Teachings of the sensei

Some of India’s leading independent musicians were in town to show students how to think and live music

October 23, 2018 03:29 pm | Updated 03:29 pm IST

“Musically uneducated” is hardly a term one would associate with Baiju Dharmajan, the lead guitarist from one of India’s earliest rock bands, Motherjane. And yet, that is how he described himself. Baiju was one of six leading independent musicians who shared his experience with students at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, and among four who had short chats with MetroPlus .

If you ask Baiju, what students need to learn is not just musical techniques, but what it means to live out one’s life as a musician. “Being in a rock band comes with its own set of challenges: travelling and composing together all the time will take its toll,” said Baiju over the phone. He went on to explain, “A band will have five different members, coming from five different lifestyles and upbringings. You have to learn how to live with one another. Otherwise, like most bands, once you get a certain level of fame, monetary issues and ego clashes will come up, disbanding the group.” After all, once a student graduates, be it in any field, “it’s a jungle out there”.

Baiju is known for bringing in a tinge of the Carnatic into his guitar solos. However, he doesn’t believe in classifying music into one type. “Constructing a guitar solo is like cooking. The ingredients may be the same, just the execution is different.”

An extended self

Another veteran guitarist, Kolkata-based Amyt Datta, spoke of the instrument as if it were part of his own self. “The guitar is a very serious and deep instrument. (When you play a guitar) you are expressing your personal sonic emotions through it,’ said Amyt over email, echoing his TEDx Talk at Jadavpur University last year, where he had demonstrated the parallels between music and life by showing how, in both areas, finding a balance between surprise and variety is important to find harmony. “I want to teach the students to think out of the box,” said Amyt, who himself has been working on his project ZIBA this year, combining sounds from across the world, Africa to West Asia. “ZIBA is a multilingual sounding band with fast grooves and aggressive improvisation. In Persian, ziba means fighting for good, and we are attempting to put all of that feeling into the music. Music unites people even when everything else divides. Ziba is about ‘festival’ music which brings people together,” he said.

Radha Thomas, eponymous vocalist of the band UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble, taught the students her own methods of producing a song, which, she said via email, “are unorthodox. I use iPhones and voice recordings”. Radha’s band is known for combining Indian fusion with jazz and blues, and she shifts the focus back to song writing. Teaching the students that words of a song are just as important as the tune, she said. “I call it the ‘Language of Song’. It encompasses both music and lyrics.” She was accompanied by band member Aman Mahajan, along with whom she is starting another project.

Talking to students about the need to experiment with styles of music, was Jayen Varma, inventor of the slap bass style in which the fingerpicking technique resembles slapping of the mridangam or tabla . “I’m teaching the students percussive guitar techniques and how to make odd timings easy,” he said. But more importantly, he shared with the students the perseverance of an innovator: sticking to one’s guns despite all the naysayers.

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