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Band, baaja, Bollywood
To see the ten of them in an Indian wedding procession you'd think they were that sine qua non of all modern marriages - the firangi guests. But then you'd notice the dhol and trumpet and trombone and sousaphone and you realize, incredulously, that these white stripes are in fact that organic part of all Indian marriages - the brass band.
The Bollywood Brass Band, which is the moniker they go by, is a collective of 10 British musicians from London who took a shine to brass and, interestingly, Bollywood music. "Some of us were originally part of a band called Crocodile Style in the UK. It was a street band that played samba, jazz, funk and so on at processions, carnivals and fairs, " says Nick Cattermole, bass drummer and one of the original crocs. "It was at a Diwali procession in London in 1992 that we met the Shayyam Brass Band from Jabalpur and heard them play bhangra and Bollywood. We learnt a couple of lines from them, and went on to form the Diwali Band. "
The present lot, which includes women, got to know each other through the "brass connection", and BBB was born. Managed by an outdoor arts company in London called Emergency Exit Arts, the group has, for over two decades, been belting out B&B (Bolly and bhangra) at carnivals, concerts, culture jamborees and, unavoidably, the odd Indian wedding abroad. Then three years ago they were spotted by an enterprising entertainment agent in India called Deepak Shah, and the next thing the band knew was that they were beating out Tu cheez badi hai mast mast and Dum dum diga diga at goldclass Gujarati and Marwari weddings in Indore, Jaipur, Udaipur and Kolkata.
"We don't need much persuasion to come here in the wedding season, " grins trombonist Dave Jago. Sound Spirit, Shah's company that manages them in India, flies them in every year around November, and dispatches them back home when the season ends around February-March. What started as an investment risk - ten round-trip tickets plus accommodation costs and air freight for king-size instruments - is turning out to be a cool gamble. Jigar Shah, Deepak's scion and business hand, says, "The first year they played three events in India;this year, they've done four weddings and will return in March for two more. At every wedding there are inquiries about bookings. "
Indeed, the rich set, which believes no occasion is more opportune than a wedding to parade its wealth, now also wants to raise the ante of extraordinary by including zanier acts (and perhaps cock a snook at colonialism. ) Does it get better than an all-white (or 9/10th white) bhangra-and-Bollywood playing ensemble?
The band, of course, is having too much fun to consider these things. "There's more chaos here, and the weddings are definitely bigger - they're in palaces!" says Cattermole with exaggerated awe. They've been touring one conjugal shindig after another, playing no longer than two-hour sets at each, and, unlike their poor Indian brethren in their tatty uniforms, this lot often gets invited to the party. But then, they are a separate breed, and we're not talking Anglo-Saxon. "We play written music, and naturally we have to learn it to perform, " says soprano saxophone Sarah Moore, whose tricky duty it is to render into notation the jingle-jangle of our mongrel style. And because they don't play it by ear, there's a classical exactitude to their sound. They've got over 40 songs in their repertoire, including numbers like Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai, Mehndi laga ke rakhna, Tu cheez badi hai mast mast, Twist and Bachna ae haseeno. "They're now on to Munni and Sheila, " says Shah, bringing us up to speed.
"To write Bollywood music, which is hard to do, you have to listen to it again and again because its structure is so complicated, with odd bars and unusual sequencing, " says Moore. "But it is more satisfying precisely because of its complexity. " And while most brass bands have one or two primary players, with the rest following their lead, at BBB, everyone's vote counts, even the two oddballs from IT and publishing. "We all bring in our musical influences, " says Philippe d'Amonville, who mans the snare drum and drum-kit. Which means they play Bollywood but with undertones of jazz and funk, and sometimes go all out and remix the thing.
Indian baraats led by BBB hot-step proudly in the knowledge that theirs is certified top brass - these fellows have played for the Queen of England and her sallow son, Charles. They've also played at the Olympic Torch Relay in London, 2008, the Zee TV awards, at Oslo Opera House, London Mela 2007, and at over a dozen music festivals and events around 27 countries. They were also the ethnically appropriate openers at the unveiling of Bollywood icons at Madame Tussauds -Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan. Did we mention the four albums they've recorded;one a tribute to AR called Rahmania?
And yes, they do field requests at weddings, but what they don't know they make a note of, go home and practice. "A question we get asked a lot is, 'Do you speak Hindi?', " reports Cattermole. "When we say no, they want to know how we play Bollywood music. But you don't need to know Hindi to play Bollywood. " Because Bollywood's a curious language by itself.
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