Interview: Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth

Posted on May 19th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth

Simon Broughton talks to the Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth about their collaborative project

“No, violin and brass aren’t regular partners,” laughs Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth. “They’re more like enemies in fact!” But they seem to have got round the animosity as trumpet, sax and trombone step forward to throw out punchy solos, answered by warm, pungent phrases from her violin. The musicians are all dressed in long, colourful robes trimmed with gold – to say nothing of the dramatic film projections behind them. This is Srikanth, the Bollywood Brass Band and their new show and album, Carnatic Connection in action.

“The combination in itself is something exotic,” admits Srikanth, who back in India played on many soundtracks. “This is something unique, which is what attracted me.”

Alongside the railways and lumbering bureaucracy, one of the lesser-known legacies of the British in India is the vibrant brass band tradition. In northern Indian towns, it’s very common to run into a baraat (wedding procession) – the groom on a white horse, preceded by a dozen musicians playing trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, tubas and a couple of side drums. The music is loud, raucous and a lot of fun.

“I’d never heard of Indian brass before,” admits Kay Charlton, trumpeter and arranger with the Bollywood Brass Band. Her first encounter with Indian brass took place 25 years ago – at an international festival of street bands in London organised by Cultural Cooperation. At that festival in 1992 was the Shyam Brass Band from Jabalpur, reputed to be one of the best in India.

“It was one of those coincidences that changes your life,” says New Zealand-born Mark Allan, who now manages Bollywood Brass Band. Both he and Charlton played in a street band called Crocodile Style and it was suggested they do some gigs with Shyam. “We learned some tunes off their cassette,” says Allan, “and we did several performances together while they were in the UK.” This was when they discovered their instruments were actually tuned a semitone apart – the sort of thing you have to take in your stride when you do collaborations like this.

The main repertoire for Indian brass bands comes from Bollywood films – both classics everyone knows, and the current hits. So they called themselves the Bollywood Brass Band (BBB) and brought in Johnny Kalsi from the Dhol Foundation. “Indian brass bands don’t use the dhol but it gave us that British bhangra kind of feel,” explains Charlton. “Johnny Kalsi played on our first album in 1999 and our other dhol players – currently Jas Daffu – have all come through the Dhol Foundation.”

“Bollywood music was virtually the first ‘world music’,” Allan explains. “Indian soundtracks were trawling the world for interesting sounds and were influenced by Latin music, qawwali, rock’n’roll and funk. ‘Oye, Oye’, one of the tunes we learned from Shyam, was an Indian version of a Gloria Estefan number.”

The Bollywood Brass Band started playing Diwali parties, then found themselves doing British Asian weddings and finally concerts. They’ve now gigged all over Europe, just released their fourth album and, perhaps the best accolade, have been invited to play for around a dozen weddings in India. It began in 2008, when they were invited to Indian Fashion Week in Delhi for the show of designer Manish Arora. He’s famous for his bright colours, so one can understand the appeal of a Bollywood Brass Band soundtrack. It was there they were picked up by a wedding agent and the work started coming in – including Indian weddings in Oman and Sun City, South Africa.

It should be said that weddings are seasonal in India – generally October to December – so it means that wedding musicians, bandwallahs, are not really professionals. They also do agricultural work and much more besides. So Indian bands with the musicianship and skilled arrangers of BBB are very rare indeed. That is why wealthy Indian families are prepared to fly out and accommodate a dozen musicians who know their stuff all the way from the UK to re-boot the baraat.

BBB and Jyotsna Srikanth met a couple of years ago when they were both playing at the Bradford and Belfast Melas. They both thought it would be fun to work together and Srikanth, as a professional evangelist for Karnatic music, suggested they try music from South Indian films. They had already arranged several songs by AR Rahman, currently India’s most popular film composer, who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. “I stopped listening to Bollywood songs because they all sound the same,” says Srikanth. “The music to South Indian films is definitely, I can say, more quality.”

The most romantic track is AR Rahman’s ‘Kehna Ni Kya’, where Srikanth adds lovely slides, portamentos and decorations to what is presumably the vocal line. The album opens with a piece from South India’s second most famous composer, Ilaiyaraaja, who recently scored his 1,000th film! This highlights the marching band side of the group with powerful drumming and the growling bass of Jeff Miller’s wrap-around sousaphone.

What’s impressive about the live performance is the matching of the violin with ten brass instruments. “In the first rehearsal, those horns, those trombones were so loud,” says Srikanth. “And if you just crank up the volume you just get more distortion. So I have to use technology here. I use a processor to be able to equalise the violin as well as raising the gain and adding effects – compression, reverb and delay.”

