Benign bluesmen of Delhi

They won the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt this year but BLU deserves much bigger plaudits

brunch Updated: Mar 02, 2017 15:24 IST
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BLU, barely two years old, are as much a Delhi band as they are Darjeeling’s(Saumya Khandelwal)

It’s a little after noon on a pleasantly sunny February Wednesday and the blues are about to break out in one of the many dense pockets that make up Delhi’s sprawling Vasant Kunj residential area. In the makeshift ground-floor rehearsal room, four young men are ready to begin. Pranai on lead; Kapil on acoustic guitar and vocals; Rahul on the bass and Chewang behind the drums. “Let’s do one of our originals,” says Kapil quietly as Delhi’s blues band with a minimalist moniker − BLU − launches into Fifteen Years, a song that seems as if it’s emanating from somewhere near the Mississippi rather than the Yamuna.

Kapil Chetri, 33, who looks boyish and shy, has a singing voice that is startlingly like that of a veteran bluesman from the Mississippi Delta − melodic and lyrical but also bourbon-drenched and snarling when the occasion arises. Fifteen Years, a song that Chetri wrote is in the first person, as many blues songs are wont to be and has lyrics that are autobiographical: “Fifteen long years I’ve been living on my own/ Never had a feeling of being all alone/ ‘Cos I’ve been busy/ Busy chasing shadows...” On lead, Pranai Gurung, at 38 the oldest in the band, is effortless with his slick lines; on drums, a jovial Chewang Lama, 36, keeps the beat tight; and in his quiet corner, the baby of the band, Rahul Rai, 28, pelts out his bass lines with unfussed finesse.

BLU are a barely two-year-old quartet that is as much a Delhi band as they are Darjeeling’s. Although only half the band (Lama and Rai) are from that eastern India hill town (Chetri’s from Kohima and Gurung from Kalimpong), BLU began in Darjeeling two years ago before shifting to Delhi. Each of its four members took different routes to reach where they are (although Chetri has always been a diehard bluesman, Gurung began by playing jazz, Lama came via hard rock − “Black tees and long hair,” he jokes − and Rai began as a teacher) but in BLU they’ve coalesced to become a full-fledged blues foursome with a particular predilection towards the Delta sound.

Earlier this year, before the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai, BLU won the Band Hunt and got to play two gigs at one of the festival’s lesser stages − open air and, at least on the first day, marred by a faulty sound system. But although they were sandwiched between performances by international blues artists such as Shemekia Copeland, Grainne Duffy and Billy Gibbons, they wowed the crowd with their blended playlist of a few originals but many interesting interpretations of great blues tunes. Weeks later at the rehearsals in Delhi, they did Taj Mahal’s Queen Bee (“Sweeter than a honey bee, yeah, baby been sweet on me”) and Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues adding to each their own singular twist.

Gurung, whose jazz background gives his guitar leads a fluidity that’s uncommon among blues bands, says the band is on its way to creating their own trademark sound − Delta blues with a contemporary tweak. The Delta sound (introspection in lyrics; and a focus on rhythm) and country blues clearly inflect BLU’s music. Chetri namechecks Robert Johnson, Keb Mo, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt and country blues singer Rory Block as big influences and many songs by those blues greats are part of the band’s repertoire.

Being a blues band in India is hard. The genre isn’t a crowd magnet and if you’re a purist like BLU the going can get rougher. BLU hasn’t managed to record and release songs commercially yet. And their gigs are mainly local and hardly ubiquitous. Yet three of the four band members of BLU have become full-time musicians, sometimes multitasking by playing sessions or doing part-time gigs with others but always gathering together to play what they love − the blues. Events such as the annual Mahindra Blues Festival offer a glimmer of hope but are few and far between. Besides, the spotlight at such events is often disproportionately more on the international musicians − the automatic crowd-pullers − rather than on local talent.

Although the genre originated in the US, the blues have spread far and wide. Local blues musicians thrive everywhere − in the English speaking world, of course, but also in many northern European countries and even in Japan, which has a rich roster of local blues musicians. With talent such as BLU’s, it’s about time more Indians got the blues.

Tailpiece: Heard of Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz? No? Perhaps you’ve heard of his stage name, Fantastic Negrito? If you haven’t, I’d urge you to give him a listen. I heard Fantastic Negrito, Californian blues and R&B singer, a few months before he got the Grammy this year for the Best Contemporary Blues Album. His variety of the blues comes, as he proclaims, with a “punk attitude”. Give it a listen and you’ll likely agree. The album to check out is called The Last Days of Oakland.

From HT Brunch, March 5, 2017

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First Published: Mar 02, 2017 15:24 IST