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Interview: Rahul Ram Of Indian Ocean

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Earlier this month I reviewed a DVD by the band Indian Ocean who make their home in New Delhi, India. Watching Live In Delhi I was struck by not only how gifted the four members of the band were musically, but by the fact that although the music sounded familiar there was something distinctly different about it.

It wasn't just the fact that those songs with lyrics weren't sung in English, or the drummer stepped out from behind his kit at one point to play a percussion instrument called a gabgubi, or the fact that the percussionist sat cross legged behind his tabla and other instruments. It was like eating a really delicious dish made up of recognizable ingredients but what made it interesting were spices you couldn't identify; there was something more to it than what met the eye, or in this case, the ear.

Over the course of an almost hour and a half long conversation that I had on Wednesday September 30, 2009 with Rahul Ram, bass player for the band, we talked about everything from the history of the band, the type of music each of them had been playing before they were in Indian Ocean, how they go about writing their songs, and what types of music has influenced them.

As we talked it became clear that there was no simple answer to the question, what makes Indian Ocean sound like they do, but rather it's a combination of all those elements above. Maybe there are certain ingredients that have a stronger influence on the sound than others, but you'll have to listen to their music and decide that for yourself. For now, read what Rahul has to say about himself and the rest of the band; Amit Killam (drums, gabgubi, recorder, vocals) Susmit Sen (guitar) and Asheem Chakravarty (percussion,tabla, vocals).

Can you tell me a little about the band's history and how you ended up with your current line up?

Well, Susmit and Asheem have actually been playing together since they were in collage in 1984, but they didn't form the band until 1990. I think they went through something like three bass players that first year until I joined them in 1991. I had known Susmit when we were both in junior school. He hadn't been interested in music then at all, so when I ran into him in 1991 and he told me he had a band I was really surprised. They had made a demo in 1990 – I think Susmit had sold one of his guitars to pay for it – but nothing much came from it.

Where did the name Indian Ocean come from?

It was actually Susmit's dad who came up with the name. It was before I had joined and they were sitting around one day talking about names for the band and his dad was sitting at the table eating, and he said, why not call yourselves Indian Ocean?. They all liked it and the name stuck.

Now Amit didn't join you until 1994 right?

Yes that's right, our drummer had left the band, and we saw Amit playing in a rock band and we really liked him and so asked him to join. He was still in college at the time so he's quite a bit younger then the rest of us. I think he was twenty-one then, and I was thirty, thirty-one when he joined.

When did you put out your first recording?

It was actually before Amit joined us, in 1993. We got a recording contract with HMV and put out a cassette – this was in the days before CDs had come to India. Typical for a first album we called it Indian Ocean because we couldn't think of anything else to call it. HMV did absolutely nothing to promote it, and in the end we went to them and begged them for twenty copies which we took around to the various media in Delhi asking them to listen to it and review it for us. Nothing much really came of it – I think we did one concert before Amit joined us in 94.

How about since then – you've released four more CDs and the DVD now haven't you?

Yes, that's right. In 1997 we released Dessert Rain, in 2000 Kandisa, Jhini in 2003, and Black Friday in 2005. The DVD, Live In Delhi, came out in 2008.

Black Friday is the soundtrack from a movie isn't it?

That's right. Black Friday was about the bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993, and although both the movie and the CD were finished in 2004/5 they couldn't be released until 2007 because they both named people who were involved in the bombings who had not yet gone to trial. So the movie and the soundtrack couldn't be released because they were afraid it would influence the public's opinion such that it wouldn't be possible for the accused to get a fair trial. Funnily enough the movie was based on a book, but the defence didn't seem to care about whether that was published or not. I guess they didn't figure as many people read as go to movies in India. (laughs)

(Anyone interested in a more in depth history of the band check out the story so far link at their web site)

Can you tell me a little about each of your backgrounds musically – what type of music were you each playing before you joined Indian Ocean?

Well I was playing bass in a rock and roll band since I was in junior school. I guess I started back in the late seventies and just kept playing ever since. Asheem has the least Western background of all of us as his mother was a folk singer so he grew up surrounded by that type of music. He decided he wanted to play tabla and he taught himself. He learned by watching and listening to all the music that was being played around him in his house.

We're all from Northern India so we grew up with that style of music around us all the time. Its different from the Southern classical tradition because it has far more room for improvisation in it, so I'm sure that's effected all of us and the way we play. Of course Bollywood music is the other big influence on all of us, as its everywhere and you can't help but absorb it. Amit, is the one who knows the most Bollywood music of all of us though, and he'll come up with these truly awful songs and start singing them to us – it's horrible. He'll say -"hey listen to this" and start singing some really bad song he picked up somewhere.