Srikanth clearly takes many of the vocal lines on the violin, although Charlton explains how they often used soprano sax to reflect the high Bollywood vocals of singers like Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Now the women singers use a lower register like Western vocalists. Most of the songs tend to be shortened in BBB’s arrangements, because without the lyrics they don’t sustain. And as Srikanth says, “there’s no point in copying the song, otherwise you might as well just play the original. It’s better to do something creative.”

One of the most beautiful tracks on the album, ‘Deva Deva Kalayami’, begins with a sultry violin solo, swooping and sliding among the tendrils of reverb with sighs and trills. When it gets going, it’s in a scale that gives the brass lines a rather Balkan character. This isn’t a film tune at all, but by Tyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the great Karnatic Trinity of composers. Here Srikanth and Charlton trade violin and trumpet riffs making Tyagaraja sound like something by Goran Bregović. But this is Karnatic music – improvised and innovative.

Even more innovative are new compositions Charlton and Sarha Moore, the BBB arrangers, have done for two scenes from Chandralekha – an extraordinary 1948 Tamil film that was the most expensive made in India at the time. It was directed and produced by SS Vasan and includes incredible Cecil B DeMille-type scenes with thousands of actors and unbelievable sets. The opening scene includes female trumpeters and 400 dancers on drums in the courtyard of an extravagant palace. As the palace is overrun by soldiers bursting out of the drums, it leads into Errol Flynn-style sword-fight sequences with remarkably few casualties other than decapitated flowers. The music gives it all a sword-sharp edge.

At the back of the hall is Mark Allan. He used to play baritone sax in the band, but has graduated to masterminding the film projections. These transform the performance from a concert into a spectacular show. He’s plugged into the original soundtrack and his VJ software allows him to speed up and slow down the film to keep it in sync with the band. It’s very sophisticated technology. The videos include a Gypsy-like circle dance around a fire (‘Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu)’, dancing on boats in what looks like the Keralan backwaters (‘Jiya Jale’) and riding the roof of a train (‘Aa Ante Amalapuram’). During this last song, Allan hands me his earpieces and I see the band have become quite out of sync with the song. But as long as the basic rhythm fits, it’s amazing what you can get away with. The timing is crucial however for the Chandralekha clips and for that the sync is spot on.

What the Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth have achieved with this show is not just an entertaining way to present Indian movie tunes, but actually contribute to the art form with their original soundtracks.

Everyone is overawed by Srikanth’s skill and humility as a collaborator, while she says: “The chemistry matches between us and that is very important for a collaboration. If it doesn’t work in India, they say it’s ‘like eating yoghurt rice with ketchup’.” This collaboration is one tip-top thali.


DATE Bollywood Brass Band & Jyotsna Srikanth will perform at Salisbury Festival on June 1 and Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 2

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Ricardo Ribeiro – a curious fadista

Posted on May 18th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

ricardo ribeiro

Ricardo Ribeiro sings fado enriched by his flamenco and Arabic leanings. Gonçalo Frota speaks to the singer prior to his UK solo concert debut

There is something about Ricardo Ribeiro that makes you feel convinced he’s channelling several lives through the words he sings. You don’t have to dig deep into his biography to get the sense that his fado is much older than he actually is (he’s 35). Ribeiro’s fado seems to feed off the voracious curiosity he has for the world. But even before he turned professional, Ribeiro made several different life choices and pushed away various different fates. “Singing was not a choice,” he says. “It was almost a compulsion. Every day I believe more in destiny.”

Born in Lisbon, Ribeiro was a young boy when he was sent to a church school in Torres Novas where Father Manuel Alves became his first master. For a time he considered entering the seminary and becoming a priest. Now, looking back on that period, he realises he wasn’t really drawn to the priesthood but rather to the theological set of rules that helped him make some sense of the world. Financial reasons prevented him from continuing along this path. The fundamental seed, however, had already been planted by Father Manuel Alves: a profound love for poetry and for everything that breathed life.

After leaving school, Ribeiro relocated to Pinhal Novo, a town on the outskirts of Lisbon. Aged 16, he spent his nights learning his trade singing with his elders, while his days were spent on the south bank of the Tejo river. At night he devoured every bit of wisdom these older singers shared with him. Then he would take the last train or the first boat out of Lisbon to work as a builder, a butcher or a herdsman. “During summertime,” he acknowledges, “it was easier because I’d be up all night and after taking out the cattle, the heat would make them go back inside and I could get some rest.”

Ribeiro realises it sounds as if he is romanticising his past life. But he confesses he adored this period, having animals as company that made him cherish silence and enabled him to spend his days at a slower pace. “It’s a life I really enjoy, a life of wisdom that people often don’t appreciate.” During the less busy hours he read, listened to music and prepared his own fados. It also gave him space to develop one of his core characteristics: curiosity. “I am a very curious individual,” he confesses. “If someone tells me about a subject I know nothing about, I sit quietly, listen, then go home and do my research.” Curiosity, he believes, helps him deal with anxiety, makes him feel he has control and gives him a sense of clarity when he feels isolated “inside a bubble of disbelief.” This is usually when Ribeiro finds solace and inspiration in discovering something new from his newfound knowledge.

