression but of acknowledgment. A different horn responds, and then another. And another. Soon, a symphony of horns join together in an unending crescendo.

The traffic moves no faster.

A Banquet

Laughter. High and rhythmic, resounding and sincere, broken only by mouthfuls of curry-soaked chapatti bread. A radio in the corner crackles into life, spitting forth sirens and sitars in a distorted fuzz, elevating the atmosphere to a heightened conviviality. A cascade of chai gurgles while poured, beside pots that bubble and stoves that hiss. Conversation narrows to a single speaker, who holds the stares of all around with an unfamiliar story spoken in familiar tones. Tension builds. Breathes are held. A punch line is delivered.

The group collapse into laugher once more.

Street Hawkers (Flickr credit: mckaysavage)

Street Hawking

Conversation babbles like a stream, a murmured backdrop to an unremarkable day. Men discuss the latest cricket score, making their arguments with heavily exaggerated gestures. A tourist walks past: a customer, an opportunity. Voices rise to sell their wares, renewing final deals and undercutting the competition. Languages merge and arguments flare, an impassioned exchange of offers and counter-offers, of needs and means. A smile indicates it’s all a sport, but in this match both participants are winners.

A deal is struck.

Call to Prayer

The palpable stillness of a silent morning is shattered by a sudden lone wail, cracking against the quietness like a glass smashing against a floor. It twists and turns, rises and falls, never settling for more than a few seconds. It pierces the air and invades every home, luring listeners to its core. Within it can be heard a mélange of emotions: desperation and faith; solemnity and belief; dedication and suffering.

The call to prayer is never ignored.

Images by meg and rahul and mckaysavage

A Bridge between East and West

I first heard the Sachal Jazz Ensemble on YouTube. Most people did. A group of Pakistani musicians placing their own spin on five and a half minutes of the most popular jazz music ever written is pretty difficult to ignore. At first it was novel, then it was catchy, but always it was unique. If the inevitable comparisons with Marmite were to be made, I was happy to take a piece of toast and spread the Sachal Jazz Ensemble all over it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Almost every chair in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was occupied on Tuesday night to see the ensemble play its world premiere performance. It was hardly surprising, given that Sachal’s rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five has received over 340,000 views on YouTube in a single year, which, I’d tender, means it’s already reached more western ears than almost any other sound wave to have emanated from Pakistan.

I’ve become used to the charming humility that many South Asian performers assume, but there was an added dimension to this group’s humbleness. For a long time, during General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan, these musicians had to set down their instruments and concentrate on forms of employment besides music, which would have made a performance at something like Alchemy far beyond any realm of possibility. If anyone could be forgiven for walking on stage with a defiant swagger, therefore, it’s these guys. Yet they didn’t.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble

The ensemble somehow reminded me of the big band I used to play in while at school, albeit the sound they produced was, inevitably, very different. The stage was crammed with performers – I lost count at 25 – and they were all following large manuscripts which, presumably, translated Western notes into the musical language of the East. Each musician concentrated intently on their copy in the same way I used to stare furiously at my own music stand, mindful that if I lost my place I’d likely never again find it, while a conductor stood at the front of the stage with flailing arms, trying to keep everyone in check.

But this was hardly surprising, serving as a constant reminder that despite their tight, balanced, studio-polished sound, this ensemble are very much breaking new ground, doing something incredibly innovative and fresh. And they’re doing it with jazz, no less; not rock, not pop: jazz. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to turn the tables, to interpret South Asian music through a Western mouthpiece, but somehow I doubt it would be done quite so well, a testament to the group’s outstanding ability.

During Jude Kelly’s introduction to Pete Lockett’s concert on Sunday, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director described Alchemy as an exploration of the dialogue and ongoing exchange between English and South Asian cultures, a sentiment that seemed particularly pertinent to this performance. The Sachal Jazz Ensemble have essentially created an entirely new genre of music, building a bridge over which musical enthusiasts can cross from East to West and back, and I hope it’ll be used as a gateway by listeners from both sides to discover music they may otherwise never have heard.

Musical Collabor-Asians

I remember the feeling well. It was like someone had found their way through my eardrums and into my skull, awakening every synapse in my brain and inducing a rush of adrenalin known only to those who have experienced an epiphany through music. I no longer consider Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s rendition of ‘Walk This Way’ to be the pinnacle of musical endeavour (I was fourteen at the time…), but the ramifications it had on my musical outlook were profound, and remain so to this day.

Musical collaborations represent a fascinating marriage of minds, a blending of influences and ideas that might otherwise never be merged. Perhaps most interestingly of all, however, they often combine disparate cultures, and in doing so introduce audiences to things they may never otherwise have encountered. In this sense, musical collaborations have the ability not only to create innovative forms of art, but to abolish social barriers and reach further than a piece of music ordinarily might.

