Hitting All the Right Notes

he Hyderabad music scene has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. For years, independent musicians or touring bands seldom made it this far, there were few music venues in the city, and just when an artist would start to gain some traction, they’d hightail it to Mumbai, Bengaluru or Delhi. But the state of music in Hyderabad has, like much of the city, grown at a breakneck pace over the past few years, and now there’s a heck of a lot of talent in this Nawabi city. From pop to folk and R&B to rock, we go deep with seven artists, discussing what’s shaped their musical journeys, where they’re headed next and everything in between. These Hyderabadi musicians might represent different genres, but they have one big thing in common: star power!

The Qawwali Maestros

The Warsi brothers –Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi and Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi – are legends in their own time. Touted as being among the finest qawwals in India, “The Qawwal Bachche of Delhi Gharana” are the descendants and disciples of Hazrat Ameer Khusro and Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. For many, a performance means a show, in which one might tend to camouflage weak points while demonstrating only their strengths. For these brothers, though, their canvas is as vast as the ocean. For them, performing is just an extension of something they do every day. And it’s not just what they sing. They literally live music so that they can reach the divine.

The Beginning
Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi and Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi consider themselves lucky to come from a family that has such rich traditions in this art form, which dates back almost 900 years. Their grandfather, Padma Shri Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi, is the only qawwal (musicians of qawwali, or Sufi devotional music) honoured with a title of Padma Shri by the Indian government. The brothers from the culturally-blessed Delhi gharana are the lone soldiers who are fighting the battle to keep their ancestral tradition of ‘sufiana qawwali’ alive.
“When we were young, our grandfather started training us in Hindustani classical music. As we started learning, he would have us sit on stage with him during his performances. That was a great learning experience; seeing him perform and also understanding what kind of qawwali would appeal to which audience. We then started training under our father, with whom we gave our first stage performance at 11 or 12. And the tradition of teaching continued in our family. Even today, we’ve the same technique to teach our kids. Since childhood, we are surrounded by music in the house, and because of the work that our ancestors have put into this, qawwali comes naturally to us,” Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi told The Culture Trip.

Fondest Memories
“A lot of artists used to visit my dadaji. Popular artists like Birju Maharaj, Allah Rakha Khan Saab, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, etc., all had a lot of love and respect for our grandfather and would always make it a point to visit us whenever they were in town. And when they used to come, the atmosphere was really euphoric. Everyone used to be sitting in the hall, and they would sing and play all night. Our grandfather would also have us sing for them. Once I remember, Ustad Amir Khan Saab had visited us and, after hearing us sing, he was truly ecstatic. He told our grandfather – ‘Warsi Saab, your grandsons have a gift of ‘Sur’ and ‘Lay’. I know one day, they will bring a lot of name and fame to you. They are going to make you proud. ’It’s this love and blessing from ustads are the reason we’re successful today,” Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi adds.

All-Time Favourites
Music is a storehouse of two dominant emotions: love and devotion. And qawwali, even though devotional, is equally ecstatic and creates a trance-like mood. It moves into the realm of romance, which is typically Sufi, and moves the soul to be one with the supreme power. With a power like this, choosing a favourite song was difficult for the talented duo. “There are a lot of different forms of qawwalis that we enjoy performing, but if we have to pick one, it would be ‘sufiana qawwalis’. We also love ‘Kalams of Hazrat Amir Khusro,’ ‘Dum-a-Dum Mast Kalandar,’ and ‘Chhap tilak sab Cheeni,’ which touches our hearts in the way it binds us together. And when that happens, it automatically has an impact on the mehfil, too,” Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi explains.

Words to the Next Generation
According to the Warsi Brothers, even though the present generation has progressed far too fast to comprehend, when it came to communicating the essence of their art form to them, it was easy and well-appreciated. “When we performed in colleges, we’ve noticed youngsters listening and enjoying to sufiana qawwali. Many a times, these young kids have come up to us and said that they really like sufiana music and qawwalis. So it’s a big thing that it’s reaching the kids, and that they are liking it. We tell our students, too, that Sufi music and its foundation is in the relationship it shares with the divine. Traditionally, sufiana qawwali is a composition that is sung exclusively in front of the Sufis. It was Amir Khusro who decided that the pleasure of listening to these divine compositions should be everyones. So I hope the younger generation doesn’t distance themselves from our music, our long heritage. We urge the youth to explore our rich heritage in music.

Classical in the Modern Age

Jaywant Naidu was introduced to music at the tender age of eight, by his mother. He first learnt to play the guitar and subsequently other musical instruments. But that’s not what sets him apart; it’s his approach to music that is a unique fusion of Indian and contemporary styles. A powerhouse of talent, Jaywant is known to bring together the classical and Western chords through his Jaywant Guitar.

