Not Just For Punjabis: This Band’s Dhol Beats are Rocking London

After their immense success in Bollywood music, London-based ‘Bollywood Brass Band’ – popularly known as BBB – formed in 1992, embarks on a new journey to explore the southern states of India. As their brass meets the strings, they encounter the sonic wonders of violin gamakas (decorations), mridngam (double-headed hand drum) and morsing (jaws harp).

Accompanying them on their journey to the new territory is none other than Bangalore-born and Europe’s leading violinist from the Carnatic classical tradition, Jyotsna Srikanth.

Their recently released album Carnatic Connection is a fusion of Bollywood and Carnatic filmi sounds. It includes a range of sounds, from the legendary composer Ilaiyaraaja’s Rakkamma to the ubiquitous AR Rahman – whose classics Jiya Jale, Kehta Hai Mera Dil and Kehna Hi Kya feature Jyotsna’s mellifluous violin playing – as well as the Oscar-winning Jai Ho which has been given the dance-floor treatment.

“Punchy Dhol” Meets Soulful Violin

The album has been chosen as one of Songlines Magazine’s 10 Albums of the Year for 2016, while The Guardian’s Robin Denselow describes it as “rousing, exuberant and exquisite”. Simon Broughton of London Evening Standard writes,

...punchy dhol drum rhythms, fiery trumpet and sax solos, plus the silky rich tones of Jyotsna’s violin. A rare and thrilling mix. Two new compositions to dramatic scenes from the 1948 film Chandralekha are super-spectacular when performed live.

Says Jyotsna, a former pathologist who quit her medical career in 2007 to become a full-time musician:

The combination of brass and Carnatic violin is rare. Since I can understand Indian as well as Western classical music, I can connect with and interpret both types of music.

In the Carnatic tradition with a classical melody in Raga Mayamalava Gowla, Jyotsna leads BBB in Deva Deva Kalayami with improvisation and through the incorporation of the interplay of jugalbandi.

It is her first collaboration with a brass band.

Jyotsna Srikanth, London-based violinistAs the instrument is loud, I had to work extra hard for this album but I enjoyed the journey. Moreover, all of them are Jazz musicians, so their skill sets are good and quite flexible. Since there was no spoon feeding, I got a lot of space and freedom to play the violin.

The album has been chosen as one of Songlines Magazine’s 10 Albums of the Year for 2016. (Photo Courtesy: Bollywood Brass Band)

Mark Allan, the manager who was instrumental in forming the BBB, is upbeat about his band and the new album:

Over the years, our focus on Bollywood songs has given us the opportunity to explore the richness of the South Indian films. All these led to the birth of the Carnatic Connection.

Mark plays baritone sax – apart from mixing sound and video for the Band’s live gigs.

According to Allan, another number from the album – Drum Dance – accompanies the epic scene where 400 dancers perform on top of huge drums; the drums open up to reveal soldiers who attach the stronghold “Trojan Horse”. Once inside the castle, the two leading men undertake the sword fight.

Drum Dance is an original combination of West African rhythms and riffs with South Indian tihais while the sword fight showcases Jyotsna’s improvisatory flair with gamakas.

Allan, incidentally, started off playing tenor sax with the Fallout Marching Band in the 80’s.

Enlivening Bollywood in the UK

Yet another beautiful piece of music in this album is sourced from the 1948 black-and-white Tamil film Chandralekha. The film inspired Sarha Moore, one of the key musicians of BBB, and Kay Charlton, the project manager of BBB (who has also composed brass tutor books called ‘Bollywood Blast’) to compose a new soundtrack for the finale of the film.

Charlton said,

Sarha and I wanted to use our experience of playing and arranging Bollywood music to write something new for the album. We spent an afternoon researching early South Indian films and then we came across Chandralekha. We read that the finale of the film was famous for the drum dance and when we watched it on YouTube, we were really impressed with this sequence and the sword fight that followed. We decided to split the scenes up, so Sarha wrote a rhythmic piece for the dance and I composed the sword fight with a violin feature for Jyotsna.

“Finding enough time for us all to get together to rehearse was difficult, but we managed in the end,” says Charlton. (Photo Courtesy: Bollywood Brass Band)

The other numbers included in the album are: Why This Kolaveri Di composed by Dhanush for the Tamil psychological thriller film 3 and Aa Ante Amalapuram by Devi Sri Prasad for Arya.

What were the challenges the team faced while working for the album?

Kay Charlton, Project Manager, BBBFinding enough time for us all to get together to rehearse. It was difficult, but we managed in the end.

After an overwhelming response from music lovers across the UK, BBB is all set to come up with another bang next year. To celebrate the 50th birthday of two-time Academy Award winning composer AR Rahman, BBB is planning to release an album which will feature the Indian music maestro’s best compositions, informed Allan, who’s an ardent fan of Rahman.

Mark Allan, Manager, BBBMusic is a universal language with different ascents. And, you don’t have to be a Punjabi to get up and hit the floor when a dhol starts to beat.

(Anjana Parikh works with the healthcare sector in the UK. She's also a freelance writer based in Manchester. Before relocating to the UK in 2013, she worked as a full-time journalist with some of India's leading dailies like The Times of India, Deccan Herald and The Sunday Guardian. She also worked as the News Editor for a leading British Asian weekly Asian Lite. Apart from reading and writing, she also loves rambling and singing.)

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