Thursday, October 15, 2009

Indian Ocean at the BB King Blues Club

Indian Ocean performance Oct 09 2009
BB King Blues Club
237 W 42nd St
New York, NY 10036-7201
(212) 997-4144

I have always enjoyed the band, Indian Ocean, ever since I picked up one of their CDs in Palika Bazaar in New Delhi, where I had gone to try to find some music by Junoon. So when our close friends A&U told us that Indian Ocean was going to be playing at the BB King Blues Club in Times Square, New York City, we could not resist

BB King Blues club has a cosy stage and a superb acoustic ambience. The place was filling up, mainly with youngish Indian couples in their twenties occupied behind square New York glasses, kisses and cutesy hand waves. The place is dark, womb-like, with two circles of tables beholding a lit stage at center, and an open place for dancing inbetween. I see John Turturro at a table, fiddling with his Blackberry, ostensibly here to enjoy Indian Ocean. I order a beer on tap--it is flat. We order some chicken wings and calamari, they are rubbery and insipid. I call such dishes twice killed chicken—once by the butcher, and once by the cook. We did not come here for the food, and it looked like the establishment wants to keep it that way.

Indian Ocean is a treat to listen to, one of the most original and long lived Indian bands, with a guitarist who punches out an original, mellifluous, spectrum of Indian sounds from his electric guitar. Playing a guitar that has a peripheral frame instead of a solid or hollow body, the sound is almost entirely feedback free (since there is no resonator that can start vibrating sympathetically with the sound system). The band comes on fire with the heart-rending songs of the North-East Indian country-side. They play a beautiful new number, Bondhu, set to music by Indian Ocean and originally sung in the Assamese by the visceral Anusheh from the Bangladeshi band, Bangla. This glissile song undulated as if across a muddy river, reflecting the vivid green countryside around, ebbing and wavering with its musical oars setting it to motion. Deftly working the crowd with asides, the bassist steers the crowd into the Bihari classic Hillela—an ode to the hip swaying beauties of Chapra district, played to devastating effect on the assembled crowd now dancing on the floor. They play their usual classics, Kandisa, Ma Rewa, Bandeh--their most westernized song to date-- substantially re-Easternized in the live version—almost sounding as if the guitarist in the recording were a different person. This is a multi-cultural crowd, through the corner of my eyes I see the East European waitresses ringing up checks on the cash register, jiving to the music their faces nodding in appreciation, lit up by the cold blue light of the LCD screens.

For me, the treat was in learning about the band Bangla, at this show. A few days later I pick up one of their CDs in Jackson Heights and the next day, pop it into the player in my car on a short trip north up the winding Taconic State Parkway in the morning. Fall colors are starting to burst through the hillsides. Anusheh Anadil comes through with her guttural Baul inspired numbers, her voice elevating the music above the occasional self-indulgencies of the guitarist and keyboardist. I compare this with Indian Ocean’s music. Bangla retains its rawness, Indian Ocean has succumbed slightly to the pitfalls of electronics—admirably their guitarist remains distortion-free but the vocals have creeping hints of electronic massage. I am a great fan of Indian Ocean, but perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to repackage these rural classics a bit less. You can marinate it all you want, but do not cook the tuna all the way through.

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