There are two men who have had a remarkable influence on Ribeiro’s career path and to who he is profoundly grateful. Firstly, the late fadista Fernando Maurício, albeit not well known outside of Portugal, but extremely influential. Maurício cared little for public recognition and was a faithful guardian of the purest form of traditional fado. He sang in fado houses and at local clubs instead of on bigger stages. He was a prodigy of intuition with little or no musical education. As a teenager Ribeiro held him in such high regard he even followed him around and started imitating his hero’s walk. But the most important lesson, Ribeiro stresses, was teaching the young boy to master his fear of making the wrong fado choices.

“It was strange,” Ribeiro recalls, “Maurício taught me how to overcome fear, but at the same time he also used to instigate some fear. He told me I couldn’t do this and that, that I had to sing a certain fado in a whispered manner or how do divide the verses, but he wouldn’t let me repeat myself.” He gave Ribeiro an indispensable set of rules to flourish as a fadista, while also challenging him to bend those same rules.

The other fundamental encounter in his life came some years later. In 2004 Ribeiro recorded his eponymous album, the one he considers officially launched his career. Following this, in 2006 theatre director Ricardo Pais introduced him to Lebanese oud virtuoso Rabih Abou-Khalil. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says the fadista. “Rabih showed me things I did not know about myself. He saw them in me when I never suspected to have them, and I am forever grateful for that. Whenever I’m going through hard times in my life now, it’s Rabih that I talk to. He always has a wise and helpful word. And you can also hear that insight in his music.”

Em Português (2008), the astonishing record Ribeiro made with Abou-Khalil and his musicians, was a game changer. Forcing the singer into the technically demanding world of jazz and Arabic music, it freed him up to explore the different musical languages he always felt close to but did not know how to make compatible with his primary fado source. After Rabih Abou-Khalil, it made complete sense whenever Ribeiro quoted a triangle of references comprising Amália Rodrigues, Alfredo Marceneiro and Fernando Maurício (fado), Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucia (flamenco), Abou-Khalil and Oum Kalthoum (Arabic music). Suddenly, the Gypsy traces in Ribeiro’s voice became evident; the Arabic heritage in Alentejo music didn’t sound intrusive and the typical fado neighbourhoods in Lisbon no longer shied away from their Moorish and Jewish-steeped history.

The albums Largo da Memória and Hoje é Assim, Amanhã Não Sei – both nominated for Songlines Music Awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively – benefitted from this new-found broad musicality. They’re unquestionably rooted in fado, but yet they transcend it. And they come from a similar place: Ribeiro’s intense reaction to poetry. “Every once in a while,” he explains, “there is a poem that gets a sigh out of me and, even though I didn’t write it, I claim it as mine. I am a thief. I steal all the time, but I only do it because it sweeps me off my feet. I steal from poetry, from cinema, from photography, obviously from music. It’s like picking up a beautiful flower from the garden. I didn’t create it, but it’s so beautiful I must make it mine.”

Toada de Portalegre (Song of Portalegre) and Orfeu Rebelde (Rebel Orpheo), two poems by José Régio and Miguel Torga respectively, are the key elements to each of these albums. Ribeiro confesses to liking records built around a central idea. When such a poem takes hold of his thoughts, he starts to spot little bits of it in everything he reads, so he ends up making a personal map of words to tell the story he wants to sing, collecting poems that serve as branches, sprouting out of that fundamental text. Hoje é Assim, Amanhã Não Sei translates as ‘Today’s Like This, Tomorrow I Don’t Know,’ a title he uses to assert his right to change and to challenge expectations. As a constantly curious man he believes in moving on, explaining that “a snake changes its skin in order to live,” and “poor are the spirits that do not change, for they can’t be reborn.”

“Living is being open to everything that happens and I try to purge myself every once in a while. It is a hard exercise. But I’m 35 and still have a lot ahead of me, I should not be imprisoned by prejudice and preconceived ideas. I’m always changing my opinion. I don’t care for being discredited, for it’s a matter of sensibility. The moment I find something new, I’m prepared to confront it with my opinion and change if I have to.”

Having been brought up in fado among older and often more conservative singers, Ribeiro was for quite a while a radical opponent to any form of fado that welcomed modernity and did not invest all its energy interpreting the traditional songbook. But little by little he started to concede that in order to stay relevant, as with any other musical form, it should not resist innovation. “Fado does not exist outside of society,” he says. “It never did, it has always adapted to each particular time.” As long as it’s honest, Ribeiro has nothing against it. That is also what he is pursuing for himself. Rather than being understood, he’d like people to believe in him. Believing, as an act of faith, as something spiritual and beyond reason.

