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For that `dhaba food' music...

ANJANA RAJAN meets Louis Banks, the `godfather of Indian Jazz' and gets his take on fusion music and the new technology... .



Louis Banks... holding his own in the era of electronic music. Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

LOUIS BANKS sits in his hotel room in his characteristic black beret, his imposing black laptop computer on the table before him. He's been playing chess on it, but it also contains some of his music, he admits. In an age of electronic music, computers and Louis Banks' compositions do have a close affinity. But his career began before technology had changed the complexion of the music industry.

"That's a period I sadly miss, when you had only one instrument." In his case it was the piano, though he also played trumpet and guitar, all of which he learnt from his father. "Most of the youngsters today don't have that experience," he says, since they are bred on electronic synthesisers that can conjure up a world of orchestral and other sounds. Nostalgia aside, "I'm not a guy who likes to be left behind."

So technology provides him access to "a whole universe of sounds," and he is happy - "It's really great, yeah," (a phrase he uses often) - to harness it for the fusion music that is his passion nowadays. While it is to Pandit Ravi Shankar that he gives the credit for "opening the doors with his work with pop, Jazz, and rock musicians". But for Banks, it was Zakir Husain's Shakti band that inspired him to go the fusion way.

On stage, one of the most attractive things about fusion music is that it is mostly unrehearsed and unwritten, finds Banks. Take the performance organised by Ustad Mustaq Ali Khan Centre for Culture - UMAK - in which he teamed up with young sitar exponent Prateek Chaudhuri, tabla maestro Shafaat Ahmed Khan and world percussion wizard Sivamani. Coming from different musical backgrounds, their approach to the performance remained completely individual. "Some parts - about 20 per cent - can be written down. But mostly it's spontaneously made on stage, and each time it's different. That's what fusion is all about. We retain the individual characteristics and find the points at which we can come together."

Even when taking up a raga for exposition, "I use it in a Western manner, extracting Western harmonies from it." And though this `godfather of Indian Jazz' who paints in his spare time has not formally trained in raga music - either Carnatic or Hindustani - he has been "listening to it for the last 20 years" and "is greatly inspired by it".

Admitting that, "I use it but not in the traditional way. I know there are strict norms but I'm not following them. I use ragas because I like the sound of it, and it gives me access to the Indianness of it," he knows that some people might not approve of his kind of music at all. To such purists he has a simple answer: "I always say, in Jazz and fusion, the one important element is the impurity." He adds with the saucy relish of one who revels in his work, that it is like "dhaba food" which is tastier for the dust and impurities that go into it!

Popular as have been the various bands instituted by him, such as Sangam and Silk, playing fusion music - or any kind of concert music for that matter - is not an economically viable option. The money is in only in commissioned pieces, says this veteran of over advertising 7000 jingles in 10 years. Musical technology has helped here too, since a synthesiser keyboard can simulate the sound of a whole orchestra, thus cutting costs for producers. It may not be ethical and it may be the bane of instrumentalists, but as a composer who relies on such jobs to earn his living, "I must say I've also done it." And at the same time "it's a march of technology. It can't be stopped. But it's not the real thing. It's only a simulation," he admits of the sounds of sampled instruments. "But it doesn't matter in commercial music. It's the end that matters," he says. If it sounds nice, even "whether you steal or sample the music," it doesn't matter.

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