With interest in Indian music growing, could this year's Grammys be a tipping point for the genre?
Another kind of blue
Tucked away in a converted warehouse at the end of a narrow lane in an old mill compound in midtown Mumbai, the Blue Frog club would seem an unlikely venue for the start of a musical revolution. Its smart seating booths with their clever uplighting, the gallery space and a food menu big on brie and bruschetta, slow-cooked lamb, and olive and walnut linguine are hardly the stuff of rock 'n' roll legend. But even as India's four nominees for this year's 51st Grammy awards wait nervously for the lights to go up in Los Angeles on Sunday night, the Blue Frog can already stake a claim to being the place where India finally began to wriggle free from its musical pigeonhole and started the long trek towards the international mainstream.
For many people around the world, Indian music - despite thousands of years of musical tradition - is all about well-upholstered men in kaftans sitting around playing sitars. If it is anything to them, it is the background noise coming out of the speakers in an Indian restaurant, or perhaps something to play while sitting cross-legged and trying to meditate. True to form, two of India's Grammy nominees this year - Debashish Bhattacharya for Calcutta Chronicle and Lakshmi Shankar for Dancing in the Light - appear in the Best Traditional World Music album category, a field in which India has been well represented for many years.
But what makes this year something a little special is that the other two nominees - John McLaughlin for Floating Point and the collaborative album Miles from India - appear in the contemporary jazz section. Sitars, it turns out, are not compulsory after all. Both McLaughlin - a British-born jazz-fusion guitarist also known as Mahavishnu, who records with Indian artists for the Blue Frog's own record label - and the musicians who came together to record Miles from India are familiar faces at the Blue Frog. Well-heeled, middle class Indian audiences fork out large sums of money, six nights a week, to eat while watching the musicians run through sets of original and innovative compositions.
Such a scene may not, at first glance, seem to rank alongside the moment The Beatles first took to the stage at the Cavern or the Sex Pistols stormed the 100 Club. But in India, where music often means tunes from Bollywood movies or the classical style that make it into the Grammy world music category, it amounts to a seismic change in attitude. "It is changing fast. It is the right time and the right place," says Emmanuelle de Decker, head of the Blue Frog record label. "People think that if you come from India you have to have a sitar, but there are some fantastic musicians not using traditional instruments. People are saying that they want to hear something other than Bollywood. People are coming to see bands they've never heard of. Sometimes we've never heard of them - they just have a MySpace page with three songs on it. We've had some that didn't work but at least we've started something."
Based in the old warehouse, the club was founded just a year ago by the musicians Ashutosh Phatak and Dhruv Ghanekar, the film director Mahesh Mathai, the film producer Srila Chatterjee and the fund manager Simran Mulchandani, all of whom saw a market for something new. "In the West, what people know about Indian music is the classical music, the very traditional music, but a lot of people here are trying to play blues, jazz, fusion, electro," says de Decker. "The concept of Blue Frog is that there was no platform for non-Bollywood music. There are bands playing non-Bollywood music in India but they are restricted by where they can play and what people expect, so they end up playing cover versions.
"The platforms are college festivals or five-star hotels and the five stars ask the bands to play covers, Hotel California, that sort of thing, so they don't have a chance." Original Indian artists hoping to make a breakthrough face two hurdles: finding acceptance with an overseas market and finding an audience at home. It seems one is hard to achieve without the other. For all that India has two nominations in the jazz category this weekend, the Grammys are still all about sales in the US. The world music category, so long the repository for Indian artists, sits in the Grammy running order below Best Hawaiian Music Album and Best Regional Mexican Album. Even jazz trails behind such cultural highlights as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album (in which Barry Manilow is nominated), Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
If that is not difficult enough, breaking the stranglehold of Bollywood at home is even tougher. With the cost of setting up a new radio station estimated to be in the region of $400,000 (Dh1,469,200) programmers are playing it safe. "Radio stations play only Bollywood and if you don't show the public something else they will not ask for it," says de Decker. But in a way, she says, it is also a class issue. "Cultivated people who have been to school, they don't listen to the radio. Taxi drivers listen to the radio."
