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Strings, Winds & Beats – The Western Adaptations



In the preceding part of the series Strings, Winds & Beats we talked of how the western instrument guitar has been adapted in Indian music, and played in Hindustani classical, Carnatic, film music, ghazals and fusion. Earlier on, we spoke about the adaptation of the violin, another western instrument.

While these two have found prominent use in Indian music, there have been other western melodic instruments which have been played by Indian classical musicians, and also find place in film music, fusion and ghazals.

Let’s look at a few of them.

Saxophone: This woodwind instrument is used in many western genres, and has played a major role in jazz, and also in the western classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and even in the blues. Made of brass, it is played with a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of a clarinet. Though there are different types of saxophones, the most common are the tenor and alto saxophone, followed by the soprano sax. For those interested in trivia, the name saxophone comes from its inventor Adolphe Sax.

Kadri Gopalnath

(Pic: Kadri Gopalnath)

In Carnatic music, it was popularised by Kadri Gopalnath, who modified the alto sax after learning the basic rudiments from Gopalkrishna Iyer. As a child, he had learnt the nadaswaram, a double-reed instrument used in Carnatic music and similar to the north Indian shehnai.

While a large part of Gopalnath’s repertoire revolves around pure Carnatic ragas, he has also made a name in fusion. In Mumbai in 1980, he played with American musician John Handy, where both used their individual styles to create a unique blend. Soon, he got a chance to play in major jazz festivals around the world, and also recorded the album ‘Southern Brothers’ with jazz flautist James Newton.

Besides playing saxophone for many movies with composer A.R. Rahman, Gopalnath has collaborated with jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa abroad, and Hindustani flautist Pravin Godkhindi within India.

Of the other Carnatic saxophone players, Aditya Viswanathan and Prasant Radhakrishnan are gaining in popularity. But when you talk of the instrument in this style of music, Gopalnath has single-handedly taken it into another sphere.

Though Hindustani musicians have largely stayed away from the saxophone, American player Phil Scarff has adapted the soprano saxophone to play north Indian ragas. Fascinated by the music of shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and even jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who used Indian phrasings on some compositions, Scarff regularly visited India to learn Hindustani music, while also playing with his world-jazz ensemble Natraj. With intense research, he picked up the ornamentations typical of Indian music, and used them on his saxophone.

Phil Scaff, George Brooks, Jan Garbarek

Besides classical music, the saxophone has played an extensive part in film music. Popular exponents are Manohari Singh, who played a lot with music director R.D. Burman, Mickey Correa, Shyamraj and Suresh Yadav. Many Indo-jazz fusion ensembles also use the saxophone, and western artistes like Jan Garbarek, George Brooks and Bendik Hofseth have played with flautists Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ronu Majumdar. German multi-instrumentalist Prem Joshua plays the soprano sax regularly. Mumbai-based youngster Rhys D’Souza has played with sarangi player Sabir Khan. Ryan Sadri and I.D. Rao do a lot of fusion work.

Mandolin: Originating in Italy, the mandolin is a member of the lute family and has been popular in European folk music, classical music, country music and bluegrass. It would take the prodigious talents of the late U. Srinivas to make it well-known on the Carnatic circuit.

u. srinivas & u rajesh

(Pic: U Srinivas & U Rajesh)

Both Srinivas and his brother U. Rajesh picked up the instrument from their father Satyanarayana. At the age of nine, Srinivas gave his first concert at the Thyagharaja Aradhana festival in Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh, and at 14, he played at JazzFest Berlin, where the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis was also performing.

Srinivas has toured around the world with Indo-jazz fusion band Remember Shakti, also comprising guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, singer Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira player V. Selvaganesh. His album ‘Dream’ with producer Michael Brook is a career highlight. After his death, Rajesh has been carrying forward the tradition.

Besides Carnatic music, the mandolin is played in film music and ghazals. In the 1940s and 1950s, film composer Sajjad Hussain not only played it in the movies, but also played Hindustani classical music using the instrument. Film composer Laxmikant excelled on the mandolin, and other well-known film players were Isaac David and Kishore Desai. In ghazals, Sajjad Hussain’s son Nasir has accompanied Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas often.

Western instruments in Hindustani music: While the saxophone and mandolin have been adapted and popularised in Carnatic music, there have been some attempts to play western instruments in Hindustani music.

Nancy Lesh, who was principal cellist of western classical orchestras in Italy, was so attracted to the dhrupad form of Hindustani music that she decided to adapt the cello, by modifying her tuning and adding a drone string. Saskia Rao de Haas is also known for playing the cello in Indian style.

Nancy Lesh, Saskia Rao de Haas

(Pic: Nancy Lesh, Saskia Rao de Haas)

Abhijit Pohankar, son of classical vocalist Pandit Ajay Pohankar, plays Hindustani music on the keyboards, and has used a similar style in albums like ‘Piya Bawari’, ‘Thumri Funk’ and ‘Ghazal Lounge’. Anil Srinivasan plays Carnatic music and fusion on piano and keyboards.

Other instruments in film music: While many western instruments have been used in film music, special mention must be made of the accordion. A free-reed aerophone also known as the squeezebox, the instrument was very popular in the folk music of Europe and South America and in country music, and was also used in some western classical compositions.

In Hindi film music, composers Shankar-Jaikishan used the accordion in ‘Sab kuch seekha humne’ (from ‘Anadi’) and ‘Awara hoon’ (‘Awara’) among other songs. Over the years, the popular accordion players have been Goodi Seervai, Enoch Daniels and the great Kersi Lord, who played it in the ‘Aradhana’ song ‘Roop tera mastana’. Many people, would have, of course seen the instrument picturised on Raj Kapoor.

Some of the other western melody instruments to be played in film music are the trumpet, trombone, mouth organ, bass guitar and of course the grand piano. Legendary composer Naushad was a master at the piano. Pianist Brian Silas is known for releasing instrumental versions of Hindi film songs, and Arijit Mukherji does a similar thing on the mouth organ, something he inherited from his uncle Milon Gupta.

Kersi Lord was also known to introduce the European bell percussion instrument glockenspiel to Hindi film music in ‘Hum Dono’. This was much before bands like Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention popularised it.

Of the western instruments, the saxophone and mandolin have been specially popular in Carnatic music, thanks to the two people who revolutionised their use. When you listen to either of them, you just can’t believe they are playing western instruments.


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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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