When did you start learning how to make music?
I learned how to play my first instrument in 1975, but before deciding on what to pick, I experimented with various instruments and gave a voice test at Swarvithan Academy in Nagpur. I actually wasn’t too bad, but not good enough to get selected (laughs.) I failed miserably in voice training and tabla. I picked up the sitar, but I was too short for the instrument back then. Then I tried my hands on the Hawaiian guitar, and with a small make-shift steel roller from a table fan I started playing it. So my journey as a musician began with a small part from a table fan.
I was born into a South Indian family and was trained in Mumbai under Dinesh Kumar Sampath for a couple of years, before studying under K. Jangaiah and Kishtaiah, a sitar player in Hyderabad. But, it was not until 1996 that I gave my first performance. And I remember this was at the Vadya Madhuri in Music Academy, Chennai, where I realised how music can be the medium through which I can
send a message of peace and harmony to people.

How is your style different from other guitar players?
Well, I have created my own 21 strings guitar, ‘Jaywant Guitar’ that has been modified by Gibtone Guitar Corporation in Kolkata. When embarking on this innovation, I was inspired by the layers of sound in flutes, violins or cellos, and this urged me to get the sound of more than one guitar. So with three pairs of chikari strings and three main melody strings, I’m able to produce the sound of an ensemble of Hawaiian slide guitars.

How was it collaborating with American composer-trumpeter Charlie Porter?
To be honest, I couldn’t believe I got the opportunity to play with him. I still remember this was post his arrangement of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ at Taj Krishna. I went up to him and spoke about his influence and work. I was awestruck. Later that evening I messaged him if we could collaborate on an arrangement before he leaves for the US the next day and I received a message from him asking to meet at Boulder Hills, where we taped our video. It was such a huge surprise and I was ecstatic that I could record with Charlie. I noticed how our musical ears worked so differently; where I was looking to find a raga that matched the main melody, Charlie delved into the harmonic undertones. But towards the end, the difference played out so beautifully.

Where do you feel fusion music is headed as cultural globalisation continues?
I believe nothing restores the cultural heritage of India, or any country, like music does. And fusion music has headed to become the symbolic sound of cross-cultural harmony. Also, fusion is not just a mix of music from east to west, it can also be a mix of our own Indian musical systems. For instance, when legends like the late M. Balamuralikrishna and Bhimsen Joshi rendered a jugalbandi at Ravindra Bharathi, in Hindustani and Carnatic styles. That being said, I hope this generation can focus on protecting our rich musical heritage before it wanders off into oblivion.

Who are some of your favourite Indian musicians?
Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Man on a Mission

If one theme connects Iqbal Patni’s poems, it is a recognition of our common humanity. Iqbal writes poems with intense compassion about love, life, social tragedy, and everything in between. And with a powerful voice, he challenges us to re-examine the world around us. In `Aadmi se insaan,’ the spoken word artist honours children, and in `Tribute to Teachers,’ narrated with A.R. Rahman, he lovingly acknowledges his mentors. Born and raised in Hyderabad, Iqbal has been performing as a professional poet for over a decade. We chat with Iqbal, who speaks in crisp English with a whiff of Urdu thrown in here and there. And we devour it all…

What period of your life do you write about most often?
I am someone who is inspired by own life and you can see a glimpse of that in `Tribute to Teachers.’ But at the same time, I write a lot more about other people’s lives, too – people whose voices I try to inhabit. Like for instance when I wrote about the Kargil War, or gave a tribute to Mother Teresa, the subject in itself was so moving that I could tell a story in a new form and texture, making it an aesthetic object. Another essential part of every writer’s make-up is emotions. Language is a medium, words are vessels, and emotions are the lifeline of your thoughts. Pain, anger, happiness or love – they are an inexorable part of everybody’s life, not just a writer’s. I’ve experienced as much pain or happiness as the next man and, I guess, a good writer always uses it in his work as a source of inspiration.

Can a writer or a poet survive without making ideological observations in his writings, unbothered by the conflicts and hostilities happening around him?
Personally, I find it difficult to keep my poetry aloof from the terrible tidings around me. My work responds to events that are unfolding around me. And like me, there are other creative people who are deeply impacted by all that is going on in society. This does not mean that I reduce my writing to its social content, especially when there is rising intolerance in the country.

What is it you can communicate in poetry that you can’t otherwise?
I think the true mission of poetry is to touch hearts. Make bridges. Alleviate loneliness. It is also a way of saying things that you can’t say in everyday conversation. At least, not without getting a lot of strange looks and making people very uncomfortable. In our country especially, there’s a sort of social contract to be pleasant. Poetry is a way of burrowing beneath that veneer and getting to something a whole lot messier. And life is a messy and complicated thing. Also, sometimes, poetry’s purpose is fundamentally political, too. Something that’s about counter-culture and different voices being used in a subversive way. To a great extent, I understand that subversion through competing narratives is something poetry does brilliantly.

