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Gig Review :: BuJazzO @ St. Andrews Auditorium Mumbai :: Nov 23, 2011

German Youth Jazz Orchestra comes together with veterans of Indian classical music in a colossal collaboration!

In case anyone was paying attention to the geo-socio-political scene at home, we happen to be right in the middle of a fifteen-month collaborative celebration of 60th year of Germany in India. What does this mean, you ask? Why, a multicultural exchange between Germany and India, brought to us by Max Mueller Bhavan. Why should we be interested? Because it involves music, and lots of it. And believe it or not, this is simply the beginning.

BuJazzO : Bundes Jazz Orchester, Germany

One such rewarding experience was witnessing BuJazzO (pronounced boo-yatz-oh), short for Bundes Jazz Orchester, Germany’s national youth orchestra, engaging in a proverbial jugalbandi with prominent Indian musicians from the Karnataka College of Percussion.  

Picture this: German music students, aged between 17 – 24, manning a 15-piece brass orchestra, a piano, 3 kinds of percussion, electric guitar, electric and upright bass, along with 4 vocalists, and 3 individuals on technique.

If anyone’s been keeping count, that’s 30 youngsters. Throw in an animated German conductor. Now you have the complete orchestra. But that’s just one half of the entire ensemble. Taking up the center of the stage are none other than the reknowned R. A. Ramamani on lead vocals, her husband T. A. S. Mani and her son, Karthik Subramaniam, both on percussions, complemented further by Ramesh Shotham on percussion. Together, these musicians together represent a marriage between Jazz and Carnatic music. Not something you come across everyday, eh? Here’s a little sneak preview:

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Now here’s why you don’t come across something like this often. As we caught up with Mike Herting, the conductor, he explained – “Well, that is because we are the first in this line.” How does such a concept come together, we inquired, since Indian Carnatic music is far more mature than Western Jazz. “Despite their different origins, both, Carnatic music and Jazz have improvisation at their roots.” 

And this is precisely the avenue that BuJazzO chooses to pursue, bringing forth elements of Western Classical and Jazz music, fusing them conveniently with Indian Classical music. But does such a conspicuous collaboration always work? You be the judge of that:

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Witnessing something like this for the first time, one can’t help but be mesmerized; one’s mind transcends across dimensions and time – it is almost like being in the middle of the 1920’s and 1930’s in the United States at times, while at others, it feels like being in 19th century Chennai. Such is the feeling when you juxtapose these two completely different yet surprisingly complementary styles of music together. Here’s yet another example of what I mean:

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Bridging the gaps between frontiers, musical, cultural and geographical, required a considerable amount of time and traveling on Mike’s part, as he explained how he had been enamored by the idea of collaborating thusly ever since he met Ms. Ramamani and others in Bangalore, at the Karnataka College of Percussion in 1997. Since then, there have been a series of exchanges of ideas, musical and otherwise, and sure enough, that gave birth to the current concept of fusion that BuJazzO currently manifests, within their tour in India.

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As you can observe, there is much to them than meets the eyes. Or the ears, for that matter. Afro-Latino influences are evident in percussion, since the repertoire includes such instruments as bongos and the cajon. At the same time, there is a distinct Bluesy tone in many parts, especially where the modern instruments – electric guitar, bass and drums get involved. And then there is the choral aspect, with three female and one male vocalist.

Completing this culture curry is a limited but tasteful selection of classical Indian percussion, replete with its vocal sections of ragas and rhythms. And all of this was brilliantly arranged and conducted by Mike Herting. Because our words are never really enough to enunciate the technical aspects fully, here are some more samples, including a piano-driven aalap:

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But if you think this concept is primarily a foreign influence, you’d be mistaken. Why, during their two and a half hour performance, besides playing their interpretations of pieces written by such greats as Charlie Mariano (most notably, the haunting yet free flowing ’ 17th Cross’) and others, they even played pieces that were written by Ramamani herself, as well as a couple by the one and only Louiz Banks. “The man has to be crazy to come up with this kind of music,” joked Mike Herting, as he payed homage to Mr. Banks, who later graced the stage at the end of the performance.

Additionally, there was also a presentation of a piece that BuJazzO’s vocalists had composed in a matter of hours with Karthik Subramaniam. Here’s yet another snip of the almost A Capella piece for your unsatiable eyes and ears:

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Throughout the performance that evening, Herting made it a point to let individual instrumentalists shine, allowing solos for saxophonists, trumpetists and trombones, as well as for the pianist, the percussionists and the guitarist. And thought it may seem unlikely, every single instrument was able to stand its ground, even when playing as a part of the full orchestra.

Needless to say, the Indian virtuosos displayed brilliant musicianship, even getting the audience involved in a part of their percussive jugalbandi towards the end. Last, but not the least, they even played a excellent jazzed-up bhajan, one of Ramamani’s favourites, as a part of their encore performance.

Together, they received two standing ovations and ample whistling (of the classy kind), which had to be cut short, simply because the clapping seemed to be going into overtime.

In terms of musical collaborations, this is just the beginning. Stay tuned with us here, as we bring you more and more examples of musical and cultural exchanges between India and Germany.

Photo Credits: Parizad D

Special Thanks: Sneha Sahani @ Avian Media

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