These Carnatic musicians are fusing genres and taking over night clubs and concert halls

todayDecember 6, 2023 4

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Loud, thumping music and disco lights pulsate to the beat of the drum pad. The energy is palpable and patrons at the club are swaying their hips. Vybhav Kaushik, or ‘Vy’ as he is known, takes stage — rap is dancing on his tongue, ready to tantalise the audience. As he launches into verses of his single, ‘Bardemic’, a tale of turmoil, all eyes are on Anvita Hariharan.

Suddenly, the room is doused in the haunting, moody strains of Keeravani — a melodic scale that oozes mystique, filling the space in eerie, pensive darkness. The crowd filling New York’s popular club space, The Formula, goes wild.

“It’s more than fusion, really — we wanted to highlight different South Asian artistes and show that amongst all the differences, so many systems of art can be brought together over the same foundation: rhythm, melody, and lyrical prose,” Anvita smiles. Vy is nodding before adding that collaboration “shows respect to the roots we originate from, allowing us to play off of each other while maintaining the integrity of both styles”.

Across the US-Canadian border, Carnatic vocalist Sandeep Narayan and Toronto-based hip-hop artiste Yanchan are presenting their latest extended play (EP) ‘Arul’. Fresh out of the studio, ‘Arul’ celebrates ‘unconditional love in the face of unwavering empathy and compassion, an emotional cannon of positivity’.

It is a love letter to the boys’ unique Tamil backgrounds, their shared experiences growing up in North America, as well as exposure to hip hop, rap and R&B by day and Carnatic music by night. It tells a story of migration, a celebration of Carnatic culture and cross-cultural collaboration in today’s world. It has set the club in Toronto ablaze — perhaps, the tide for ‘fusing music’ is changing faster than we think.

Hop over to France, and the story is no different. Scatting wonder and Bangalore-based musician, Varijashree Venugopal, known for her videos seamlessly transitioning between Carnatic and jazz improvisational phrases, is joining hands with French jazz band, EYM Trio, for their first full-fledged album. Titled BANGALORE, it is a celebration of India in what Varijashree says is “all its glory”.

For some like Anvita and Vy, it is the first time collaborating, despite a shared background of Carnatic knowledge. For the others, it is a reunion — one after 15 years for Sandeep and Yanchan.

Yet, the dissimilarities pale in comparison to the shared goal: “It’s always been about creating great empowering music,” Yanchan says.

So what, then, sets these novel productions apart from the word that so many artistes shy away from, “fusion?”

Sandeep Narayan and Yanchan
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Classical coalescence

“I’m not sure,” Sandeep shrugs, “but when trying to weave together any two genres of music, I think it is important to have some knowledge of both. Otherwise, it often ends up that you are trying to fit one thing into another box, where it does not go. There needs to be a way to find out the common traits and join them together, and then the differences can be highlighted in a beautiful way.”

The others, each in their own way, are in agreement, and therein lies the cardinal difference.

Say ‘fusion’ and you imagine textural overlays, soundscapes, autotune and, for many, dissonance. But in its core, ‘fusion’ is just that: fusing two systems together in the hope of creating something magical.

Take, for example, ‘Bardemic,’ — the idea came to Vy and Anvita after witnessing a concert featuring a saxophone artiste. Of course, that seed germinated as the two sat down to ideate.

“We went through my discography, and the meaning of ‘Bardemic’ just lent itself to a dark, moody quality,” Vy says, Anvita adding that the choice of Keeravani, then, “was a perfect fit, giving her the appropriate vibe and allowing for melodic exploration in both genres due to a variety of notes and variations available.”

Funnily enough, Sandeep and Yanchan’s tale follows a similar trajectory of execution. Sandeep shares that they “settled on Nalinakanthi set against a ‘house type of beat’ almost immediately, capitalising on the transfer of energies possibly in the improvisational nature in both systems of music.”

Anvita and Vy

Anvita and Vy
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Listen to this music, and perhaps, it is a harkening back to collaborations of the past, the most obvious being the outstanding work of five-member Shakti, each individual artiste a master in his own right.

There are more: the Beatles’ use of the sitar, maybe? Not to mention the music of instrumentalists like L Shankar and Pt Ravi Shankar. Classical Indian music has made it to Hollywood in more ways than one.

Each of these musicians are an entity unto their own — honing their own craft, they represent a facet of art that requires immersion, practice, and passion.

So why collaborate?

The artistes’ thoughts range in expression: “Collaborations are what keep me inspired: the learnings are a constant process,” Varijashree shares, while Anvita says that “we are limited to the creativity that exists in our own mind, but hearing someone else’s perspective, talents, and ideas helps us explore all the different avenues that music can go to”. “Collaboration,” Vy adds, “is the nature of humanity.”

A smaller world

Sandeep Narayan and Yanchan

Sandeep Narayan and Yanchan
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

The difference? Today’s musicians have the digital world to thank. Scroll through Instagram and Facebook reels, and a plethora of musicians, emerge from the woodwork: acapella arrangements of classics, acoustic versions of film music, stripped of the original orchestral cacophony. It is all a click (or a swipe) away. Platforms like Coke Studio and Music Mojo meld with the likes of viral artistes — the Bala Boys, Abby V, and even Raja Kumari, whose artistry went so global that now, the world knows her by one, distinct track: ‘King Khan’, the title track of Jawan.

“This innovation has opened the doors to opportunities to create new musical variants that are a result of these cross-cultural collaborations,” Varijashree shares — after all, a digital introduction is what led her to EYM Trio’s bassist, Yann Phaypet. The quartet did not even rehearse. They truly met, they say, on stage.

And it facilitates more than just individual meetings, according to Anvita. “As an artiste, you’re able to visually see what engages the audience and what doesn’t. This allows us to both create music we love, but also curate performances that the audience will be inclined to experience.”

Of course, this also translates into reaching wider audiences, often from diverse backgrounds. “The spread of information is easy — as Carnatic music, this means that I have the potential to get these elements into the ears of listeners who may not think of the music this way, or perhaps have never heard of this musical style itself. Suddenly, this collaboration can give it a new audience, a new life,” Sandeep smiles.

The systems could not be less alike, and yet, improvisational techniques knit them together. From Sandeep infusing Yanchan’s hip hop rhythms with a playful Nalinakanthi to musical punches tossed back and forth by Varijashree and The Trio, the world is truly their stage: all they are, after all, are its musical players.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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