One must resist the temptation to describe the music of Ek Safar as jazz-Indian classical fusion. True, there’s a tabla thrumming away under the fingers of Soumitra Paul and keeping time for the piano of Nicolas Schulze and the clarinet of Heiner Stilz. And true, some of the tunes they play are directly taken from Indian ragas. But jazz is the original fusion music, and its structure and style are not so rigid as to warrant being called by a different name when it takes in influences and ideas from other genres of music, while Indian classical music, Hindustani or Carnatic, has a much more compelling structure and form to fit everything into. Ek Safar’s music thus fits easily into the category of jazz or jazz-world music, if one wants to use a horrible term invented by Western critics for every musical style that isn’t entirely in the Western tradition.
They call themselves Ek Safar, which is also the name of their one CD and of one of the compositions on it. And last week at the Alliance Française, where they performed by courtesy of the Bangalore School of Music, they certainly took the audience along on a pleasant and stimulating 90-minute musical journey, largely comprising the compositions featured on their CD. Many of the pieces were originals written by the musicians, although at least one – ‘Tabarka’ – was the work of the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and one – ‘Sara Gelin’ – is a traditional Turkish song. Since at least three of the pieces were based on Indian ragas – Hamsadhwani (a name Schulze, who was making the announcements, had difficulty pronouncing!), Bhairavi and Kirwani – it might be safe to assume that Paul, who is obviously Indian-born but lives in Germany with his Ek Safar colleagues, has much to do with the composing of the music, although the “title track”, as it were, and ‘Listen to the Heart’ were written by Schulze and ‘Boröl’ by Stilz.
All the nine pieces performed began with a short intro, more in jazz form than like an alap, which varied from a beat built up gradually to a fast tempo on the tabla (on ‘Tabarka’) to a fast piano solo (on raga Hamsadhwani). Paul also treated us to a vocalised percussion intro (what in Carnatic music is called konakol) at the start of ‘Listen to the Heart’.
Schulze and Hilze usually played the themes together, with accompaniment by Paul, after which there were various solo improvisations, including plenty of solos by Paul on the tabla. In a mild departure from the traditional structure in jazz, the clarinet didn’t fall silent in the piano improvisations but accompanied in the background, and both Schulze and Stilz similarly kept up occasional interjections on the tabla solos.
The transitions from one solo to another were similarly marked by a gradual quietening of one musician and rising prominence of the next soloist. The tempos of most of the pieces were fast, occasionally becoming even faster by two notes being played for each beat.
There was plenty of development in each of the pieces in the way of solo improvisation, as one can guess from the fact that nine numbers stretched out into 90 minutes of music, but with catchy tunes and fast-paced rendition one didn’t get the feeling of this being an academic exercise but rather a largely successful effort to get one’s feet tapping.
One measure of this success was the fact that to me at least the renditions didn’t seem long but gave the impression of being over quite fast!
Perhaps the audience didn’t make its appreciation sufficiently clear or loud. The moderation of the audience’s response was due partly to its sparseness, put down by Aruna Sunderlal, Director of the Bangalore School of Music, to the examination season which holds students and parents alike in thrall at this time of year.
Perhaps the concluding remarks by Sunderlal had too much of the air of finality to allow for a feeble demand for an encore to make itself heard. Either way, it was a great pity, for Ek Safar certainly made one wish the journey went on longer.