x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Bombay Royale band hits all the right notes

A look at The Bombay Royale, an 11-piece Aussie collective that combines long-lost 60s/70s Bollywood covers with Tarantino-style surf guitar and disco.

The Bombay Royale have released their debut album You Me Bullets Love. Courtesy Nik Harrison
The Bombay Royale have released their debut album You Me Bullets Love. Courtesy Nik Harrison

On a sunny Saturday evening in England’s rural south-west, and at the quaint and usually quiet Larmer Tree Gardens, Parvyn Kaur Singh is encouraging thousands of onlookers to cast off their inhibitions. Most of this festival crowd is already resplendent in fancy dress and thus a colourful field full of cartoon characters and historical figures gamely attempts the graceful Bollywood-style moves of the grinning Singh. It must be quite a sight from the stage.

Singh is the daughter of Dya Singh, a renowned exponent of Sikh hymns, with whom she sang for many years while also mastering the traditional Indian dance form of kathak. Now the Melbourne-born performer is fronting a radically different musical project: The Bombay Royale, a masked ensemble led by a sailor-suited saxophonist called The Skipper. Their sound is a suitably rich blend, mixing evocative Bollywood classics with surf guitars, ska and disco, as if the Indian soundtrack innovator R?D Burman had scored a full Tarantino movie.

It works, too. Their debut LP You Me Bullets Love was iTunes’ breakthrough “world music” album of 2012, and the 11-strong collective are widening their audience at numerous European festivals this summer, including Glastonbury.

It’s certainly a change of pace for Singh, who recalls her first impressions of the band: “I went to one of their rehearsals and they were in this tiny little room, there were about 10 of them,” she recalls. “There were no Indians there but they were playing all these songs that I’d heard as a child and I was going ‘What is this madness?’ But they handed me a microphone, I started singing and it kind of just fit.”

The Bombay Royale is the brainchild of The Skipper, Andy Williamson, who meets us, dressed in a more relaxed attire, before that Larmer Tree Festival show, along with Singh and Shourov Bhattacharya, a fellow singer. Onstage, the latter duo play The Mysterious Lady and The Tiger – heroic, romantic figures whose struggles with The Skipper provide an entertainingly novel narrative element.

The initial idea, four years ago, was to form a straightforward Bollywood covers outfit, which also seemed unique at the time.

“When I was putting the band together I thought: ‘why isn’t anyone doing this?’” Williamson recalls. “I was sure there would be someone, somewhere else, a bit closer to the action than we were in Australia, who could have done [this]. It just seemed so obvious that there was so much good stuff that wasn’t really that well known outside of the Indian community.”

Williamson is a connoisseur of a golden era in Bollywood soundtrack history, in which fearless composers such as Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji dabbled with psychedelic, soul and disco influences. Many of these tracks have enjoyed a welcome revival from the late 1990s onwards due to compilations by the American DJ Dan the Automator and the British Outcaste label, but remained relatively unknown in Melbourne.

“There’s a decent-sized Indian community, so a lot of people know about Bollywood there but that’s usually more contemporary Bollywood,” suggests the calmly charismatic Bhattacharya, an Australian of Bengali descent. “But the thing about the audiences there is, they’re open, they’re willing to learn about it and give it a chance. That’s all you need.”

The Melbourne-based Williamson formed the band through sheer persistence. “Every time I went out with people I’d be raving at them about Bollywood music,” he laughs. “Eventually people came out of the woodwork.”

The new collective learnt 25 to30 Bollywood numbers but were soon composing, too. Only two covers survive on the debut album – wonderfully vibrant versions of Sote Sote Adhi Raat from the 1983 movie Siskiyan and Jaan Pehechan Ho, from 1965’s Gumnaam. Those songs remain “a touchstone”, insists The Skipper. Indeed, his band’s outfits owe much to Gumnaam’s masked dancers.

“I learnt heaps transcribing them, how the songs were put together, what kind of compositional decisions those guys would make,” says Williamson. “But the most exciting thing for us is writing our own stuff, creating something new.”

Battacharya agrees: “It’s starting to evolve and become its own thing.”

So, has their take on the Bollywood tradition elicited any negative responses, for the classically schooled Singh in particular?

“Not so much,” she says. “People see the spirit in what we’re doing. We’re just doing the best we can.”

• For tour and album details, visit www.thebombayroyale.com

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