Himalayan Pop: Suman Thapa and the Blue Fret

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Jiri, Nepal

My 16 year old son recently returned from 3 weeks in Nepal as part of his school’s World Challenge expedition. They spent their time helping a primary school near Pokhara with some painting and wall-building but also got a chance to trek around the Annapurna region as well as visit the Chitwan National Park. It was for him a life changing experience. An opportunity to see that the rest of the world doesn’t live connected to Spotify, Instagram and Snapchat. And to appreciate what its like to be a visitor in another very strong, old culture.

On one of their first days in Kathmandu one of the boys took the others to visit a family friend, Suman Thapa.  Turns out this man was a musician and before the end of the evening he gave a copy of his group’s latest CD to my son. Which my son gave to me for Christmas.

The group is The Blue Fret. The name of their album is Jiri Blues.  

I’ve been listening to this all day and I have to say my socks have been blown off.  It is NOTHING like I expected it to be.  Nepal is full of garage bands who do (better or not so good) covers of 60s-90s pop and reggae.  There are also a lot of folk bands and outfits that blend Nepali folk/Hindustani classical and jazz.  But nothing quite like this.

Jiri is a small village in the mountains of Nepal. Historically, it used to be the starting point for the early explorers of Mount Everest. Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay started their historic ascent of Mt. Everest from Jiri.

At one time, Jiri used to the hub for all trekkers and mountaineers. With the passing of time, motorable roads went further out from Jiri. That’s when the trekkers and mountaineers moved further on, and that’s when Jiri got the Blues!

The Jiri Blues is an album of songs in the western sytle of music incorporating the sound of Nepali folk instruments, ‘bansuri’ and ‘sarangi.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of the album will support Project Sarangi which was founded by one of the band members, Kiran Nepali. Project Sarangi is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of indigenous Nepali folk music craftsmanship.

All songs were written by Suman Thapa and most of them in Jiri.

(liner notes)

Thapa and his group sing in flawless American accents and write songs that reveal a real intimate knowledge of Western pop.  When was the last time you heard a Nepali song with titles like “Lincoln Town‘ or ‘Melissa on the Rocks‘?  Thapa has a warm, supple voice and plays nice guitar (mostly acoustic but he does have a few tasty licks on the electric as well). The rest of the band support each song with piano/keyboards, bamboo flute (bansuri), bass and drum.  Kiran Nepali, turns in a gorgeous sarangi solo on  Slow Down and leaves you wishing he had been given more space.

The sound is a blend of soft rock, roots with a slight twang, a touch of reggae beats and folk.  Thapa is a solid lyricist who manages to mix local imagery within a western pop-song frame such as the following from Lincoln Town.

Prayer flags and a block of cheese/They are my lifetime guarantees

I’m headed to the home of the bees/Oh won’t you come with me

The Blue Fret is the first real discovery of 2020.  Perfect for a mountain sunset or a rainy day inside with a cuppa tea.

 

front

Jiri inside

 

Jiri back

Track Listing:

01 Lincoln Town

02 Jiri Blues

03 Some Reason Why

04 Shadows of the Night

05 Don’t Say Hello

06 Melissa on the Rocks

07 I won’t Cry for You

08 ‘Konjo’ Taxi Lady

09 Slow Down

10 A Moment in Jiri

JiriB

Triple Treat: Gary Boyle ‘Patna wala’

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Gary Boyle

Recently I had the great pleasure of making the acquaintance of Gary Boyle, one of those figures who has remained lost in the pages of history of rock music.  It’s like when you’re reading a thick tome on some topic and you keep seeing a name pop up in the footnotes.  After a while you begin to think: hell, who IS this guy?

I won’t say too much because you can read my recently published interview with Gary and get all the relevant details.  Suffice it to say, he is one rocker that deserves far more than the obscurity he seems to have been relegated to.  Here’s just a few names he’s been associated with:

  • The Beatles
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Millie Small
  • Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll
  • Steampacket
  • Eddie Harris
  • Stomu Yamashta
  • East Wind
  • Chris Blackwell
  • Gary Moore
  • Soft Machine

And since the publication of the interview (just a few days ago) I’ve received  information from a ‘higly reliable source’ that Gary was part of a ’70s music scene in London that included even luminaries such as Led Zeppelin!

So don’t be ignorant any longer. Here are three slices of Gary Boyle, the Bihar-born guitarist you should have known about a long long time ago.

Slice One.

For several years in the late 60s and then again in the early 70s Gary was the guitarist for blues/jazz/rock outfit Trinity, led by organist Brian Auger and gorgeous vocalist Julie Driscoll. Open, released in 1968, has a sound that slides between soul-jazz and jazz-rock with material that is mostly covers of the likes of Donavan, Dylan and Lowell Fulsom. Which should be no reason to wrinkle up your nose .  AllMusic, the go-to Bible of the music obsessed, gives the album 4 out of 5 stars.  It is, indeed, a very nice slice of late 60s ‘flower power’ psych music. Gary’s guitar work especially on the first half of the record is wonderful, demonstrating his facility with the a swinging sort of blues rock that I simply adore.