This is the challenge that Blue Frog and others in India face in trying to move the country on to another musical level. It is all very well offering alternatives to well-heeled, educated listeners - the middle class "plus-plus", as de Decker refers to them - who can afford to go along to the club to listen to something new. It is quite another matter to change the listening habits of a whole nation.
Part of the problem is that the radio stations are determined to make sure that nothing changes, says the music critic Shanta Sarabjeet Singh, of the Hindustan Times. "Rap and rock and western-inspired musical traditions are here and they are gaining a foothold but they are limited to urban areas and they can't make a dent in the music market because the music market is too heavily dominated by Bollywood," she says. "It doesn't allow people to break in just like that. There is an artistic mafia that has control of the music and is not looking to encourage young talent. They are looking to make money and for that you need easily identifiable names."
What India does not have is a shortage of musicians looking to break through. According to Amit Gurbaxani, the music editor of Time Out in Mumbai, there are plenty of bands out there who have the talent, if they could just get the exposure. "Indigo Children [a Delhi-based indie band], for example, could give the Arctic Monkeys a run for their money," he says. "With the internet, everyone has access to everything. There are bands that sound just like western bands, whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing. Where Indian bands tend to fall short is in songwriting because there has not been an atmosphere that encouraged people to play their own music."
That was a criticism also voiced last year by the popular Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar, who wrote some of the lyrics for the Bollywood movie Rock On - touted as "the first authentic Hindi film on the Indian rock scene". Indian rock, he said, was a "very shallow and superficial genre" and he was not impressed by India's would-be rock stars. "They dress and style themselves like American rockers but the words and lyrics are archaic and obsolete," he said.
Still, it seems that there is growing support for those who can cut it musically. On Friday, India's first music trade fair - the Baajaa Gaajaa expo - opened in Pune to showcase independent record labels and artists. The music channel VH1, which launched in India in 2005, also recently announced plans to increase its support for Indian musicians. "We'll spot talent, nurture them, support them and groom Indian music to take it to the next level," said the India associate general manager, Ferzad Palia.
The question now is whether India has what it takes to challenge the likes of Adele, Coldplay, Leona Lewis, MIA, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for the main record of the year. Can India's current crop of talent hope one day to join a live line-up at the awards ceremony which this year features, among many others, Radiohead, U2, Coldplay and Sir Paul McCartney? "The only way it can happen is when a world audience picks up on a particular musician or track that will force the market to look," says Sarabjeet Singh.
It can do no harm to India's chances that the renowned Indian composer AR Rahman has garnered so many plaudits for his Slumdog Millionaire score. With a Golden Globe already in the bag and huge international acclaim for his work, he will arrive at the Oscars later this month optimistic of adding the awards for best original song and best original score to his haul. That in turn may help western audiences tune in to an Indian sound in a way that has so far eluded them, says Singh. "Rahman's music is influenced by the mixing of Indian jazz and classical. Indian music can make a breakthrough because it has a strong classical tradition which has created a platform to enable it to fuse with other world musical traditions to create new sounds," she says. And she believes that even this year's Grammys will make a difference.
"These fringe nominations are very important - they will one day lead to recognition in the mainstream categories," Singh adds. "Maybe in three of four years the ear of the audience will be ready for that." The revolution may be under way, but de Decker and Gurbaxani think it still has some way to go. "As things stand now, I'd say it was more likely for an Indian artist to get nominated for a Mercury Prize than for one of the four main categories at the Grammys," says Gurbaxani.
De Decker thinks that the quality is there already, but even with the help of clubs such as Blue Frog, it will take time before an Indian artist picks up one of the main Grammy awards. "Maybe it will happen, but it is a little way down the line," she says. Last week, the US punk band the Black Lips were thrown out of India after a chaotic tour of the country ended with the guitarist Cole Alexander's stripping and jumping into the crowd at a showcase gig in Chennai. India was not quite ready for such a rock 'n' roll moment. But the very fact that the band found an audience to offend suggests that it may not be too long before India widens its musical horizons. *The National