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Jazz flavoured with Desi spice

September 21, 2012

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KARACHI, Sept 21: As a hard-core devotee and enthusiast of both western and the subcontinental classical music, the only jazz that I occasionally enjoy is the sort that was played in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States. These were the melodious compositions that featured call and response, ‘carving’ contests and the occasional blue note. Chris Barber and Monty Sunshine, the English virtuosos, used to faithfully reproduce the sounds of New Orleans as late as the 1980s. And I believe there’s a dive in Stockholm where a traditional jazz band still plays Cotton Club Stomp on request. What the audience heard at the concert entitled Jazz meets Raagas held at the residence of the hospitable German consul general Dr Tilo Klinner and his wife on Thursday evening was something else. It was the kind of Modern or Free Jazz that is played these days in Germany and most other parts of Europe.

There are different kinds and interpretations of jazz which can best be described as the 300-year blending of the music of West Africa and Europe. This music has come a long, long way from the early days of Buddy Bolden of New Orleans who according to folklore could be heard 10 miles away when he blew his trumpet. It is the only indigenous art form of the US and its evolution is intricately linked to the hopes and aspirations of the African slaves who longed for freedom from oppression. In the long hard journey towards liberty, the Afro-American singers and musicians laboured through the Great Awakening, the Work Song, the Blues, Minstrelsy, the Spiritual and Ragtime until the beginning of the Jazz Age. Then came the Swing Era, Bop, Mainstream, Modern and Free Jazz.

The gig at the CG’s house featured the visiting German musician Peter Weniger and his group who played for the first half of the concert. The second half was taken up by Asif Sinan and his acoustic guitar combo. Nobody could find fault with the way Weniger handled his saxophone.

He was brilliant. He cradled the instrument and coaxed it until it produced a sound that was at once soulful and exhilarating, throwing in the odd blue note for good measure. Don’t get me wrong, Mr Wong demonstrated his bold, forceful style.

Sinan’s finger work on the guitar was dazzling. He is highly gifted and has a profound feel for the music he plays. But heck, whatever happened to the Raagas? Sure, there was this one piece where he started off by plucking the strings in typical Poonchwalla style, stretching a wire to produce a warm blended sound as he drained the melody of its emotional juices. But the next moment his group exploded into the kind of pop music one hears on FM radio. The finale was a romping boisterous burst of sound which was preceded by a few comments by Weniger about the tempo in the Raag. I would like to add that in the traditional Raag as it is still played in Delhi it is not uncommon for one tabla player to strike 12 beats to his partner’s 16 within the same timeframe.

The Germans are innovative people and have in the past experimented with Fusion, which is essentially an attempt to fuse the music of two diverse cultures — one that emphasises harmony and the other melody. It was pleasing. There was always a great deal of foot stomping and overhead clapping. But traditions don’t really mix. As Kipling said, I believe, ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’.