It is this principle that makes the collaborative projects at this year’s Alchemy, of which there are many, particularly exciting. These events present accessible introductions to South Asian culture, and consequently have the potential to capture new audiences and forge fresh paths of musical discovery. If you’d like to do some background listening to make the most of the Alchemy concerts, check out the following tracks:

Norwegian Wood (Flickr credit: Marxchivist)

‘Norwegian Wood’ – The Beatles

You’ll struggle to find anything about the musical confluence between India and the West that does not mention ‘Norwegian Wood’, track number 2 on The Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul. This song is often credited with the first use of a sitar on a popular music track, heralding a genre that became known as Raga Rock. Although it represents a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, it was the beginning of a musical journey for George Harrison and The Beatles that would thrust Indian music to the forefront of the world stage.

‘Ragas in Minor Scale’ Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

The same journey turned Ravi Shankar, a virtuosic sitar player from Varanasi, into a household name, and he remains to this day possibly the most famous India musician ever to have graced Western ears. His collaboration with Philip Glass in 1990, on the album Passages, is an excellent gateway to both artist’s works, with the track ‘Ragas in a Minor Scale’ offering a particularly dazzling display of what can be done on a sitar. It’s also well worth checking out Shankar’s work with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he is almost as famously associated as The Beatles.

Sitar (Flickr credit: Noel Feans)

‘Joy’Shakti

Shakti combined the formidable talents of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, along with a smattering of other outstanding musicians, in a group that infused Indian music with jazz, and in doing so became one of the first musical projects to be labelled World Fusion. ‘Joy’ is the opening track on the group’s eponymous first album, and is an electrifying example of what can happen when experts from the East meet the best from the West. Pursue any of the musical strands that comprise this group and you will not be disappointed.

‘O…Saya’A. R. Rahman and M.I.A.

When Slumdog Millionaire was released in 2008, it placed a spotlight on Indian culture that could be traced from its spectacular visual displays through to its groundbreaking soundtrack. ‘O…Saya’ was one of the film’s most popular songs, written by Indian composer A. R Rahman and M.I.A., a British artist of Sri Lankan descent. It represents a modern take on musical collaboration, for it was composed via email and is notable for the plethora of cultural influences that can be heard throughout its three and a half minute duration.

‘Take Five’Sachal Jazz Orchestra

Another example of a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, the Sachal Jazz Orchestra made international headlines last year when a video of their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ went viral. Originally from Pakistan, this group explore Bossa Nova and Jazz standards using South Asian instruments, and performed their world premiere at Alchemy on 17th April. Upon hearing the group, Brubeck himself summed up the magic of musical collaborations when he said ‘East is East, and West is West, but through music the twain meet’.

Images by Marxchivist and Noel Feans

Pete Lockett: the Key to Indian Music

I’ve long been fascinated with the vastness of the planet and the number of people on it, with the idea that over 7 billion people are going about their daily lives, compiling experiences and memories, emotions and thoughts, and that I will cross paths with only the smallest number of them. Even greater is my fascination with the human beings I have met, with the personalities I’ve interacted with and the lives I’ve briefly shared.

I think about Rafik, the auto-rickshaw driver who showed me around Jaipur; Julian, the grinning Bolivian who guided me into the Amazon Jungle; Govinda, the affable Nepalese trekker who walked me up and down the foothills of the Himalayas. I think about the short time I spent with each of them, and the fact that they’re still out there, living in those places and doing the very same things, while I’m sitting here at my desk in London.

On Sunday night, the roles were reversed.

Jaipur

Before introducing the 9 musicians from rural Rajasthan to a keen audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, renowned percussionist Pete Lockett described the journey you’d have to take to visit one of their villages. First, you’d spend 9 or 10 hours on a plane flying from London to Delhi, where you’d then have to board a train or bus to Jaipur, a trip that could take anything upwards of 4 hours. Once in the Pink City, you’d have to find another bus – this one smaller and much less frequent – to take you out into the desert, and eventually, after 5 hours or more, to one of these musicians’ villages.

Pete spent 20 years visiting India before he made the journey himself, but when finally he did, he unearthed a musical world untouched by the West, free from the vices of fame and fortune, and thus preserved with an authenticity that he found irresistibly captivating. Naturally, he collaborated, and with the support of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation built a number of musical relationships which, ultimately, is what brought us all to Alchemy.

Lucknow

They walked onto to the stage with palpable pride, apparently unaware that the privilege they felt to be playing in London paled in comparison to the privilege the audience felt in being able to witness a performance by 9 musicians who’ve barely set eyes beyond rural India. Their reserve, grace and measured movements only added to their charm, giving way to a raw intensity when they began playing their instruments. It was instantly mesmerising, and intensely evocative.

Lockett, who began the concert with a virtuosic solo performance demonstrating the full breadth of colours that can be painted by the percussion family, held the group together without once stifling the performance, adroitly blending traditional Indian rhythms and sounds with other musical flavours, from the clave pulse of samba to the dizzying scales of Tim Garland’s saxophone. At times, the dazzling diversity of musicianship meant it was difficult to know where to focus one’s attention.

Overall, the evening was a glorious exemplification of how music can transcend cultural boundaries, paying scarce regard to differences in language, tradition or place. It was fantastic to see a group of performers from such a broad variety of backgrounds play together, and to do so with a joy that was infectious, but even greater was the opportunity to peer directly into a new corner of the world. Those musicians will now travel from the heart of London back to the depths of Rajasthan, to a life far removed from our own, but for the briefest of moments our paths met, and that’s an experience I’ll never forget.