Eastern Lights

German musician Prem Joshua on blending Hindustani classical music with western sounds

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Published:November 4, 2017 12:16 am
prem joshua, german band, Hindustani classical music, western sounds, Prem Josua (in black) with his band

In the late ’90s, when a Parisian watering hole — Buddha Bar — was becoming the hub of avant garde sounds, there was not much India could offer in terms of world music. Till German musician Prem Joshua entered the scene. While his resplendent sitar strains were a reminder of what we heard in India from prominent sitar players, when he played along with his band one saw a fine balance of Hindustani classical music with rock and jazz. The result was a fascinating world of trance and lounge music.

Joshua soon became a well-known name. First, in the more “open” music circuit, and later even among the “classicists”, who considered anything beyond classical music a din. “I’ve been coming to India for almost 40 years and the relationship has only grown. I have a special connection with the country that defines my musical sensibilities,” says Joshua, 58. He will be performing today with his band in Delhi at the opening of the two-day Rhythm and Blues Festival, which will also feature Shillong Chamber Choir, Ministry of Blues, Subramania — which features Bindu and Ambi Subramaniam, children of legendary violinist Dr L Subramaniam — and The Sami Sisters, among others.

Joshua first came to India at the age of 18, after he stumbled upon a scratchy 72 rpm, which was a festival recording of Concert for Bangladesh, comprising two benefit concerts organised by George Harrison and Pt Ravi Shankar in 1971. One side of the vinyl had a recording by Shankar, his guru bhai and sarod legend Ut Ali Akbar Khan and tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha. “I was a music aficionado as a teenager and would listen to a lot of recordings and visit concerts. But this particular sound that I heard on the album Concert for Bangladesh was something else. I was so mesmerised and it left such an impact that I decided I must visit the land that was producing such beautiful music,” says Joshua, who roamed the streets, slept alongside beggars and sadhus on pavements, ate food at gurudwaras and busked with his flute to earn money. “My parents told me I was destroying my career and deserved better,”
says Joshua.

But he was persistent. He learnt from many teachers before he stumbled upon Ustad Usman Khan, famed classical singer Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s son in Pune. Joshua came to the city following Osho, whose “teachings and sense of humour” had inspired him. Khan asked Joshua to unlearn everything and began teaching him Hindustani classical music of the Kirana gharana. “He gave me rigorous training, for which I will be eternally grateful,” says Joshua. But soon, the jazz musician in him wanted to explore the sounds he was listening to and learning alongside the ones he knew. “Soon I was creating my own music,” says Joshua. Khan was disappointed. “He had high hopes from me. But one has to do what one has to do,” says Joshua, who began performing in India and found attention from a younger audience. His first album, No Goal but the Path (1991) followed by Mudra (1998) and Dakini Lounge (2003) had him travelling the world with his band, comprising Raul Sengupta on the percussion, Satgyan Fukuda on electric bass and Robin Mattuck on keys. Buddha Bar caught on to his music soon and made it popular with the tourists. He has released 18 albums so far, is working on his 19th and is considered among the highest-selling world music artistes in India. “But the feeling when I perform in India is something else,” says Joshua.

Prem Joshua and Band will perform today at Rhythm and Blues Festival at Zorba, MG Road, 4 pm onwards.

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