Noisy Mama is a band to which musical boundaries don’t mean much as they embraced Indian classical music and jazz rock with elan

Carola Grey says she has been coming to India, especially Chennai, for over 20 years now, which would place her in the 40s, at least. She’s something of a rarity, being a woman drummer in jazz (or jazz-rock). No doubt it’s because she plays the drums and hits them as hard as the men do that she calls herself or her band “Noisy Mama”.

On Wednesday last week, performing at Chowdiah Hall on the second day of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest, she was in fine fettle, ably assisted by John Anthony on guitar, Palakkad Sreeram on vocals, flute, percussion and konnakol, Biju Paulose on keyboard and percussion, and Napier Peter Naveen Kumar on electric bass guitar. Her own pedigree includes having studied under the Carnatic legend T.V. Gopalakrishnan, and she pitched in with occasional vocals and konnakol.

Sreeram, of course, as his first name suggests, taken as it is from the place name that is included in the monikers of some of the greats of Carnatic music, comes from the tradition of south Indian classical music, but is eclectic enough to be an exponent of more than one instrument and is a vocalist too. Clearly, with him in the band and with Grey having been a regular visitor to Chennai, one could expect Noisy Mama to have a shot at blending jazz or jazz-rock with Carnatic music. And that’s what one got.

Since I arrived a little late for the concert because of Bangalore’s notorious traffic, the first number, which as Grey announced was called “MADras”, was well under way. In the half of this piece that I did get to hear, Sreeram mostly stuck to the percussion machine and threw in little vocals, improvised in the jazz manner of scat. It was on the next piece, “Mad chicks fly”, that one got to hear him on flute while Grey essayed some singing apart from her work on the drums. Besides Sreeram’s flute solo improvisation, we got some interesting stuff from Paulose, who changed the setting of his keyboard to get a sitar sound and put in a solo on it before some exchanges with Grey, the piece ending with another flute solo.

The next piece was again a Grey composition, called “Road to Goa”, this one taken from Noisy Mama’s latest album. After Sreeram opened on flute, accompanied by Paulose and Grey, Sreeram threw in a bit of konnakol or Carnatic vocal percussion, and then the main theme was played by all five musicians, Grey pitching in with a little konnakol herself. Paulose’s keyboard sitar gave us a solo and then Sreeram chimed in with a scat vocal as Paulose switched to getting a morsing sound from his keyboard.

There were then solos from Anthony, Sreeram (vocal), Anthony again, then Sreeram on flute interpolated with some scat from Grey before Sreeram took a Carnatic vocal to the crescendo at the end. Already the group had given enough evidence of its versatility, but if more were needed, we got a scat vocal from Naveen Kumar on the next piece. A couple of turns later, everyone else went off the stage while Sreeram alone was on it to give us a solo performance on his percussion machine. Grey followed after a while with a piece that was a drum solo performance into which she worked a bit of konnakol.

Obviously this was a band to which musical boundaries didn’t mean much. Energy, inventiveness, and versatility were its hallmarks.

If one hesitates to apply the term Indian classical music to it, that’s because it’s a genre whose boundaries and framework are strongly defined.

Jazz, on the other hand, is a genre defined more by its lack of boundaries – so long as one stays largely in the realm of Western music-derived ideas of melody – and by its emphasis on improvisation. There are no serious purists in jazz. So for my money, one could call this jazz rock-Indian classical fusion or one could call it just jazz, influenced by many streams. Whatever one calls it, I’d call it terrific.

List of performers

Carola Grey: Drums, vocals, konnakol and compositions

John Anthony: Lead and rhythm guitars with vocals

Palakkad Sreeram: Vocals, flute, percussions and konnakol

Biju Paulose: Keyboards and percussions

Napier Peter Naveen Kumar: Bass and vocals

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