You will have to bear with a few brackets this week because we will be talking about The Other Country Whose Independence Day is Coming Up (Pakistan).
Not that we cannot spell it out straight, but because of the television phenomenon that’s Coke Studio.
We have been watching the Indian version of the programme hosted on MTV and now we can also listen to some of the sessions on CD. But to listen to the richer, more experimental edition that has been playing in Pakistan, we have to go to YouTube.
Let’s have a quick long view of fusion before we get to comparisons.
In the 1960s, ‘fusion music’ referred to collaboration between classical musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. The maestros played on a melodic middle ground while sticking to their own idioms.
In the 1970s came Shakti, the band guitarist John McLaughlin formed with violinist L Shankar and tabla player Zakir Hussain, which used the open collaborative instincts of jazz to make a finer blend of the various sounds.
With time, several others crossed the middle ground to incorporate nuances from the other side. The current generation, starring Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale, Fazal Qureshi and Talvin Singh, has taken the ‘con’ out of the con-fusion.
Now, Coke Studio India producer Leslie Lewis has turned the clock back. He has gone back to the ‘I play my stuff and you yours’ way of making music. Remember ‘Krishna nee begane baro’, the most popular song born of his pairing with Hariharan? The traditional Carnatic tune is catchy, but the collaboration was, at best, patchy. It is, unfortunately, the sound he has brought to Coke Studio, a ‘music fusion project’.
Now look at the Pakistani production led by Rohail Hyatt. He uses to mesmerising effect a mix of naal and drums (which he had employed brilliantly in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s album, Charkha). He uses harmonies and guitars to bring out melodic cores. And he gives a lot of space to the musicians.
In Coke Studio Pakistan, it’s not just about reinventing what goes by the short handle of Sufi music. For the band Strings, Hyatt brought in a bounce (tinyurl.com/3uvjjsk) that made all the difference.
He left with a light touch Shafqat Amanat Ali's hit ‘Mora saiyan’ (tinyurl.com/3nxlh67). And he added a base line to the Karachi-based electronic/alternative band Mole’s rendition of Bageshri (tinyurl.com/3psto4s).
In comparison, the Indian edition sounds like a series of missed opportunities with talents such as Shankar Mahadevan, Kailash Kher, Sunidhi Chauhan, the Wadali Brothers, Papon...
Three songs from the three CDs — Megha Dalton’s earthy ‘Dheere dheere’, Sunidhi Chauhan and Wadali Brothers’ plaintive ‘Chitthiye’, and Papon’s foot-tapping Bihu song — are crying out for better treatments. Even classics such as Salil Chowdhury’s ‘Bichhua’ are more messed with than enhanced.
It’s clear that just pushing names into the studio doesn’t ensure great music. The output has to be more than the sum of the parts. And for that, we need a better catalyst than Lewis.
For The real fusion
From ‘making fusion out of Indian music’, we come to ‘the fusion that is Indian music’. We consider a couple of documentaries that are special in ways more than one. First, they try to get to the nub of ‘the confluence of cultures’ that has made Indian film music and ‘art music’. Second, these two films by Arun Khopkar, till recently elusive cult classics that wowed the film lover as well as the music aficionado, have recently had a wider release.
Lokpriya traverses the stages of Hindi film music’s evolution — from the first orchestration brought in by Pankaj Mullick, to Naushad’s rhythm-led arrangements, to the imports by SD and RD Burman. It ends in the 1990s, with Viju Shah’s electronic wizardry.
Rasikpriya has no spoken words. The details are available in text while the music, by the likes of Kumar Gandharv, Padma Talwalkar and Ulhas Kashalkar, are given a free rein. The accompanying images join the dots to form a fantastic picture. True classics for all ages.