The multifolkloral urban improvised music produced by Mahaphon Clang lived up to expectations
If words from Sanskrit, Greek and English make up the name of a band, and its members are from Cologne in Germany (but one of them is an Indian expat), what would one expect its music to be? Well, I confess I thought the blurb was a bit provocative and perhaps slightly over the top in promising “multifolkloral urban improvised” music, with elements of free jazz, Carnatic music, European avant-garde, Tamil pop, bhangra beat, Bollywood, funk, and dub-step, though I confess I’m a total stranger to at least some of these genres (viz., dub-step and bhangra beat).
So I did the next best thing when I got to B Flat Bar on February 15. I went in with an open mind but I had a mild prejudice that I’d get at least a fair dose of jazz since almost any modern music with a stiff shot of improvisation can be slotted as jazz.
And so Mahaphon Clang (Maha = great, phon = sound, clang = clang!) proved to be an experiment in jazz, loud but not unpleasantly so, spiced up with various influences. Wary of labelling their improvised music as any other genre, though, they call it “music of the moment”. That meant it was supposed to be all totally improvised for the occasion – hence no titles were given to the pieces – but at least one tune was strongly reminiscent of Ramesh Shotham’s favourite “Mallari”, inspired by Carnatic music, as he himself mentioned.
Yes, Shotham was on hand, back on his annual visit to the stamping-ground of his youth, with an awesome array of percussion instruments, this time augmented by what Ramjee Chandran, sitting in the audience, thought looked like a string of vertebrae. (I counted them and found there were exactly 33, as I believe the human spinal column should have!) Shotham’s young collaborators in Mahaphon Clang, who themselves are known as Lautstark!4 (= Vociferous!4 in German) are Matthias Kurth on electric guitar, Jan Friedrich Kurth on vocals (augmented occasionally by a pocket-sized loud-hailer), Demian Kappenstein on drums and “percussion objects” and Lutz Adrian Streun on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet.
That the band played six pieces lasting about 90 minutes on either side of a short interval shows how strongly and deeply improvised the music was. M. Kurth on guitar was in action most of the time (except during some passages when only his brother J.F. was singing/ shouting/ loud-hailing, accompanied by drums and percussion), while Streun’s work, equally divided between tenor sax and bass clarinet, was more intermittent but with strong solo improvisations when he was in action. J.F. Kurth’s vocals, evidently consisting almost entirely of scat singing or what could be described either as shouting or chanting, were less obviously improvisatory but both he and his brother contributed to the impromptu aspect of the music.
Kappenstein’s drum work, mostly unaugmented by the alleged percussion objects, was neat and tasteful, a delight when he came into the spotlight for a longish solo that was followed by exchanges between him and Shotham. This percussion duet was augmented in part by Shotham’s vocal percussion, the Carnatic konakol, which made brief occasional appearances at other moments too. There were times when Kappenstein got quieter than usual by beating the drums with his palms.
Shotham as always gave a stellar performance, using cymbals and mini-drums alongside a version of a bongo and the instrument that’s made like a wooden box, the cajon, and that I’ve heard on a few earlier occasions. Gently coaxing rhythms out of it at times with his palms and at times with brush-ended drumsticks, Shotham proved to be the subtlest exponent of this instrument, as he is with other elements of his percussion kit too.
The band interacted well together and have obviously practised a lot to improvise their music, the individual contributions dovetailing neatly and giving everyone his own spot in the limelight and responding to one another. It was obvious that all of them had a good basic grounding in jazz; Shotham implied as much when he said they could play be-bop or bossa nova, but preferred not to be pigeon-holed. And so I was glad that my prejudice was proved correct!