Indian Ocean may be India’s greatest band. In a country with over one billion people, one would consider that an almost impossible feat unless you do some elimination. Factoring in the output of Bollywood films, more movies per year than Hollywood, each with its own unique soundtrack, you see that film music is the most popular music in mainstream Indian culture. An “underground” band like Indian Ocean is merely a droplet in comparison.
Yet Indian Ocean’s Indo-folk/Western-rock fusion deserves to be heard by a wider audience. Their melodies contain elements of reggae, jazz and other world influences. Their lyrics incorporate Hindustani tradition, Urdu poems and political protestations or, for those unable to translate, soulful nourishment through profound Eastern mysticism.
On a bleak note, Indian Ocean lost their founder at the end of 2009. Tabla player Asheem Chakravaty suffered a heart attack after arriving in India in October, following the band’s previous US tour. Though he recovered, Chakravaty went into cardiac arrest once more in December and passed away. For the surviving three members, Susmit Sen (guitar), Amit Kilam (percussion) and Rahul Ram (bass/vocals), Indian Ocean supplemented their first US performance of 2010, at renowned Philadelphia institution World Café Live, with two friends, Gyan Singh on tabla and an additional vocalist.
To set the scene: tables were situated on the main floor of the World Café’s downstairs space as this was a seated, dinner show. The venue’s website indicates capacity for 300 but unfortunately, by my count, there were no more than 70 people in attendance. This concert slipped under the radar. Furthermore, the seating arrangement promoted a relaxed attitude instead of a rock atmosphere, which may have been a deterrent. The crowd’s movements were mostly relegated to waving their arms in their seats.
After a brief introduction, Indian Ocean went into their first song, “Khujuraho” (I believe). Though I am a “PIO” (Person of Indian origin), I am lacking full linguistic knowledge of Hindi so this review may prove lacking. Even apart from the songs themselves, the band occasionally related stories in South Asian language, encouraging people to “Ask their neighbor” for a translation.
Ram accounted the loss of Chakravaty prior to the second song, “Melancholic Ecstasy”. Watching the technical prowess and interplay between the musicians, the audience doled out the first rapturous applause of the night. The band followed up with “Jhini”, a song adapted from a poem by fabled poet and weaver Kabir (Ram enlightened us on this one). The lyrics tell the story of a cloth woven by a god and the weaver who found it in his care. They moved the tale in cycles, always returning to the “jhini chadariya” repetition.
Ram jested that they are “lazy people” having only released roughly 30 songs in their history, or an average of 1.6 per year. With that introduction, IO went into their fourth song, one a few years old but described as “new” because it has not been officially released yet. Despite their 20 + year history, Indian Ocean is not a prolific outfit. Yet they have achieved some notable firsts in India.
They were the first band to release a live album, 1997’s Desert Rain, and just recently became the first band with a film devoted to them. Leaving Home was released on DVD just this month. Ram continued to entertain and amuse the crowd later when he asked all the “pretties to dance” before the song “Hille Le”. With Ram’s encouragement, a few folks got up for some dancing. His bass line vamp helped too; even Victor Wooten would have gotten closer.
Other highlights included “Leaving Home” with its stirring, opening vocal chant evoking cinematic images of vast expanses and a rising sun on the horizon. To quote fellow PopMatters writer Nadini Ramachandran, “Bandeh”, the third to last song, “Is an angry, passionate lament about the folly of communal violence.” Guitarist Sen got off his stool for this one, a better position to send out the message. Closing the set, the oft requested, climatic song arrived, the band desiring a break after the non-stop two-hour session. And a beer too, as Ram noted “We haven’t had a drink yet.” “Kandisa” starts with soaring vocals, before the melody kicks into high gear. Singh and Kilam’s frenetic percussive rhythms drive it through the finish line.
In spite of the small audience, this was Indian Ocean’s victory: their moment to open up their beers and celebrate.
This is fine, this is fine cloth.
It is been dipped in the name of the lord
The spinning wheel, like an eight-petal lotus, spins,
With five tatvas and three gunas as the pattern.
The Lord stiched it in 10 months
The threads have been pressed to get a tight weave.
It has been worn by gods, people, and sages
They soiled it with use.
Kabir says, I have covered my self with this cloth with great care,
And eventually will leave it like it was.