One of the great pleasures of being a critic—and one of the things that keeps me from becoming jaded—is when you find a musician or a group you've never heard before who performs music unlike anything you've ever experienced. While sometimes this means they are doing something that's truly original, other times it just means the approach they have taken to what others have done before is as fresh and invigorating as if it were brand new. However, no matter what the case is, hearing them is usually enough to remind me there are still musicians our there willing to experiment and, more importantly as far as I'm concerned, playing music for the sake of playing music—not to become rich and famous.
In recent years, as the music from various cultures from around the world has become more available, there have been more attempts at fusing the music of North America with music of other cultures. While it's obvious how many African musicians are able to find a common thread for their music with what's currently popular in North America, the same cannot be said about those from India. Yet, while there is no denying there are differences between West and East when it comes to ideas about rhythm and the structure of music, much of the East is East and West is West and the never-the-twain-shall-meet idea that has been perpetuated about music arose out of the differences between Classical Indian and European music.
Once you break away from the rigid confines of 18th and 19th century Europe when it comes to music, you suddenly see that there's plenty of common ground to be found. Now I don't know as much about classical Indian music as I'd like, but I do know that, much like jazz, improvisation around a theme is a key element. So although I remember being surprised when I first found out about the popularity of jazz in India, the more I understood about classical music in that country, the more I saw the connection. Therefore, when I first heard the New Delhi based band Indian Ocean's DVD, Indian Ocean Live In Delhi, I was not overly surprised by their sound's the marked jazz influence.
Indian Ocean has been together in its current line up since 1994, and have built up an enormous following in India. While they have played in North America before, the tour they are currently embarking on is their most ambitious to date as they are criss-crossing the United States over the next month, giving people from New Mexico to Ohio a chance to hear their unique fusion of jazz and Indian music. However, those of you planning on attending one of their concerts and anticipating seeing sitars and other instruments you associate with India will be in for something of a disappointment.
For while percussionist Asheem Chakravarty plays tabla and drummer Amit Kilarr plays the two-stringed percussion instrument from West Bengal known as the gabgubi—whose sound can be modulated by pulling the stings with one hand while simultaneously tapping out the rhythm with the other—the remainder of the instruments employed will seem very familiar. Kilarr sits behind a very conventional drum kit and the rhythm section is completed by bassist Rahul Ram while guitarist Susmit Sen rounds out the group.
One way they do differ from a great many modern jazz bands is the role vocals plays in their music. Now all four of them have been known to pitch in on vocals, but the majority of them are split between Chakravarty and Ram, with Sen and Kilarr providing mainly harmonies and background vocals as required. Chakravarty's voice in particular is extraordinarily captivating as he soars in and out among the other instruments in either a free-form flow similar to scat or singing lyrics.
While the band does introduce the songs partially in English, the lyrics are most definitely not in English, and the DVD I have was produced for an Indian audience so there was no explanation about the songs provided, let alone any liner notes. (If you buy a DVD make sure that you specify the right format as the version I have was PAL and I could only play it on the DVD writer in my computer as even my DVD Rom wouldn't play it; you want NTSC in North America, Japan, and a few other countries in the world, while most of Asia will want SECAM, and Europe and the rest of the world will want PAL.) However, I didn't find my enjoyment of the music in any way diminished by not understanding the lyrics. Chakravarty's voice in particular is so expressive that it's almost an instrument in of itself.
I think the first thing you'll be aware of when watching and listening to Indian Ocean is the fullness and richness of their sound. You might be wondering how a four piece band made up of two percussionists, a bass player and a guitarist could create music elaborate enough to be considered jazz, but that's only because you're used to how limited most pop musicians are when it comes to what they can do with their instruments. Each member of this band, it seems, is contributing to both the melody and the rhythm of each song. As a result a song builds and acquires a texture as it is played and another layer of either melody or rhythm is added. It's amazing how quickly you forget there are only four musicians playing.
Aside from stepping out from behind his drum kit to play the aforementioned gabgubi, Kilarr also picks up a recorder at one point and produces a sound so hauntingly beautiful that you look at the instrument in astonishment. I had a hard time reconciling it with the cheap plastic things we used to play in grade school, trying to play such complex songs like "Old Grey Mare" yet failing miserably. Perhaps that's what so amazing about Indian Ocean overall, the way they take conventional instruments like guitar, drums, and bass and create such incredible music. Certainly the inclusion of tabla and Chakravarty's vocals adds an element that we're perhaps not used to, but that's not enough to explain how good they are or why their music is so entrancing.
Technically speaking the concert was filmed beautifully as the cameras don't jump around all over the place from band member to band member or shot to shot, but linger long enough at each point of focus for us to appreciate what's happening on the screen. The sound is crystal clear and perfectly balanced and the DVD offers the choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and regular stereo; so no matter what your set-up you'll be able to enjoy the music.
Indian Ocean: Live In Delhi is a great introduction to an amazing band playing some of the best, most heartfelt contemporary jazz that I've heard in a long time. If you have the opportunity to catch them in concert during their current tour of North America do so. However if you're not able to attend, get a hold of this DVD and it will serve as some compensation. Indian Ocean are one of those bands that remind us why we loved music in the first place and listening to them will leave you feeling as refreshed and revived as you would after a summer storm.