He's a great drummer though, from the first time we saw him play we knew we wanted him to play with us. A friend of mine says what's so great about Amit is he automatically makes whoever he plays with better. There's just something about him and how he plays that pushes you to be better and he plays so well that you can't help but sound good. He's from Kashmir originally and his family moved here (Delhi) when things started to get really bad there in the 1980's. (The province of Kashmir has long been disputed territory between Pakistan and India and in the 1980's there were constant skirmishes between the two sides including terrorist attacks)

He originally wanted to be a guitar player, but eventually decided on drums. You mentioned the gabgubi that he plays in your review of the DVD (The gabgubi is a percussion instrument with either one or two plucked strings. To play it you tuck it under your arm and pluck the string(s) with the opposite hand while taping the skin with the other) Well there's a version whose name ends up translating into English as "armpit child" because of the way you have to hold it.

Like I said earlier Susmit didn't even start playing guitar until he was in collage. Like most people his family listened to music, but there were no musicians in his family, so for him to decide to do this was very different. It was his father who got him his first guitar, and he got him a Martin. Susmit is very interested in Hindustan classical music and trying to play it on guitar so has worked a lot on evolving the means to play that type of music.

You've already mentioned some of the types of music that have influenced the band, but have there been any bands, musicians or styles of music that have been a big influence on you personally. When I first heard you I immediately thought of Weather Report

Oh yeah I love them. I remember the first time I heard Heavy Weather it was great. Aside from them musicians like Al Di Meola, Jaco Pastorius, and Victor Wooten are all guys I listen to and really like. We all have different influences, but one that we all have in common, because like I said earlier you can't live in India without hearing it, is Bollywood. It's playing everywhere, on the buses, in taxis, on the radio, in stores. I don't think as a musician you can help being influenced by Bollywood whether you want to or not.

Is there a particular part of India where the band is most popular, or do you have audiences all over India?

Our audience is pretty much spread through out India. It was between 1995 and 2001 that we started getting known throughout India, but it wasn't until 2005 that we became really popular. We had thought that we could make it without having to do any work with Bollywood, but it wasn't until a video of one of the songs from the Black Friday soundtrack was released in 2005 that we really broke through. What they did when they couldn't release the whole film was make up a video out of some clips from the movie and of us performing to a shortened version of the song "Bandeh". MTV and places like that make you do that to your music if you want to get it played. Much like radio over here in North America you can't have a song eight minutes long, so they cut it down to make it fit. It went on to be a hit and as result we started to get more gigs.

Initially we had only been playing in the major metropolitan areas where there were populations of ten million people or more, but when that song became a hit and everybody began to hear it we began to get requests to play everywhere and were offered more money as well. The good thing was that people would come to hear the Bollywood hit, but then really like the rest of our music too. However without that one song we wouldn't be anywhere near as popular today as we are now. Film music is still the key to success in India because it's heard by everyone everywhere. We currently have a couple of film projects in hand, and are in fact sitting on an album release called Bhoomi – which translates as "Earth" into English – until they release the movie. It's been ready since 2007 so we're starting to get a little impatient.

How do you come up with your new material – does one of you come up with an idea and present it to the group and you build around that, do you each write songs and teach them to the others, or do you have some other way of doing things?

All of our songs are created through jam sessions basically. We'll get together and sit around in a circle facing each other and improvise around an idea. However we work in a different way then most North American jazz musicians whose improvisations are chord based in that ours are scale based.

I'm not a musician so you'll have to explain the difference between them for me

It's simple really, with scale based improvisations it means you can only use the notes contained within a certain scale, which means you don't play any harmonies. Listen to someone like Coletrane playing "A Few Of My Favourite Things", and even when he's playing the familiar tune (he hums a few bars of "Favourite Things" from The Sound Of Music) he's also playing chords that harmonize with the tune but which are from a different scale. The way we work is a traditional style of arrangement taken from Indian classical music where musicians can play anything they want as long as they only make use of the notes in a particular scale.

What about lyrics – I know not all of your songs have them, but some do

We don't write any of our own lyrics. Some of them are from traditional folk tunes and are sung in their original language, while the other lyrics have been written by either Sanjev Sharma or Biyush Mishra. Biyush wrote the lyrics for the songs in the Black Friday soundtrack, while Sanjey has written the rest of our original songs. All of our original songs, whether by Sharma or Mishra, are in Hindi.

