Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Asha Bhosle & Kronos bring RD Burman's classics

India’s Elvis is introduced to the world by Kronos

Text by Ashanti OMkar
Photos by Ashanti OMkar & Akin Falope

1973, over 3 decades ago brought the beginnings of David Harrington’s Kronos Quartet - the renowned Classical foursome who have changed faces over the years, but never compromised in quality and originality. A Grammy and many more accolades along the way, this busy bunch of ‘classical musicians’ are always busy, finding innovative ways to present their music and leveraging the best of new technology to enhance their recorded work, they work and tour tirelessly and win hearts of listeners the world over with their inane ability to make just 4 instruments (and a few accompaniments) sound like 100 instrumentalists in unison!

The media has been buzzing after a long time, over this American classical group, Kronos, that too doing something highly unusual - teaming up with India’s enchantress, the 72 year old, highly versatile songstress, restaurateur, Mother and all round star, Asha Bhosle. This is the first foray for The Kronos Quartet, in terms of incorporating a lead singer into their set-up - they do it with style and finesse and of course, could not have picked a better ambassador to introduce Indian music to the world.

Asha Ji, a lady who through a tumultuous past has deservingly come out the shining star, sister to competitor and stalwart Lata Mangeshkar and lesser known but also talented Usha Mangeshkar, she is on par with Elvis, according to David Harrington of Kronos, who fell in love with the music of her second husband, Rahul Dev Burman, the composer of many a magnificent melody in Bollywood - songs that seem to have traversed and transcended time (Kronos is the Greek word for time, coincidentally) - pieces that still stay in people’s hearts, especially drawing a full house at London’s eminent music and arts venue, the Barbican - a plethora of cultures culminating in an eclectic audience who all seemed to be familiar with the lyrics of ‘Churaliya’ from Yaadon ki Baarat and ‘Mehbooba from Sholay (originally sung by RD Burman himself).

Maharashtra was the birthplace of Asha Bhosle, one of the daughters of eminent musician and singer, Dinanth Mangeshkar, she not only worked as a child artiste, alongside her sister Lata upon the sad demise of their Father, but then went on to establish herself as one of India’s premier singers - still giving many a youngster a run for their money, she has worked with many decades of musicians - AR Rahman for example saves certain songs especially for Asha Ji, as he does for Lata Ji too. The entrancing song, ‘Radha Kaise na Jale’ from Lagaan being one of AR Rahman’s masterpieces featuring the lady herself. She dresses in the most beautiful of sarees - twinkling stone work on chiffon or silk, white or pale pink, simple jewellery in matching colours and pearls in her hair, the only mis-match that shows her light-hearted side is the trainers she wears - somehow, they work on this diminutive lady who has an awesome stage presence, makes fun of her own English speaking (which happens to be extremely articulate - she has sung in about 40 languages, so of course, English is but one of many languages for her). With hectic tour schedules, she is in extremely good shape and for her 7 odd decades of life, she looks like a 50 year old. Her youngest child, Anand manages her every move and is extremely efficient - obviously this makes her life easier, as she has someone she can trust by her side. Asha has indubitably influenced pop music over the ages, with the 1997 hit single ‘Brimful of Asha’ by Cornershop (their Asian contingent Tjinder Singh making it happen) dedicated to her vocal stylings.

Of course, her golden period in music is what pulled the Kronos quartet to her, this being the RDB period of Bollywood - RD Burman AKA Pancham or Pancham Da, son of Sachin Dev Burman, also a legendary composer, RDB was born in Calcutta and over his lifespan, gave around 300 movie sound-tracks and music for TV serials - he is well known as the inspiration for many a composer on the market today. Having taken Asha as his 2nd wife (Rita was his first), he made beautiful music with the then upcoming singer. Asha Ji, a strong woman who started singing at the age of 10 and caused many a family rift when she did the right thing and left her husband, Ganpat Bhosle, on the cusp of the birth of Anand - Asha had had enough of a fruitless marriage, although it was a love marriage, and decided to go back to the family home, but her independent streak came out when she got her own place and moved there with her 3 children. Of course, by this time, Lata, her sister was ruling the Hindi playback industry, so Asha craved a niche for herself - she took to Cabaret style singing (carving a ‘saints and sinners’ playback style - like that of Usha Uthup), which placed her in the ‘most wanted’ list of singers. The rest, as they say, is history. 1980 saw her marriage to RD Burman, in those days, this was seen as a cultural breach, of course, theirs’ was a match made in heaven - the legacy lives on today of their musical partnership. When ‘Dum maro Dum’ (Take another Take) hit the airwaves, it was banned in India and people had to tune into Sri Lanka’s premier station, Radio Ceylon, to listen to the song that even small children in England know well! His death in 2000 was a sad blow to the industry, although he had passed his best works by that time, leaving behind a stream of memorable hits of yesteryear. Having worked with Boy George, as did Asha Ji and many eclectic endeavours, he wasn’t perfect, his major misdemeanour was the ‘inspired plagiarism’ of Western tunes for example: “Aao twist karein”, a direct ‘lift’ of Chubby Checker’s ‘Come let’s twist again’. Even popular songs like Mehbooba and Churaliya are lifts - the former, rehashed version of ‘Say You Love Me’ by Demis Roussoss’s (out in 1974, the year before Sholay was released) and the latter, the Indianised version, definitely inspired by the theme to the movie ‘If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium’ (1969 by composer Walter Scharf). Churaliya was re-popularised by way of remix by Bally Sagoo and more recently by Jay Sean, for the top 10 hit ‘Stolen’.

Of course, it was not an easy task to get all this recorded, but David Harrington, who usually commissions composers to work with Kronos (like minimalist movement composer, Terry Riley and Sarangi genius, Padhma Bushan Ram Narayan - who’s music was played expertly by Kronos at the Barbican concert) took upon the challenge of 15 years of fandom for RDB by using the talents of great Tabla genius Zakhir Hussain for percussion and Wu Man on the Pipa (Chinese plucked instrument capable of making the most intriguing layered sounding music). “We recorded Asha’s parts separately and then spent about 5 months to do the mixing - some of the songs had over 200 tracks, so it was a time consuming job, but the output is most definitely worth it.” He reminisces: “Asha was on our wavelength, her amazing talent shone through and of course, RD Burman’s music added to this. She not only recorded the songs within a week or so, but at the end of it all, when we finished, she even cooked us some delicious curry!”

Back to the Barbican - the concert was buzzing, a whole collective of fans (of Asha Ji, RD Burman and Kronos) attended and this concert was the beginning of a beautiful new phase to their programming - celebrating their 10th anniversary season of great performers. What an honour it must have been for Kronos and Asha Ji, to start off the season which will feature many greats, like super conductor, Zubin Mehta and a special entitled ‘Ramadan Nights’, featuring Khaled and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (nephew to Nusrat Ji). Joining the Kronos was Debopriyo Sarkar, Northern Bengali Tabla exponent and fusionist, who has trained under ace Tablists, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Janet Cowperthwaite, the manager of Kronos ably manages the quartet and their tour, while the Barbican staff and production crew work seamlessly with the Kronos lighting team to create an ambience par excellence. This was evident even as the sound check took place, the vision for perfection and of course the quartet’s perfect flow. An amalgamation of classical with film music, the pieces came back to back with a small interval - it was evident that the crowd were awaiting the post-interval section of the show, as it was when their much beloved Asha Bhosle was to appear. She came to the stage and made her first joke of the evening - “When my son told me about Kronos Quartet, I was so used to 70-100 people orchestras, I asked him how many people they were. He laughed and said don’t you know, ma, a Quartet means 4 of course. I wondered, how can I sing with just 4 musicians, but when I met them, I realised that the play the worth of 100 hands.” With rapturous applause, she emerges into ‘Churaliya’ and thus began her mesmerising of the audience. She carried on by making jokes and also reminiscing keeping the audience rapt. Commenting that The Kronos had picked some of the toughest songs of RDB, she went on to evoke supreme joy with some numbers, but also total sadness in ‘Mera Kuchh Saaman’, sung with genuine tears in her eyes. An encore tops off the performance; they all go off stage and in true showmanship, come back as the audience chant “We want more”. She tells them to “Guess the song” and as they ponder, she goes into ‘Piya Too Ab To Aaja’ - finishing the concert to a definitive pinnacle.

When departing from the backstage area of Barbican, the quartet (David Harrington, Violin; John Sherba, Violin; Hank Dutt, Viola; newest member, young and “looking like a Bollywood star”, according to Asha Ji, Jeffrey Zeigler on Cello) all say their Goodbyes with the words: “Asha. It’s been a pleasure, looking forward to the next stop, Carnegie Hall (New York).” That is a show for April 2006 - part of Carnegie Hall’s Kronos Concert series of 6 shows) - The live mix festival - there is one special Asha Ji show covering the ‘India calling’ part, which has featured Pundit Ravishankar, Zakhir Hussian and many more. In the words of David Harrington: “We want to introduce India’s Elvis and India’s equivalent of Bach and Stravinsky to the America and the world.” In many ways, it seems that are conquering this notion via a pilgrimage of high profile tours and expressive, innovative marketing. It is a pity that RD Burman isn’t around to see his work yet again immortalised. Currently, the ‘Punk Wallahs Mix’ remix of Kronos’ ‘Dum Maro Dum’ is making waves round radio stations nationwide.


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