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Tagore gets a northern namaste

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GURU KOOL: British Indian tabla player Kuljit Bhamra with British saxophonist Andy Sheppard and clarinettist Arun Ghosh (below) at the Tagore Festival in Devon last week


India's most well-known poet Rabindranath Tagore was renowned for being an experimenter, ahead of his time in poetry, music, art and education, who also strove to bring the East and West together.

Roll forward to 2012. At Dartington, a medieval estate in Devon, England, last weekend, Arun Ghosh, a British clarinettist, of Bengali descent, performed alongside Mercury Prize-nominated Bengali-British pianist Zoe Rahman, a tabla player and other musicians at a festival to pay tribute to the Bard of Bengal. During the performance, Ghosh played his own interpretations of five Tagore songs, which included Je tore pagol bole.

"There are always going to be traditionalists who want to see it done traditionally, " Ghosh, whose parents immigrated to the UK from Kolkata, says. "You weren't allowed to rearrange it for years because of copyright issues, but now it is in public domain, people are allowed to. " The 35-year-old justifies his rearrangement by pointing out that Tagore was a great innovator too, who set Bengali lyrics to old Irish and Scottish tunes.

Traditionally, Tagore's songs were performed with just the voice, tabla and harmonium in a sombre, melancholic, religious tone, he explains. "I wanted to change that and create something high energy because I thought the way they were being delivered contrasted with the lyrics that were quite transcendental and exciting. I wanted to create a new sound with Tagore's music. I did not change the lyrics or melodies but restructured the elements. I took the chorus and I did not change the tune but changed the structure and tempo. I started to develop bass lines and drum patterns. So I created an electronic score with beat driven music, added chords and chose a Bengali folk singer who was not trained in Tagore songs. " It received a standing ovation.
Ghosh received classical western training as a clarinettist. He read music at Cambridge before going to the Royal Northern College of Music for his postgraduate diploma. Later, inspired by his Indian Bengali roots, folk music and improvisation, he left the western orchestral world behind. He felt that western musicians performing the likes of Mozart and Brahms were under pressure to create the same sounds over and over again. "That's not how I saw it. I saw Brahms as free and passionate, " he says.

So, he turned to jazz and to Indian music, teaching himself about raags and taals, listening to recordings of Bauls and tabla and absorbing that into his own style. "When I started learning South Asian music I realised that this was the sound for me and I instinctively felt I knew how to play it and I started to feel good about playing it and about composing my own music, " he says.

He chose to use Bengali folk music in his compositions because it was about melody, rhythm and feeling, expressing a wide range of emotions, which is what he wanted to do as a performer, whereas Indian classical music was about having a lifetime of training, which he had not had. After completing his studies, Ghosh remained in Manchester and composed experimental jazz music for stage productions. But it was his debut at the London Jazz festival in 2007 that catapulted him into the limelight. Together with Nitin Sawhney's tabla player and Asian Dub Foundation's bass player, he performed his own sound for the first time, bringing him to the attention of the London jazz press and inspiring him to release his first album, Northern Namaste (2008).

He saw the album as his sound rather than a fusion of Indian music and jazz, a sound of everything that has influenced him as an Indian music fan, jazz "and beyond". He says for him his sound is about "being truthful to art forms, cultures and traditions", which, he claims "you can only get that from being brought up in both worlds".

On a different night at the festival, tabla player Kuljit Bhamra sat on the stage dressed in a black kurta adding an Indian flavour to the sounds emanating from British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, dressed in a black linen jacket and shades. Sometimes Bhamra was fast, sometimes mellow, sometimes he created funky deep beats. Sometimes it was improvised, sometimes it wasn't. Bhamra, who was awarded an MBE in 2009, moved to Southall in London at the age of two from Kenya, where his Punjabi parents had been living.

In 2000, the duo had appeared on the London music scene together. They had met by chance at a recording studio and decided to collaborate. Bhamra had spent the 1980s mixing Punjabi folk music with western instrument and beats to create the British bhangra sound.

He remains critical of the traditional tabla scene in India, describing it as inhabited by gurulike figures in which showmanship, fastness of the hand, and gimmicks rule, and says it has "lost its soul". Instead, he likes to experiment with the tabla with the likes of Sheppard. The duo have produced two albums: Movements in Colour and Dancing Man & Woman. One regret they both have is their music is not being heard by an Asian audience. They have been pigeon-holed in the jazz scene. But they have not yet had a gig in Southall, which has a large Punjabi community, despite Bhamra living there. As for any Tagorean influence on their music, Sheppard says: "There was no Tagore influence. I just came to do a gig. I do not know any of his music" He was inspired by American saxophonist John Coltrane, who pioneered a freer, more abstract jazz in the 1960s. He now plays with musicians from different cultures all the time and he says he finds that a lot more interesting than "playing straight jazz". "I am doing what is totally natural to me, " he continues. "It is just about playing music. Music is an international passport. If you go to Africa you should play with their musicians and learn by osmosis. " Perhaps he, like Ghosh and Bhamra, unknowingly has a Tagorean soul.

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