How does that work with Sanjey when it comes to writing the lyrics – do you send him tapes or something?

Well he lives in Mumbai, so we could send him the tracks by MP3 if he wanted but he likes to watch us play the music he's going to write for because he says he wants to look at our faces while we're playing so he gets some idea as to what we're thinking of and what we're feeling while playing the music. So I'll let him know when we have some music ready that we would like to have lyrics for and he says while I'll be in Delhi in a few months and I can come by then.

Why don't any of you write your own lyrics?

Well, truly, none of are really that good. (laughs)

What's been the reaction to your music like in other countries – do people expect you to be an Indian band with sitars and tabla?

The reaction has been great everywhere we play. The first time we played in America was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002 that was organized by Yo Yo Ma. He had a band that came on right after us, (The Silk Road Ensemble). He really liked what we were doing. He said we had taken Indian music where he'd like to take traditional Chinese music and expressed an interest in working with us. Idiots that we were we never followed up on that.

Everywhere we've gone we've found people to be open to and appreciative of the music we play. In Russia we were really surprised at how much older Russian ladies were enjoying the music, they were bouncing up and down and having a great time.

What is it about touring and playing live concerts that you like so much – you've played something like 600 shows in twenty different countries haven't you?

Well first of all we get to see places we never would have seen otherwise. For instance New Zealand, it was beautiful and inexpensive. We stayed on there for a while after our last show and travelled around. However, I just love concerts the most no matter where they are because I feel really alive when playing in front of an audience. With our songs being improvised to begin with, when we play live we can change things. I mean nothing is written down so there's no way anybody can give you a hard time for changing the way you do something. That way you can play the same song 600 times and never play it the same way twice. Of course with improvisation there has to be a fine balance and you can't get self-indulgent otherwise you mess up the song.

You're just finishing up your seventh tour of the US is that right

Yes, our first time was in 2002, but after that we didn't come back until 2005. After 9/11 the American government imposed some really ridiculous restrictions on bands coming over from our part of the world. Before they would give you a visa they would want to know things like the seating plans of every place you were going to play in six months in advance, and they would want the tax returns for the previous five years of anyone who was going to book you. It would also cost $3,000 to apply for the temporary work visa and there was no guarantee you would be given the visa just because you applied and even if you had all the paper work filled out. So promoters had to be willing to book you to perform even though there was no guarantee that you would even be allowed into the country. Now who is going to book you under those conditions. Of course we found out later that not many of these restrictions are enforced, they're only there to discourage those who aren't serious about applying. We've now hired people over in America to take care of this for us so it's much easier now.

Is it any easier to get into Canada

Oh yes, all you need is a letter from the venue booking you saying that you are playing there and you can get your visa in three days.

Right now you can only buy your music in North America on line, are there any plans for getting formal distribution in place in the future

Yes we are working on that now, we've been meeting with various companies over here, to see about working something out. We're going to meet with somebody from Cumbancha in Boston, but it's going slowly.

What's next for Indian Ocean

Well like I said we are waiting to release our new CD, and we have lots of other music we want to finish off and we would like to do some more recording. Pretty much more of the same.

It was then that Rahul realized it was 12:30 pm and he was in danger of missing a train if we didn't say good bye. So I quickly thanked him very much and wished him well. I hope that you've been able to get a better impression of the type of music Indian Ocean play from reading this interview. However you really can't appreciate their sound without giving it a listen. All of their CDs are available for download through I-Tunes of course, but if you're like me and prefer hard copies of material you can buy all their CDs and their DVD at the Indian Ocean online store based out of Canada. Make sure if you order the DVD to request the right format as it comes in both PAL and NTSC and in order to play over here it has to be NTSC. The prices are listed in rupees but it's a Canadian based site so don't worry about that. Of course they still have a couple more dates left to play in the US so you can always catch them live in Philadelphia on October 3rd at Harrison Auditorium at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in Boston on October 4th at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub at 472 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, in New York City at BB Kings Blues Club 237 West 42nd St, on October 9th, or the final stop on their American tour before heading out, the University of Cincinnati at the Kresge Auditorium on October 10th.

After watching their DVD and talking to Rahul, I'd say it would be well worth your while to check them out live if you have the opportunity to do so. If not make the little extra effort involved to pick up one of their CDs, you won't be disappointed.

I'd just like to thank Rahul Ram for taking time out of his day to talk with me about the band and their music. Someday I can hope they might even come to Kingston Ontario – stranger things have happened.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.