Maverick violinist Balabhaskar is one of the first musicians to introduce Indo-Western fusion to audiences in Kerala. Ten years on, Balabhaskar is equally known for his agile bowing as a classical violinist as well as for his panache on stage in concerts with legends such as Zakir Hussain, Louis Banks, Mattannur Sankarankutty, Fazal Qureshi, Vikku Vinayakram and Ranjit Barot, to name a few. The young musician recently became the first Malayali to perform at the Montreal International Jazz festival, the world's biggest jazz fete. The Thiruvananthapuram-based Balabhaskar also recently released his debut instrumental fusion album ‘Let it B,' a blend of jazz, hip hop, rock and techno music woven around the violin. The album features many of those legends with whom he has shared the stage, and is set to lyrics composed in Sanskrit, which this Sanskrit post-graduate says has been intentionally done to “bring out the fact that Sanskrit can be associated with something other than spirituality.” Balabhaskar talks about his journey in fusion music. Excerpts from an interview….
Foray into fusion music
Even though I am a trained classical violinist, I've always been open to all kinds of music. My guru and uncle [Carnatic musician B. Sasikumar] never stopped me from exploring music and his only dictum was that I adhere to tradition when I play a classical concert. While growing up, I was inspired by Ilaiyaraja's landmark Indo-Western classical fusion albums, ‘How to Name It' and ‘Nothing but Wind,' and by the music of the maestros of Indian classical fusion, violinists L. Shankar and L. Subramaniam. When I was in class nine, A.R. Rahman burst onto the music scene bringing with him a completely new style of music. I was intrigued enough to experiment with fusion with my school band [at Government Model School, Thiruvananthapuram]. I learnt the basics of composing fusion and running a band while at school, and later kicked into top gear with bands Confusion and Big Indian Band.
Idea of fusion
There is no such thing as a definition for fusion. In fact, all music is fusion. Carnatic music is a fusion of seven notes, an Indian classical concert is a fusion of instruments and vocal…It then depends on how you approach fusion. First off, you must have the ability to accept different kinds of music. Then whatever you create will have a flavour of fusion. It should be a natural blend of whatever music you have listened, learnt and accepted. Fusion is not about cutting and pasting different genres together. The key is to maintain the flow of various genres as a cohesive unit. Good fusion muisc is one that flows organically from one genre to another.
The process of organically meandering from one genre to the other
I always say that you should fill yourself with music if you want to produce music! It's not a difficult process once you have that wider sense of acceptance. The process is something that gives you more pleasure than pain. Of course, you have those moments when you wonder why it's just not working out. It's when you consider the process of creativity as a task that things become difficult.
Initially when I started out (in the late 1990s–early 2000s) it was very difficult to find an audience. Most people were only aware of classical and/or film music, and as a term ‘fusion' was much misinterpreted. We (Big Indian Band) had to educate and create awareness among listeners about fusion music, often interspersing it into regular concerts to pique their interest. We even had a show on Asianet Plus called ‘The Big Band Show' where we jammed with veteran musicians such as vocalist Neyyattinkara Vasudevan, Kathakali singer Kalamandalam Hyderali, chenda exponent Mattannur Sankarankutty and so on. Youngsters, though, were quick to get on board because as a genre it was something fresh. Nowadays people welcome fusion without question and often demand pure fusion – meaning instrumental fusion – concerts.
The violin in a fusion concert
Violin has a lot of scope in fusion. With the violin one can traverse gamakas in Carnatic music as easily as one can navigate vibratos in Western classical music, making it a perfect instrument for fusion. Moreover, by virtue of being taught to seamlessly blend the violin with the classical vocal, very violinist, in a sense, is a fusion artiste.
Playing with greats
I've had the opportunity to play fusion with some of the all time greats such as tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and his brother Fazal Qureshi, Louis Banks – the godfather of Indian jazz and his son and drummer, Gino Banks, Grammy-winning saxophonist Tim Garland, bass guitarist Dominic de Piazza, drummer Ranjit Barot, and so on. I invited Louis Banks for a concert for the Volvo Ocean Race and then he began inviting me for concerts. One of the best experiences of my life was playing with him at the Montreal International Jazz festival – undoubtedly a pinnacle of my career. Fazal introduced me to Zakirji around six months ago. What does one experience when you meet God? Awestruck? Lost for words? That was exactly what I felt when I met the legend. And imagine my state of mind when a couple of months ago Zakirji invited me for a concert in Mumbai, along with Ranjit Barot! Zakirji is phenomenal on stage, always encouraging with a sabash if you performed well. Before playing with these legends, I always used to think I should play my best for myself, for my satisfaction. Then I realised that a good fusion artiste plays his best to smooth the way for fellow artistes to play their best.
Keywords: violinist Balabhaskar