Simon Broughton talks to the Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth about their collaborative project
“No, violin and brass aren’t regular partners,” laughs Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth. “They’re more like enemies in fact!” But they seem to have got round the animosity as trumpet, sax and trombone step forward to throw out punchy solos, answered by warm, pungent phrases from her violin. The musicians are all dressed in long, colourful robes trimmed with gold – to say nothing of the dramatic film projections behind them. This is Srikanth, the Bollywood Brass Band and their new show and album, Carnatic Connection in action.
“The combination in itself is something exotic,” admits Srikanth, who back in India played on many soundtracks. “This is something unique, which is what attracted me.”
Alongside the railways and lumbering bureaucracy, one of the lesser-known legacies of the British in India is the vibrant brass band tradition. In northern Indian towns, it’s very common to run into a baraat (wedding procession) – the groom on a white horse, preceded by a dozen musicians playing trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, tubas and a couple of side drums. The music is loud, raucous and a lot of fun.
“I’d never heard of Indian brass before,” admits Kay Charlton, trumpeter and arranger with the Bollywood Brass Band. Her first encounter with Indian brass took place 25 years ago – at an international festival of street bands in London organised by Cultural Cooperation. At that festival in 1992 was the Shyam Brass Band from Jabalpur, reputed to be one of the best in India.
“It was one of those coincidences that changes your life,” says New Zealand-born Mark Allan, who now manages Bollywood Brass Band. Both he and Charlton played in a street band called Crocodile Style and it was suggested they do some gigs with Shyam. “We learned some tunes off their cassette,” says Allan, “and we did several performances together while they were in the UK.” This was when they discovered their instruments were actually tuned a semitone apart – the sort of thing you have to take in your stride when you do collaborations like this.
The main repertoire for Indian brass bands comes from Bollywood films – both classics everyone knows, and the current hits. So they called themselves the Bollywood Brass Band (BBB) and brought in Johnny Kalsi from the Dhol Foundation. “Indian brass bands don’t use the dhol but it gave us that British bhangra kind of feel,” explains Charlton. “Johnny Kalsi played on our first album in 1999 and our other dhol players – currently Jas Daffu – have all come through the Dhol Foundation.”
“Bollywood music was virtually the first ‘world music’,” Allan explains. “Indian soundtracks were trawling the world for interesting sounds and were influenced by Latin music, qawwali, rock’n’roll and funk. ‘Oye, Oye’, one of the tunes we learned from Shyam, was an Indian version of a Gloria Estefan number.”
The Bollywood Brass Band started playing Diwali parties, then found themselves doing British Asian weddings and finally concerts. They’ve now gigged all over Europe, just released their fourth album and, perhaps the best accolade, have been invited to play for around a dozen weddings in India. It began in 2008, when they were invited to Indian Fashion Week in Delhi for the show of designer Manish Arora. He’s famous for his bright colours, so one can understand the appeal of a Bollywood Brass Band soundtrack. It was there they were picked up by a wedding agent and the work started coming in – including Indian weddings in Oman and Sun City, South Africa.
It should be said that weddings are seasonal in India – generally October to December – so it means that wedding musicians, bandwallahs, are not really professionals. They also do agricultural work and much more besides. So Indian bands with the musicianship and skilled arrangers of BBB are very rare indeed. That is why wealthy Indian families are prepared to fly out and accommodate a dozen musicians who know their stuff all the way from the UK to re-boot the baraat.
BBB and Jyotsna Srikanth met a couple of years ago when they were both playing at the Bradford and Belfast Melas. They both thought it would be fun to work together and Srikanth, as a professional evangelist for Karnatic music, suggested they try music from South Indian films. They had already arranged several songs by AR Rahman, currently India’s most popular film composer, who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. “I stopped listening to Bollywood songs because they all sound the same,” says Srikanth. “The music to South Indian films is definitely, I can say, more quality.”
The most romantic track is AR Rahman’s ‘Kehna Ni Kya’, where Srikanth adds lovely slides, portamentos and decorations to what is presumably the vocal line. The album opens with a piece from South India’s second most famous composer, Ilaiyaraaja, who recently scored his 1,000th film! This highlights the marching band side of the group with powerful drumming and the growling bass of Jeff Miller’s wrap-around sousaphone.
What’s impressive about the live performance is the matching of the violin with ten brass instruments. “In the first rehearsal, those horns, those trombones were so loud,” says Srikanth. “And if you just crank up the volume you just get more distortion. So I have to use technology here. I use a processor to be able to equalise the violin as well as raising the gain and adding effects – compression, reverb and delay.”
Srikanth clearly takes many of the vocal lines on the violin, although Charlton explains how they often used soprano sax to reflect the high Bollywood vocals of singers like Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Now the women singers use a lower register like Western vocalists. Most of the songs tend to be shortened in BBB’s arrangements, because without the lyrics they don’t sustain. And as Srikanth says, “there’s no point in copying the song, otherwise you might as well just play the original. It’s better to do something creative.”
One of the most beautiful tracks on the album, ‘Deva Deva Kalayami’, begins with a sultry violin solo, swooping and sliding among the tendrils of reverb with sighs and trills. When it gets going, it’s in a scale that gives the brass lines a rather Balkan character. This isn’t a film tune at all, but by Tyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the great Karnatic Trinity of composers. Here Srikanth and Charlton trade violin and trumpet riffs making Tyagaraja sound like something by Goran Bregović. But this is Karnatic music – improvised and innovative.
Even more innovative are new compositions Charlton and Sarha Moore, the BBB arrangers, have done for two scenes from Chandralekha – an extraordinary 1948 Tamil film that was the most expensive made in India at the time. It was directed and produced by SS Vasan and includes incredible Cecil B DeMille-type scenes with thousands of actors and unbelievable sets. The opening scene includes female trumpeters and 400 dancers on drums in the courtyard of an extravagant palace. As the palace is overrun by soldiers bursting out of the drums, it leads into Errol Flynn-style sword-fight sequences with remarkably few casualties other than decapitated flowers. The music gives it all a sword-sharp edge.
At the back of the hall is Mark Allan. He used to play baritone sax in the band, but has graduated to masterminding the film projections. These transform the performance from a concert into a spectacular show. He’s plugged into the original soundtrack and his VJ software allows him to speed up and slow down the film to keep it in sync with the band. It’s very sophisticated technology. The videos include a Gypsy-like circle dance around a fire (‘Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu)’, dancing on boats in what looks like the Keralan backwaters (‘Jiya Jale’) and riding the roof of a train (‘Aa Ante Amalapuram’). During this last song, Allan hands me his earpieces and I see the band have become quite out of sync with the song. But as long as the basic rhythm fits, it’s amazing what you can get away with. The timing is crucial however for the Chandralekha clips and for that the sync is spot on.
What the Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna Srikanth have achieved with this show is not just an entertaining way to present Indian movie tunes, but actually contribute to the art form with their original soundtracks.
Everyone is overawed by Srikanth’s skill and humility as a collaborator, while she says: “The chemistry matches between us and that is very important for a collaboration. If it doesn’t work in India, they say it’s ‘like eating yoghurt rice with ketchup’.” This collaboration is one tip-top thali.
DATE Bollywood Brass Band & Jyotsna Srikanth will perform at Salisbury Festival on June 1 and Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 2