So what if cross-border social-media musical collaborations are ruffling up some feathers. Last heard, paying homage to legends on the other side was still allowed. It gets even better when progressive rock (prog-rock) band Indian Ocean doff their hats to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s immensely popular qawwali – Akhiyan Udeek Diyan. Yes, you read that right. Indian Ocean and qawwali, with a sprinkling of psy-trance riffs. “Qawwali, I feel, is the earliest forms of trance music,” says percussionist-vocalist Amit Kilam.
The song is like a walk in a pitch-dark forest, you walk, cautious of what you might step into, but you walk, in a trance, pulled by splashes of diverse sounds, familiar and unexplored. Therapeutic, in this lockdown. The melodic ad lib prelude starts slow with Kilam’s clarinet and Nikhil Rao’s layering of four guitar tracks and elongated notes as the beats pick up tabla player Tuheen Chakravorty’s khanjira. It was an experiment and added later, says Kilam, 46, as an evolving mood piece rather than start straight with rock. Rao’s otherworldly riffs take the listener to places where early Pink Floyd would have. “I was looking at the collaborations of Canadian guitarist Michael Brook and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, how Nusrat Saab produced his qawwalis in the Western fusion context,” says Rao, 35. The qawwali icon, too, dappled with rock in his collaboration with Eddie Vedder for the soundtrack for Dead Man Walking (1995). To recreate the feel of clapping common in qawwali, Chakravorty, 33, fashions beats on the wooden tabla cover with a bowl of water – just enough so that it doesn’t spill – placed on it. While Kilam, who had vocally arrived with Mann kasturi re (Masaan, 2015), had it in mind to somehow bring in the element of that one voice in the background in qawwalis that takes the high notes, and so he hits the ooncha sur. In one melody, it even seems, he might just break into an SD Burman folk number.
The wait has been long. Six years since their seventh album Tandanu. With this studio single, which has garnered 14,000 and counting YouTube views since its release on Friday, the band is treading unchartered territories. Indian Ocean 2.0 has a new sound while holding on to the classic essence. And, in these times of short attention spans, shorter music pieces, ear-bleeding remixes and poor copies, the band brings out an 11-minute song. It takes the Saraiki ang refrain/chorus from the original written by Khwaja Pervez, and coalesces it with Khwaja Ghulam Farid’s poetry – explored by not too many.
“Qawwali, in which a khayal (thought) runs through, allows you the liberty to add to it. Both Nusrat Saab’s song and Ghulam Farid’s lines (Unchiyaan lamiaan) have the same thought and desire (forlorn longing), only the ‘yaar’ in the qawwali is the beloved while in Farid’s poetry, it’s God. The metaphor of crow cawing as a signal of a visitor has been used by many, like Shiv Kumar Batalvi, in their poetry,” says vocalist Himanshu Joshi, 57. The Kumaoni folk singer-filmmaker had to learn Punjabi for this song, which was recorded two-three years ago at YRF Studios.
At the time, Times Music (which released the song) had approached them, besides other musicians like Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz, to do a song each for a tribute album to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which didn’t see the light of day. The song – which they have been performing live – “wouldn’t have been possible,” says bassist-vocalist Rahul Ram, 57, “without Himanshu, who has literally grown in Jamia Millia Islamia. He brought a lot of that knowledge into the song. Qawwali is not what we do or know. We knew we won’t be able to do it in the old Indian Ocean way.” The basic “dhara (bearing) is Nusrat Saab’s”, but the song’s structure has been reinvented, his tune only comes towards the end. “The entire thing is ours,” says Joshi.
Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t entirely wrong when it said Tandanu was their best album till date in 2014, because with the band, the best is always in the making. Akhiyan Udeek Diyan is the first track of their eighth album to be released online, rest will follow one by one, of which two are collaborations – with Grammy Award-winning ghatam doyen Vikku Vinayakram and California-based saxophonist George Brooks, who brings Hindustani and Carnatic elements to jazz and has played with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.
“After Tandanu (where every song is a collaboration), we thought this is it, no more. It was exhausting to be surrounded by such musical genius. A lot of these guys are far superior to us, they had to bring themselves down to our level. For instance, (Grammy-awardee veena player) Vishwa Mohan Bhatt knew that we could only play up to a certain speed, jhaala (the fast-paced climax of a classical composition) would be unattainable for us.”
