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A piano pundit

NEHA MUJUMDAR
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MUSIC Pianist and arranger Christophe Chassol is fascinated with a certain idea of India, which he taps in his new-age performance

YOU CAN’T JUST WALK INWith a backpack and play, says Christophe ChassolPhoto : Bhagya Prakash K.
YOU CAN’T JUST WALK INWith a backpack and play, says Christophe ChassolPhoto : Bhagya Prakash K.

Early in our conversation, drummer Sebastian Tellier comes up and tells me, “He’s a genius, huh? You just got to write that.”

When you’re talking about Christophe Chassol, that’s a tempting proposition, to just call him a genius and leave it at that.

The pianist-composer-arranger from France, in the city recently to play a gig at the Alliance Francaise, is something of a phenomenon. Watching him play is perhaps the best way to experience that: his maniacal, restless movement from the many keyboard instruments he has set up; his frenzied grooving to the beat; his careless, cool improvisations on the piano.

But I won’t leave it at that, and will instead tell you about INDIAMORE, the July 2012 film which he shot in Varanasi and Kolkata. The film features the typical thing a Westerner might fall in love with in India – a local’s rhapsodizing about the Ganga, an enthusiastic elderly man explaining the nuances of a theka , or a group of classical dancers and singers.

These scenes, with recorded music and chants are played as loops, over which Christophe – and a drummer – play live.

Played repetitively and often arbitrarily, these fragments lose their meaning, and become props, somewhat objectified and exoticised. Of course, India isn’t only Varanasi and Kolkata, and Christophe says it was a simple logistical consideration that didn’t allow him to shoot other aspects of India. “I cannot do everything. Frankly, going only to Varanasi and Kolkata was a lot of information.”

The pianist’s fondness for fusing electronica, film, and live piano began when he started composing for films, he said, when he was 19 or 20. It was all classical music before that — his father, a saxophonist, introduced him to the piano when he was four. “But there’s no shift between classical, electronic or jazz — in my mind it’s the same thing,” he says.

The INDIAMORE show typically takes a while to set up — coordination between film, drummer, pianist and sound has to be just perfect. Does he sometimes wish he had a simpler show? “Nah, it’s the 21st century. I can’t expect to just walk in with a backpack and play,” he says.

Christophe’s INDIAMORE show has huge demand, and he is busy touring with the show. But I earlier stumbled upon a video I was curious to ask him about: a Barack Obama speech, which he masterfully harmonised with piano chords that perfectly suited the vocal tones, to make it sound like it was sung. “That speech is a good example of the American Dream – it was in Harlem, it was direct to the black community. He really wanted to be re-elected, so he said all the things he should have said,” he explains, on what attracted him to that particular speech. “We don’t have a Black president in France, we’re way behind in those terms.”

NEHA MUJUMDAR

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