DATE Ricardo Ribeiro will perform at Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 1

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Introducing: Solo & Indrė

Posted on May 18th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


Simon Broughton investigates the Senegalese and Lithuanian collaboration ahead of its UK premiere next month

Basically it’s pretty simple – kora meets kanklės, Senegal meets Lithuania. Solo Cissokho, from Senegal, plays the West African kora and Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, from Lithuania, plays a Baltic zither, the Lithuanian version of the Finnish kantele that is also played in Latvia and Estonia. But of course, none of these collaborations are as simple as they look. Just on the string-count, this involves 21 plus 29, that’s 50 strings to be pulled.

What’s remarkable is how quickly this one took off. Jurgelevičiūtė had been interested in working with a kora player, so when Solo Cissokho was doing a concert in Vilnius with his trio, they met up for dinner, decided to try playing together the next day and ended up recording an album.

A recording from that session won the Battle of the Bands competition in 2015 – a really useful leg-up organised by World Music Network – and the Solo & Indrė album got some very fine reviews. ‘The mix of Baltic and West African folk styles is an unlikely one, but the sound it creates is relaxing, thoughtful and oddly saddening, in the most beautiful way,’ said Jim Hickson in his review in #114.

The duo actually create a very similar soundworld to Seckou Keita & Catrin Finch, whose Songlines Music Award-winning kora and harp collaboration Clychau Dibon has been a big success. Both duos feature plucked strings in which it’s hard to tell one instrument from another. There’s another connection as both kora players come from Ziguinchor in the kora heartland of Casamance.

“We put the tunes from both of us together and the music decides where we go,” says Cissokho. “And we connect the tunes into one musical story,” Jurgelevičiūtė adds. “Sometimes I start a tune and Solo adds something very unexpected and beautiful,” which is exactly what such collaborations are about. The opening track on Solo & Indrė seamlessly joins a Cissokho composition to a Lithuanian tune, one melody magically evolving into another.

Cissokho now lives in Sweden, where he forged his first BBC award-winning partnership with violinist Ellika Frisell. They recorded two albums and recently a third bringing in Mexican percussionist Rafael Sida, so Cissokho is no stranger to the art of collaboration. “I didn’t decide to do this project with Indrė,” he says, “the instruments did.”

But collaborations are actually about people and not about instruments or musical genres. The best musical partnerships are about musicians working together and understanding each other. Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė started playing the kanklės aged seven. “This traditional Lithuanian instrument has its origins centuries back,” she says, “and it was used in pagan rituals, for worshipping the gods and for protection from bad spirits.” As with the kantele, there are many versions from simple five, nine and 12-string versions to the 29-string ‘concert’ version of the instrument she uses here.

“My songs are coming from traditional tunes,” she says, “often rearranged and improvised.” But both Cissokho and Jurgelevičiūtė are vocalists as well. Singing is central to the Casamance griot tradition and Jurgelevičiūtė has not only studied Lithuanian song, but is a big fan of Indian music and was about to start seriously studying with Kishori Amonkar, who sadly died last month (see obit on p15). Amonkar’s mantra was about really getting inside the raga and the space of the music.

Solo & Indrė is not just a meeting of instruments, it is really a meeting of tradition bearers.

DATE: Solo & Indrė play at Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 3

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Unicorn World Record Attempt

Posted on May 18th, 2017 in Recent posts by .

Photo by Colin Hattersley

Whereas the English consider the fiery Barbary lion to be their national symbol, the Scottish cherish an altogether more mystical creature. A stately unicorn adorns the Scottish coat of arms, and symbolises both harmony and peace across the land. This year’s Knockengorroch World Ceilidh Festival, deep in the majestic Galloway hills, is honouring the ancient beast with an official world record attempt for the highest number of unicorns in one place as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations. Festival organiser Liz Holmes is anticipating a joyous occasion: “We wanted to do something exciting, fun and different to celebrate our 20th year. The unicorn is a truly multicultural symbol for us to celebrate, reflecting our international taste in music!”

The attempt has been fully accredited by the Guinness Book of Records, and attendees of all ages are encouraged to wear unicorn horns and be part of the effort. Performers at the four-day affair include Scottish folk stalwarts RURA, klezmer ensemble Tantz, roots reggae legend Max Romeo and Molotov Jukebox. The Kakatsitsi Drummers and the Gubi San Bushmen, Sheelanagig and Tonto Malembe are also amoung the vast list of artists set to perform at Knochengorroch.

 Knockengorroch World Ceilidh Festival takes place from May 25-28.

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