And yet, every time the band comes out with a new song, a critical mass pops its head to say, “woh mazza nahin aa raha, pehle jaisi baat nahin rahi (not like before)”. It has been routine for a decade now. “When people say they miss the classic line-up, they have all the right to. Even if we try, we won’t succeed, because the people were different,” says Chakravorty. “On Facebook, people say, nothing can replace that Indian Ocean,” says Ram, “that they miss Asheem-da and Sushmit-da. Yes, you do. Even I do. But what can I do about it? We decided to carry on and we are carrying on.”
“For a whole generation, their introduction to us have been through Tandanu or Masaan first, and then they went back to hear our older stuff. For them, this is Indian Ocean,” says Ram, asserting that he is “mighty pleased” with the outcome and happy if “modern songs” work.
The band, in its 30th year, is excited about new material. “It is quite unusual when so many bands, existing for more than 30 years, are just doing legacy acts, like Deep Purple, Rolling Stones, and even in India,” says Rao, the half of the one-and-a-half PhD-ians in the band. Ram, the other full, says, “Every band’s sound evolves over time. In the beginning, Indian Ocean was a guitar-based band. Vocals entered later when I pushed Asheem. Then, the rhythm section became tighter.”
It’s not that they are doing something totally out of the blue. Bandeh (Black Friday, 2004), had electric guitar, played by Paresh Kamath (of the duo Naresh and Paresh). “It made a big difference,” says Ram, chuckling, while adding, “somewhere along the way, I learnt to play the saxophone, though very badly.” Even in After the War (Jhini album, 2003), Sushmit played the electric guitar, “but he took a long time to do it, weirdly I had to play the first part,” says Ram. The band started tinkering with the online space back in 2010, by giving out 16/330 Khajoor Road album for free. What’s new now, Ram says, is their desire to monetise live shows on the digital space, say, paying Rs 5-10 for a show.
Within the band, the old and the new learn from each other, though Rao has one gripe: he can’t hold one chord all the time to give cue to the singer. “Bahut rehearsal lag raha hai. It takes practice and maturity,” he says, “I want to find my own place and personality while dynamically be a good accompanying musician, for in the end it has to work as an Indian Ocean track.”
At times, the old and the new also lock horns. On the recent circular by the Federation of Western India Cine Employees to artistes to not work with Pakistani artistes, Ram flips, “Why at this time? Problem kya hai inko? Why can’t you make music? Are you jealous that they have better singers? Goli-baazi (cross-fire) has been going on for over the last 50 years.” Rao holds a different view. “India needs to make up its mind about Pakistan. It can’t be half and half: either make friendly gestures or break up totally. While I enjoyed the online live session between Farida Khanum ji and Rekha-Vishal Bhardwaj, it doesn’t seem like countries are going to come together to celebrate their shared cultural heritage anytime soon. And that is a tragedy. But artistes should sense the public mood, if that’s misread then there’s a lot of backlash.”
Art has power, Ram says, “but only some artistes, like Shubha Mudgal, Vishal Dadlani, etc., feel that they must speak out, or portray (the situation) in their work. It broke my heart when Shankar (Mahadevan) sang with other artistes for the 2019 election campaign. Such a gem of a man, a genius, but he’s apolitical. Owing to the Shiv Sena culture in Bombay, there’s an element of fear in Bollywood. Big Khans kept their mouth shut because the last time one spoke, he was trolled. Not as if communists didn’t silence dissent through violence. Whatever may be the spectrum, authoritarians will suppress opposing voices.”
If the five band members were the five Pandavas, Rao says Rahul Ram is Bheem, who cools down as quickly as he flares up. “Disagreements exist,” Rao adds, “Rahul (who gets an outlet through his part stand-up, part musical political satire show Aisi Taisi Democracy) and I especially go hard at each other’s political ideas many times, but none of that affects our work and relationship.”
And that is the magic of Indian Ocean, to eke out harmony from dissonant chords. To the guitar prodigy Rao, one would say: shine on, you crazy diamond.