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We've stopped shouting at the telly to make these things so promise you'll try to enjoy 'em.

A new instrument you play with…words.

ritikaA person can become an instrument and I met one.

In the late 80’s I spent time in Calcutta working as a nurse at the children’s clinic in Tala Park founded by the remarkable Dr Jack Preger, a fellow Mancunian and fellow head-the-ball idealist, medical rebel and loony.

Whilst there I was introduced to Ritika Sahani. She was something of a big deal, she had a recording contract with HMV and several albums to her credit and we hit it off immediately, both personally and musically.

Ritika is immensely talented and plays several traditional Indian instruments to a professional level. She had sat at the feet of a musical guru for the requisite number of years following her classical training. This is a rite of passage that many modern Indian singers forego. Ritika grew up in a time when Indian music still had a semi-sacred aura about it and embedded into the rituals and ceremonies of Hinduism.

I began to hear some beautiful bends in the straight lines of traditional western scales and tunings, that shouldn’t work, should sound awful and frankly should just y’know, clash. But they didn’t.

Shortly after arriving in India, I’d started to meddle with some guitar tunings, I was trying to generate a drone in the lower strings like a sitar has so I could widdle around with melodies on the top strings . As Ritika vamped on these musical scribbles, I began to hear some beautiful bends in the straight lines of traditional western scales and tunings, that shouldn’t work, should sound awful and frankly should just y’know, clash. But they didn’t. It was as if someone had said, “hey all that stuff you know about scales n’that…..it’s, well, it’s largely, bollocks and it’s all more, er, well, bendy”. More bendy…a phrase up there with ‘more cowbell’.

We bend notes all the time in western music, I wanted to learn the guitar because bending notes (and the requisite note bendy face) just looked so damned cool. For the non musicians amongst you, we bend them in quite strict way in western music. If we imagine that the  western scales are like a typically odd and even numbered street we walk down, bending our guitar note is like starting at number one and then going next door to number three or a bit further on to number five or seven. We do glance at the door of number two and rush by it as it’s on the other side of the street and besides there’s always some car up on bricks outside it.

In Indian music they have noticed that in between the odd numbered houses there should be numbers two,four and six and so on and that these shouldn’t be on the other side of the street at all and would like to know which idiot in the town planning office put them there in the first place? Indian musicians will bend a note starting at one, before going to two to say hi and maybe staying a bit to admire the new curtains and then continue on fleetingly waving at the people in number three before arriving at number four and staying for a cup of tea and a gossip about her at number seven which is where they end up to find out if all the rumours about her and Dave down the pub are true.

To some of the drummers in the room who were actually paying attention and not eating bananas, trying to use a large leaf as a hat or sniffing their fingers, this did not compute.

This was not the first time Indian musical concepts had blown my mind. In the 80’s I attended a workshop with Indian tabla and percussion legend Pandit Poptkar. During  a fascinating day he explained that whilst  in the west our drummers typically think and play four or eight bar patterns, but in some of the works he performs the pattern can be thirty six or even more bars long, before the pattern repeats itself. It’s my experience that it’s inordinately difficult to get drummers to spell their own names identically twice or indeed even to wear matching socks consistently. To some of the drummers in the room who were actually paying attention and not eating bananas, trying to use a large leaf as a hat or sniffing their fingers, this did not compute. A few of them took the next few days off and to a man they swore that they’d never, ever, go to ‘that India, it’s mental man, have you heard how long their bars are?’.

I had found India fascinating before I met Pandit Poptkar so it’s no wonder that eventually I ended up doing some music in India.

I was trying to get Ritika to do a kind of Indian Rock Chic thing, an Oriental Sheryl Crowe or Alanis if you will, I was sure that this would find an audience and it seemed that India was ready for it too, as a break from the sticky froth being served up to them by Bollywood at the time and in Ritika I’d found not only a fabulous talent but indeed a muse too.

I learned during this time that Ritika was like another completely different and beautiful instrument. An instrument I could play by describing to her what I wanted, with words. The better I described it, the closer I got to what I wanted. Ritika was not just a passenger here either and there were many happy, serendipitous moments of ‘the magic’ or ‘the spell’, the musical fairy dust that all musicians crave. And no that’s not a euphemism for Cocaine, when music makes you high, it’s better than any drug it’s like having your soul stretched and tickled at the same time by someone you deeply love. Below is an example of what we were aiming for, the song has a nice true story behind it too which is explained in the video. The song is half in English and half in Bengali, this caused quite a stir at the time because all pop music was (and still is) in Hindi which is way less pretty than Bengali but hey, it’s not usually the most beautiful girl who wins the pageant right?

 

 

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