A different beat
Uday Benegal and Jayesh Gandhi create new sounds with Alms for Shanti
Alms for Shanti has trudged a long road since guitar player Jayesh Gandhi, 38, and vocalist Uday Benegal, 34, played their first concert together in 1985. Then answering to the name of Rock Machine, the band's first gig was played to an enthusiastic audience of exactly eight people. "Including the band," adds Gandhi.
The Mumbai boys were India's first rock and roll act to savour a smattering of commercial success. In 1988, they played at the Festival of India in the [former] USSR, touring four cities in the former Soviet Union. In 1993 the band, renamed Indus Creed, became a top rock act in India, touring the UK and the Middle East, and jamming with Guns'N'Roses guitar player Slash at an MTV concert at Bangalore in 1996.
When Indus Creed disbanded in 1999, Gandhi and Benegal flew west. The next year they formed Alms for Shanti, playing in the New York City club circuit and bringing to the fore a range of unabashedly Indian sounds and rhythms that had long been cooking. The release of their self-financed English album Alms for Shanti was followed by its Hindi mirror image Kashmakash, released on July 5 by Free Spirit Entertainment.
In conversation with Bijoy Venugopal, Alms for Shanti raves and rants about what it took to break on through to the other side.
What was the impulse behind forming Alms For Shanti?
Uday Benegal: The impulse was to play good music. After Indus Creed, Jayesh and I were moving in a similar direction.
We were using more Indian instrumentation, melodies and rhythms together with the kind of music we grew up listening to --- rock, pop and punk. We were very determined to make the Indian identity a part of what we were doing. There's a wealth of music out there that hasn't been tapped, which the West --- and a lot of Indians --- knows nothing about.
Was this a conscious effort to meld rock music with Indian sounds?
Jayesh Gandhi: It is not just rock music --- we grew up playing rock initially. Then we collaborated with [world music band] Surya, which had Taufique [Qureshi], Fazal [Qureshi], Zakir [Hussain], Ustad Sultan Khan, Shankar Mahadevan and Sridar Parthasarathy.
That was when we started looking seriously at Indian instrumentation.
Would you attempt to stick a label on your music or would you shy away from genre altogether?
UB: We shy away from genre but we shouldn't. As long as we try avoiding the genre issue we won't get on a shelf in a record store. Unfortunately [our] genre does not exist in record stores right now. For want of a better place to put us in, they'd stick us in the 'world music' section, though world music itself promotes a different thing.
We seem to be caught in a no-man's land between world music and commercial music, in that the mainstream rock and pop labels in America would consider us too 'world' for commercial music and world music labels would consider us too commercial for world music.
In actuality we realise we span the two. It's a conscious effort to make the music we believe in. It's distinctive and original.
Why the decision to go bilingual?
Musically you transcend language, but as long as there are lyrics people try to understand what you are saying. On a very peculiar level, there's a German label that's licensing the Hindi album from Free Spirit. They heard both versions and they wanted the Hindi album.
When we write songs we think in English. It's our first language of communication. We want to convey the same thought to the audience in India as well. And the best way to do that is to express the thoughts in Hindi because it's the most widely spoken language in the country.
We got a friend to rewrite the lyrics in lucid Hindi. We didn't go with professional lyric writers, because they are very masala driven. And everything is soni-kudi these days --- and those are the very two words we did not want! Sometimes there's a tendency to go a little deep. When people ask us what a particular word means, we say that if you're really into it you'll listen a little deeper and find out.
Is this the same audience you addressed in your Indus Creed days?
JG: The audience only gets bigger and better because the language makes a big difference. That's one barrier broken and we hope we can reach out to as many people as possible.
What inspired you to look West?
UB: We went West because we were disillusioned with the East. Because the music we were doing at that time had absolutely no place here. Not that we were seeking salvation in the West. We wanted to go ahead with the music we make and look for the audience in the West. We found some of it over there and some of it here as well.
Whom do you collaborate with in the US?
JG: We have an American drummer, a Brazilian bass player and a Pune boy whom we met there who plays tabla with us.
What did it take to get into the competitive New York club circuit?
JG: A lot. There's no place like that city --- it's unbelievable! It's the greatest city and the hardest city there is. It took us a year of our time just to get the band together. Since we didn't know anyone in the business we had to cold call clubs and get gigs for ourselves. But in the last six to eight months we've established ourselves very well.
There are rock acts in India thinking and playing in English, which is now as much an Indian language as any. What do you think the future holds with the profusion of talent and wider access to musical equipment?
JG: That has grown substantially in India. There are a more bands, there is more equipment --- there is clearly an infrastructure now as against 15 years ago. Because of satellite television and because of record companies mushrooming all over the place there are people trying things in the hope of getting a deal. But the whole industry is in a very bad slump.
UB: The English speaking audience in India that listens to our kind of music is a small percentage but a large number. But it's still considered a niche audience in India. Another thing you face, unfortunately, with the English-speaking crowd is that very often the anglicised Indian believes what is coming out of the West is necessarily superlative. She may think we sound good, but there's less of a sense of belonging. With the Hindi speaking audience there's a more sincere sense of connection.
Would you say the American experience has helped you grow as musicians?
The American experience has certainly helped us. The whole thing is actually a mindset --- you could be sitting pretty in India and doing ad jingles and making a lot of money. But we see a lot of music and a lot of diversity. We're in the midst of incredible talent, and we have a desire to play with incredible talent.
Where does Alms for Shanti go from here?
To New York. We have a gig on July 31 at Six Flags, New Jersey. We'll be back in India to tour and promote Kashmakash and the English album as well.
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda