American bluegrass music meets Carnatic tunes at city concert

Dozens of students walked into the Bertha Corfield Auditorium at the Women’s Christian College (WCC) on Tuesday evening for a concert admitting to being unsure of what to expect.
Bluegrass Journeymen performing in the city
Bluegrass Journeymen performing in the city

Chennai

“We haven’t heard any American bluegrass music before, so this will be a completely new experience for many of us,” said a few girl students as they hurried to find their seats.
Soon as the musicians from The Bluegrass Journeymen were on stage, one could spot many audience members visibly confused at the instruments on stage. There was an arrangement of a human-sized upright bass, a cello, mandolins, a banjo, a few guitars, a ghatam, and the tabla — a mix of instruments one wasn’t traditionally used to seeing all at once.

The concert, organised by the US Consulate General Chennai, was the last leg of the India tour of The Bluegrass Journeymen, a collective of renowned musicians based in the US travelling around the world with bluegrass music. Founded by mandolin player and vocalist Patrick Fitzsimmons, the band has taken it upon itself to popularise in India the bluegrass style of music, which took form during the 1940s in the rocky Appalachian region in the eastern US. The band earlier had also interacted with musicians at the KM Music Conservatory in the city and performed in cities across north India, including at the US Ambassador’s residence in New Delhi.

As the band began playing, students who had never heard bluegrass music before began clapping hands and tapping their feet, while the American expatriates and diplomats in the audience were singing along. The sounds from the majestic American mountains and the rich tradition of country music soon filled the air. Bengali folk music with cheery songs welcoming the spring, celebrating life and music, were also performed by Kolkata-based singer Nabanita Sarkar who joined the band as a member for this tour, with a bluegrass touch of slide guitar, banjo and the cello. The band’s other musicians, Andrew Conley (cello), Billy Cardine (slide guitar), Coleman Smith (five-string violin), Jean-Luc Davis (upright bass), Shaun Nicklin (banjo) and Summers Baker (guitar), each shone as they entertained and educated the audience on their instruments.

“When I first came to India, I was told there’s an actor who also plays the mandolin,” announced Patrick before performing his next song. Much to the audience’s surprise, he began playing the popular tune of Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam from the iconic Hindi film, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in which superstar Shah Rukh Khan fashionably wields the mandolin. Amid loud screams, applause and excitement from the audience, the band presented a bluegrass version of the Bollywood hit. Along with local musicians mandolin U Rajesh, bass guitarist Aalaap Raju and ghatam artist N Rajaraman, the music was elevated to a never-heard-before experience. The song Backyard Bhangra presented a deeply moving fusion of Carnatic and bluegrass sounds. When we learnt from Rajesh that the fusion was a result of only a few hours of jamming together, we couldn’t help but be amazed.

As rightly noted by the US Consulate General’s Cultural Affairs Officer Moulik D Berkana, “These kinds of cultural programmes remind us of our common humanity and help us build bridges to foster mutual understanding and respect.” The concert was a great way to introduce students to bluegrass music, says the college principal Dr Lilian I Jasper. “Music is always helpful in bringing the world closer,” she tells us.

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