THE SUNDAY INTERVIEW Magazine

Taking life as it comes

Rahul Ram.

Rahul Ram.  

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Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram talks about the band’s latest album, the process of making music and activism.

In 1857, a local chieftain named Cheetu fought in the mutiny and lost. His bungalow was then turned into a jail that is still in use and a song written about him. Years later, in 1993, many Narmada Bachao Andolan activists were arrested and sent to this jail where they would sing Cheetu’s song. Among them was Rahul Ram, bass guitarist and vocalist of Indian Ocean.

Nothing about Rahul is ordinary. He spent a considerable number of years studying Chemistry in Delhi, Kanpur and Cornell. He is part of a band that spearheaded the fusion rock genre in the country over two decades ago. He has also volunteered for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Last year, Cheetu’s song found its place in Tandanu, Indian Ocean’s latest album and collaborative project with seven Indian artists.

How did the idea for this album come about?

A collaborative album was on our mind for a while. We even posted on our website asking our fans for suggestions. For instance, we wanted to work with Carlos Santana. Of course, we realised that is impossible. We then thought of inviting musicians in India. It was going to cost us a lot to fly them in and out of the studio. Eventually what happened was that the collaborators chose themselves for the project. Shankar — who had performed 'Tandanu', the song that gave the album its name, with us at the Storm Festival in Coorg — said we must call him when we decide to record the track. In October 2012, we spent a day with Vishwamohan Bhatt. We're familiar with his music and like it. We have been working with Shubha Mudgal and had jammed with Karsh Kale and Vishal Dadlani too. Kumaresh is the only one we knew the least. But we loved the man. So we decided to work with him. We also wanted to collaborate with Bombay Jayashri but that did not work out. Hariprasad Chaurasia was not free and Zakir Hussain said “You guys will beat me!”

Almost every song by Indian Ocean stands out. What is the process of producing these songs?

A lot of it is produced during jamming sessions. One of us gets an idea and we go along with it. You know if the idea is promising or not after listening to it for 10 minutes. If we think it is fantastic, we keep it or else we move on.

Have you ever attempted to write lyrics?

We are just not good enough at writing lyrics of our own!

You’ve also borrowed a lot from tribal music. How do they react when they hear their tune being reworked in your album?

For instance, we used a part of a tune we learned from the Santhals and reworked it for one of our compositions. We also used another part of the same tune for another song. In the Santhals’ case, I think they were happy to hear that their tunes had been adapted.

What do you think is the best model for selling music?

CDs are definitely not a viable model and have never been one. They are not like the cassettes that sold so well in the 1980s and 1990s. I would personally prefer to get into a space where you can convince people to pay for downloads. For example, the pay-through-your-cell phone bill model is interesting where you can buy a song for Rs. 10. That sort of framework needs to be developed. It may not work for film music because people know the different ways in which films make money. I think it will work for independent music though.

What about the music festival circuit? What is a good launch pad for independent musicians?

Oh the music festival circuit is great. However, I feel that the same bands are playing in all of them. I'm sure there is a broader pool of talent. Perhaps, the ones programming the festival feel that they need headliners that will attract audiences and are not willing to take risks. These festivals rarely give new bands a chance. The internet is a good launch pad for independent musicians and platforms like Sound Cloud work too.

What do you think about the argument that a lot of traditional/folk music and musicians are lost in this age of fusion and Bollywood?

Depends on which side of the fence you are on. For instance, in Champaran district in Bihar, we met some musicians who are now using octapad and keyboard in their performances. Some could say that folk music is getting killed but these musicians feel that they are now becoming more relevant to their audience. Purists criticise but remember that these musicians are competing with Bollywood. For folk musicians, trying new instruments would feel like he or she is producing new songs. This is evolution. The logic is simple: as a musician you need to survive. While it is okay for you to perhaps own a cellphone and become modern, it’s not okay for him to change?

You’ve spoken about the genre of protest music, most of which originated in movements of the Left. What do you think is the Left’s relationship with the genre of protest music today?

Where are the new songs from the Left? The ones that are there now are the ones that have been left behind from another era. The context for those songs is gone. The concerns of the old Left are not valid anymore. The Indian farmer today does not feel like he is one with the farmer in Russia, for instance. The ‘workers of the world unite’ kind of thing is no longer relevant. Sab khatam hogaya. Issues relating to the environment, caste, displacement and a number of urban issues are coming to the fore today. Yes, the Left has, perhaps, given a framework for music of this sort. And then there are some songs that are still relevant. Like ‘ gar ho sakay’ which we have used in our album and Bhagwan Maji's ‘ gao chodab nahi’.

You were an active part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. What is your take on activism today?

We lost NBA. There is nothing more to say. About activism, generally, we are not headed into a good space and this is not because of the BJP. The growing trend of exploitation of natural resources is disturbing. The party in power does not make a difference and a lot of it is determined by industrial interest. Of course, anyone who protests against this is called anti-national and it is no coincidence that there is a movement like Naxalism. I’m an environmentalist and I believe that unbridled growth should come with some constraints. We cannot let things continue because someone wants to make a quick buck.

You mentioned that your album had corporate sponsors. How do you reconcile corporate interest encouraging exploitation of natural resources on the one hand and fuelling some fantastic music production on the other?

One does not know what else to do. If I, as a musician, don’t use the opportunities, I wouldn’t be anywhere. I’m not anti-company. But, yes, we should be aware of what else they are up to. In fact, more importantly, they need to be aware of what else they are up to.

What do you think of the kind of music that is coming out of reality television shows?

Music is not produced in reality shows. They just imitate other singers. And, the idea of producing a song in two days on reality television does not make any sense.

What about composing for film music?

It really depends on the director. Both Anurag Kashyap and Prakash Jha were very laidback. The director knows his film best and has an overall idea. So we as musicians must listen to them. In our own productions, we are the ones deciding. The constraints are obviously a lot lesser.

Describe the current scene for music production? And what are your plans after this?

It is the best music scene in years, according to me. Bollywood has increasingly started using bands and the format has changed from a one music director per film to a collaborative model. We are now focusing on Tandanu and then a holiday. One of the songs in this album is a song called ‘Behne Do’. I’d like to think we take life as it comes.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2019 5:15:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/indian-oceans-rahul-ram-talks-about-the-bands-latest-album-the-process-of-making-music-and-activism/article6344978.ece

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