What are your forthcoming projects?
I am currently collaborating with Manjari Chaturvedi, who is a popular Sufi Kathak dancer, for a show on Mah Laqa Bai. Hopefully, we’ll be performing by the end of the December.    

Spinning the Jams

If you aren’t already familiar with DJ Ajay, that’s all about to change. Winner of the city level award for best DJ of the year at the India Nightlife Convention Awards 2017, he fuses both Bollywood with EDM and obscure rhythm and blues from the ‘80s with ‘90s R&B. We caught up with Ajay for a little peek behind-the-scenes of his life and, as it turns out, there’s a lot more to Ajay than meets the ear.

So to start things off, how did you first get into DJing?
Ever since I was a kid I was surrounded by music. To begin with, my father has always been a music lover, and in those days he had about 1,000 records that I used to record from the tapes. That’s how I began learning to handle equipment. It was then that I knew mixing and blending was my calling. I was electrified by the opportunity to express pop culture and sounds as a DJ. In the mid 90’s, I started DJing at RSI club and at roundtable parties, after which other opportunities came along.

Do you think that being a DJ makes it harder to build a strong identity as an artist?
Djing is a constant journey of self-discovery. But then once you stop treating it like a job, you know you have a lot to learn and a lot of ground to cover. Obviously, over time, you’ll have the same core values, and you’ll push yourself harder to become a better artist. To stay interesting, you have to keep trying new things.

Hyderabad’s scene is pretty phenomenal, the food is great and the beer is fantastic. What are some of your favourite things about playing in the city?
Our city has evolved so much from the time I started playing. There were fewer clubs and a lot less was happening here – this was back in 1995. Today I think it’s easy to be a DJ in Hyderabad if you want – this city is international and at the same time very open-minded.

You’ve become quite popular. Why do you think you resonate with so many people?
I think I’m both authentic and flexible. I realised that as I’ve become bigger, my audience has grown from a college-going age to over 20 and 30. What’s really interesting is I don’t stick to one genre. I’m very observant about what is going on around me, who’s killing it, what’s working and what isn’t. Basically, it is just trying to shape an identity around this.

Who are some of your biggest influences from the early days?
My favourites are Ivan, Steve, Ruskin Master, Midival Punditz, Bally Sagoo, Jean Michelle Jare, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, John Digweed, Paul Van Dyk and Tiesto, amongst others.

What’s next?
I’ve just finished building my own studio. Also, when I started, I would always start with the bassline, then I would add the melodies at the end. The way I work now is completely different, you can say it is out of an experience that I now believe in emotions and that it really makes the difference in the quality of a record. So I’m focusing more on the music now and want to make the music I want.
What are your three hottest tracks (of any genre) at the moment?
Hip Hop     –    'Mi Gente' by J. Balvin and Willy William
House     –    'Le Vale' by Moska
Electronic     –    'Corner Ball' by Doctor Dru

The Contemporary Violinist

Since the age of five, violinist Parsa Dattasai has been defying the odds. Fusing his Carnatic training with rock, contemporary, and psychedelic, the 24-year-old favours spontaneity in his compositions.

From playing at popular clubs and being recognised by India Nightlife Conventions as the best live act in Hyderabad, to composing for Telugu movies, Parsa’s sudden rise to prominence is evidence that it is his nonconformity that makes him special.

How did you begin your journey towards becoming a violinist?
My journey started in 1998, when I started playing the violin under Ashok G. Gurjale, Aarabhi Violin School. And I instantly fell in love with the instrument. I began learning Carnatic classical music and over the years explored different genres. I met Mark (keyboardist) in 2015 and we connected right away over our shared love of music. We then formed Threeory in the same year, and from there just grew to where we are now. Syntyche (vocalist), Sentilong (guitarist), and Tarun (drummer) joined the band later.

Working your way up in India as a violinist can be both tricky and arduous. How competitive is the music industry?
The music industry in India is expanding rapidly. Spirit always needs to be combined with ambition. I believe that anyone with a good spirit will always work hard and be a perfectionist on their own terms. That said, I’ve always been focused on perfection, but equally disdain convention. I won’t say there’s a right or a wrong way to play music, but it’s good to follow your instincts.

Who are some composers that you really connected with earlier on?
I love A.R. Rahman. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest composers of all time.

What’s the song you’re playing on repeat right now?
‘O sona’ from Mom is my current favourite. I’m also addicted to Yanni’s compositions.

