Interview: Bollywood Brass Band with Jyotsna Srikanth (November 2016)

Earlier in September, the UK’s electrifying Bollywood Brass Band released their latest album, Carnatic Connections, which is an exciting collaboration with violinist Jyotsna Srikanth, that ventures away from Northern Bollywood and downwards into South Indian film music.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on the phone with the band’s projects manager and creative director, Kay Charlton. Joining the call from Edinburgh was Jyotsna Srikanth, hailed as Europe’s leading violinist rooted in the Carnatic musical tradition. While getting to know one another, I was amazed to discover that Jyotsna was initially a doctor, and had later switched career to be a professional musician, following a maternal line of musicians in her family.

Jyotsna: I used to be a medical doctor – a pathologist, and then I jumped my career to being a musician. But the music has always been there – my mother is a musician, my grandmother was a musician, and I first performed at the age of nine. And somehow, in India, you can afford to have two professions, but not here. So at that moment in my life (when I moved to the UK), I had to decide whether I would take medicine or music, along with the family. And the passion for music was so much more. So I took up music and established my organisation called Dhruv Arts – and I’ve been performing Carnatic music ever since.

Just like our conversation, their new album is full of surprises, too – and not just for listeners, but even for the musicians themselves. Carnatic Connections is a very different kind of album from what both parties have done in the past. For the Bollywood Brass Band, collaborating with Jyotsna was a whole new ball game, moving from the north into unchartered territory of the south.

Kay: This album takes us to South India, which is new territory for us, because Bollywood really is from Northern India and the Hindustani tradition. So we found new composers, like Ilaiyaraaja, who’s a massively famous South Indian composer, but I didn’t know anything about him before. And it’s a different sound, having the violin, and how you fit one violin with the brass and drums, but through the wonders of amplification it does work! Jyotsna brings a new tone to our brass and the improvisatory flair that she has just inspired us as well.

Even though collaborations and musical cultural exchanges are hardly new to Jyotsna, she, too, agreed that Carnatic Connections was very different from her previous projects.

Jyotsna: In previous albums, I’ve done traditional Carnatic music and I’ve collaborated with Swedish pop musicians, but this collaboration is very different. It’s full of brass with very strong rhythms – first of all, matching the sound or volume with the Carnatic violin. And apart from that, the general sounding – normally Indian musicians collaborate with Jazz musicians, because of the similarities in the improvisations aspect. But of course, Kay and Sarha (BBB’s other creative director) put it all together in very nice arrangements, and it’s quite comfortable. Pretty different from the normal stuff I do!

On the topic of Carnatic music, we talked more about the significance of having more representation of South Indian music on the international stage, which, as Jyotsna passionately explained, was a major reason for embarking on their Carnatic Connections collaboration.

Jyotsna: A lot of recordings go on in London – both Bollywood and South Indian. South India has a huge film market – as many as Bollywood movies – maybe even double! Even outside India, the Tamils, the Sri Lankans – it’s quite big. South Indian music is definitely different. I feel that it’s more melody-oriented and yes, I also felt that something needs to be done for the south, and when I suggested this to Mark (BBB’s manager) and Kay – why don’t we do something focused on South Indian films? – it was such a good idea, and they took it and we discussed a few actions and possibilities to come up with. And so, there is one song which is a pure, traditional South Indian composition composed by the Maharaja of Kerala, called ‘Swathi Thirunal’ , which is a proper classical composition in a very typical Carnatic raga – but in our collaboration, we made it totally different and titled ‘Deva Deva Kalayami’.

Seeing how there is such a big South Indian film market, I was curious to know more about the decision-making behind Carnatic Connections, and how they came to choose the songs that they did. While the two parties met about two years ago at a festival in Belfast, which they both performed at, it was only until a meeting at Jyotsna’s house when the new album began to start taking shape.

Kay: So we met at Jyotsna’s house and her mum cooked us some very nice South Indian food, which really got us in the mood! And we had some ideas because of A.R. Rahman, who’s songs we’re already familiar with. He’s from South India, but he writes for everyone, including Hollywood, so we wanted to include ‘Jai Ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire, which I had already arranged for the band. We also included a couple of songs that we’ve recorded before – slow songs that, once we added the violin, like ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ from the film Bombay, which is A.R. Rahman, sounded so beautiful on the violin. And also ‘Kehta Hai Mehra Dil’, which we’d recorded on a previous album, also by A.R. Rahman. But it just seemed like a good opportunity, because some songs are Tamil hits and they’re redone in Hindi in the north, so sometimes they have two versions. Anyway, so we met with Jyotsna, and she suggested lots of songs, and then me and Sarah decided which ones we preferred and we arranged half the songs each – including one original each – which is something new for this CD for us. And because we play film music, we wanted to write some original music in that style, so we found ‘Chandralekha’ – the film from 1948, and we chose this amazing 16-minute sequence at the end of the film with a drum dance and the sword fight, so that was really great for us.

Besides the songs, I was also interested in what kind of Carnatic musical elements one might be able to look out for while listening to their album, and how those elements were weaved into the brass band.

Kay: The Carnatic elements come mostly from Jyotsna’s playing, with the gamakas and the particular style of playing on the violin, which we can’t really reproduce on the brass. But we’ve tried to get those inflections, particularly on the track ‘Deva Deva’, which has a very slow ‘alap’ – the unfolding improvisation which Jyotsna does, and then we play this tune around and around and each take improvisations, so this sort of to-ing and fro-ing – or ‘jugalbandi’ in Northern Bollywood. But those were the things that were slightly different for us to try and match in Jyotsna’s playing.

The songs from their latest album, Carnatic Connections, will be featured in their upcoming gig on December 9th at Rich Mix, where the Bollywood Brass Band has performed numerous times before.

Kay: Rich Mix is one of my favourite venues – it’s quite intimate, and it will be a standing event, even though quite a few of these songs are mid-tempo songs. But then when we played on tour, Bollywood Brass Band did some of our more up-tempo songs as well. Jyotsna has also done songs on her own just as a duo with percussion – the mridangam, and she explains brilliantly to the audience about Carnatic violin and about the kind of ornamentation and the very flashy, virtuosic playing. And you can hear them on their own – the drummer and violin together, and then when we join together in the finale, you really get the full force of both styles.

Before ending the conversation, I was interested in what the future holds for the two parties, and if there are any new projects we can look out for.

Jyotsna: I’ve been working on an Indian Violin concerto, which is totally different. I also have a band called Nordic Raga with Swedish folk musicians, and in January, we’ll be collaborating with a Swedish string quartet, and I’m composing for them at present. But that’s in Sweden, but in the UK, in June, Carnatic Connections will be touring and we’re looking to perform in the summer festival next year.

Kay: And apart from continuing with what we can with Carnatic Connections, next year we’ve got two big things; A.R. Rahman’s 50th birthday – so we’re doing some gigs focusing on just Rahman’s songs – and the other thing is the anniversary of Indian Independence, 2017, so we’ll be theming some concerts around those two ideas.

These are definitely exciting times for the Bollywood Brass Band and Jyotsna, what with this sensational collaboration where brass meets strings, to even more exhilarating projects coming up on the horizon.

In collaboration with Rich Mix