Call of the Choir

The choir at the International School of Hyderabad (ISH) defines the concept of unity in diversity. The members here are soloists of an amazingly eclectic variety of genres, including, Western classical, popular music, Christmas classics  and more. But what binds them is not restricted to music, but their deep love for harmony. These talented musicians are led by their music coordinator, Iryna Tsarenko, who holds a PhD from Rostov State Rachmaninov Conservatoire (Russia), and has a wealth of musical experience.

Could you begin by telling us something about the choir?
I formed the choir at the International School of Hyderabad (ISH) six years back. It was a great moment when we all first came on stage and performed together. Many choristers came and went since then. But I believe all of us, who were involved in this journey, kept this unique spirit and feeling of togetherness. And the music just spawned from there.

What’s the importance of a choir?
Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t say that singing in a choir is the best way to help children feel connected, build their confidence or even develop an artistic understanding of the world around. But – as a musician – I believe that nothing is better than the experience of singing your heart out with your friends, sending a message to the community, and making a difference by bringing them together.

What are you focusing on right now in your work?
Oh, the IV Hyderabad Schools Choral Festival is underway. We started this in 2012, and since then it has become a popular Hyderabad event where music lovers from different schools join their voices together under the guidance of an expert. This time the impeccably curated festival is going interstate – as we have choirs from Delhi, Pune, and Bengaluru coming down. And I am excited to meet our special guest conductor – Professor Boris Tarakanov (Russia.)

What do you think is the future of this type of music in India?
In my opinion, India is a unique place; the people here appreciate other cultures and adapt them to create new visions. I’m certain there is a future – but I can’t foresee and predict anything in particular.

What’s your favourite album?
Oh, I have so many! It’s difficult to pick one. But I often listen to the remarkable Siberian-born baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky performing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff’s songs.

Singing From the Heart

In music, the phrase “artist to watch out for” gets tossed around a lot. But nowadays, with so many new ways to consume music, what makes an artist worth listening to? For Ashok Samuel Varghese, music has always been a deeply-rooted passion. The Vizag-born, Hyderabad-based singer spent most of his free time writing and performing at gigs. He’s the type of artist you just have to lose yourself to in order to appreciate how full of emotion and real his voice is, and all you need to do is lend a curious ear.

What sparked the formation of Marcus Find a Gun, and what inspired you to come together?
Around the second week of November in 2015, my good friend Rohit and I were sitting at home. We were wondering how we could jump on the fast-moving commercial music train that was making its way into Hyderabad. Fuelled by our hunger and desire to get back on stage and sustain a more consistent musical journey, we started a band and got on the bandwagon like everybody else. Two weeks and one drunken night later, and with the misheard lyrics of Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’ (I swear we didn’t hear ‘blow a kiss, fire a gun’!) serving as a catalyst, Marcus Find a Gun was born. My brother Alex and longtime music compatriot/aficionado Jonathan Edward got on board too, making the ensemble complete. We grew up together, learning and understanding music, so it made perfect sense.

What was your first memory of music?
I was probably three or four, sitting on the bed at home, staring up at the genius that is my elder brother, Adarsh Varghese, playing a song on his guitar. Music has always flowed through our veins as a family, inherited from both our parents. But my elder brother nurtured my growth as a musician and singer-songwriter. I practically learnt all my basics under his patient tutelage as a vocalist, and they have laid the foundation for me to better my skills and constantly perfect my craft.

Do you think that being a musician today is highly competitive?
As a musician, I think it is highly competitive in this day and age to get your music across to your audience, especially in India where original music is rarely appreciated and encouraged. Bollywood has in many ways diluted, limited, and corrupted people’s perceptions of the choices on offer with respect to homegrown original music and talent in the country. This has left independent artists – who aren’t necessarily commercially savvy or slaves to the industry – struggling and alienated, with limited avenues or platforms to bring their creative craft to the fore.

As a result, artists do have to work harder to carve out a niche for themselves. They must constantly stay fresh with their approach to writing music that is not your stereotypical Bollywood item song – like ‘Gulabi Aankhein’. They need to be innovative in their attempt to popularise genres that are not popular, such as jazz, blues, rock, and metal, to name a few.

How would you describe Marcus Find a Gun to someone who has never heard your music before?
Simple. We are a fun alternative rock, cover band – an original act that is full of energy, super tight, and explosive.

If you could work with anyone either alive or dead, who would they be and what would you do?
That’s easy. Miles Davis, Buddy Guy, Daniel Glidenlow, Daniel Tompkins, and John Mayer. Together they’ve influenced a large portion of my musical journey.

What song do you listen to when... …you’re on a road trip
Won’t be fair to pick one, but since I have to, ‘Evolution’ by Sky Harbor.

…you are really down
Ludovico Einaudi’s Album Divinere.

What’s happening next for you?
Lots of music, hopefully! Individually, I’m planning on writing more original music and experimenting with a lot of jazz, blues, and funk, and see where that takes me.