It was during his tenure with Brian Auger that he and Jimi Hendrix became mates. But just after recording Open, Gary quit to pursue a couple of years of jazz guitar instruction in Leeds.  He would return to Auger’s fold in ’71-’72.

Track Listing:

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01 In and Out

02 Isola Natale

03 Black Cat

04 Lament for Miss Baker

05 Goodbye Jungle Telegraph

06 Tramp

07 Why (Am I Treated So Bad)

08 A Kind of Love In

09 Break It Up

10 Season of the Witch

11 I’ve Gotta Go Now [bonus track]

12 Save Me [bonus track]

13 This Wheel’s on Fire [bonus track]

14 Road to Cairo [bonus track]

OPEN 

Slice Two.

In 1973 Gary formed his own jazz-rock band, Isotope. While it never attained the popularity of such groups as Weather Report or Return to Forever, who pioneered a similar style of improv-heavy electric jam music, now known as ‘fusion’, Isotope was (is) regarded highly by fans, critics and peers.  Indeed, Isotope had a large following in the UK and in 1975/6 (?) were ready to tour the States. Represented by Motown of all labels, they arrived in New York exhausted from a European tour.  Several meetings took place with label executives and Billy Cobhaman Isotope fan, even put his hand up to produce their next album.  According to Gary though, the band was tired, and rather than face the prospect of more grueling weeks on the road, abandoned the tour and returned to England.  One can only wonder, what if?

Here is All Music’s review of Isotope, their self-titled debut.  A couple more albums followed before the band finally broke up.  This is not a style of music I naturally gravitate to but the more I listen to this album the more I find to appreciate.  The interplay between Gary on guitar and Brian Miller on keyboards is genuinely exciting. And it is not all lightning paced riff-juggling either. When both mellow out, on tracks like Windmills and Waterfalls, they show they are just as musical and inventive on acoustic versions of their instruments as when they are fully amped.  This is one that keeps growing on me.

Track Listing:

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01 Then There Were Four

02 Do The Business

03 Oh Little Fat Man

04 Sunshine Park

05 Bite On This

06 Upward Curve

07 Retracing My Steps

08 Windmills And Waterfalls

09 Honkey Donkey

ISOTOPE

Slice Three:

Gary is ambivalent about missing out on the ‘the big time’.  He was always a guitarist first and foremost; it was playing, learning and hanging out with people who liked to do the same that meant the most. He’s the first to admit he was ‘hopeless’ at the business of running a band, and when things eventually fell apart beyond repair in the late 1970s he basically retired from the scene which he done so much to help create.  After Isotope he reached the highest point of his career with the album The Dancer which was voted best pop/jazz album of 1978 by the Montreux Jazz Festival!

Electric Glide (1978), in which he is joined by bluesman Gary Moore, is my current favourite Gary Boyle album.  From the opening track, Snap Crackle, there is a light and lively feel to the music. You can feel his joy and (perhaps) anticipation that things were once again looking up.  The jazz sounds are more smooth and his playing is simply awesome. “Even today I don’t consider myself a jazz guitarist”, he told me.  The man is too humble.  The record is filled with outstanding  and diverse music.  Some of it straight-ahead fusion with trademark, shimmering, quicksilver guitar runs by both Boyle and Moore (Hayabusa), some of it Bensonesque, slap-bass puncuated soul jazz (Electric Glide). Again, acoustic tracks (Morning Father Joys; It’s Almost Light Again) are simply delightful while Gaz gives Moore an opportunity to break out with some hairy chested blues-rock.

All Music gives all three albums 4/5 stars.  I beg to differ on this one though. It’s nothing short of 5 stars all the way.

Track Listing:

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01 Snap Crackle

02 Hayabusa

03 Electric Glide

04 Morning Father Joys

05 Gaz

06 It’s Almost Light Again

07 Grumble

08 Brat No. 2

ELECTRIC GLIDE

In the long history of India and the guitar, you’re not going to get much music that tops the work of the greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of, Mr. Gary Boyle.

 

Time Capsule of Delight: Golden Era of Sri Lankan Popular Music

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This poster comes from a time and place that no longer exists.   In 1972 after centuries of being known (at least to those who didn’t live there) as the fabled emerald tear drop of Ceylon, the country took the much more ancient name of Sri Lanka.

Though very different from the country it is so geographically close to there are of course  connections of history, faith, legend and people that are now completely entangled.  For most children of the 80s and 90s and 00s, Sri Lanka is infamous (but not unique by any means) for trying to unentangle that heritage with violence.  Tamil Tigers. Peoples Liberation Fronts. Civil War. All of these displaced images (and the reality) of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a lush hinterland and some of the nicest people on earth.

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1977. A longish haired, lungi wearing hippie who crossed the strait between Rameshwaram and Talaimanar on a rusty large steamship.  I fell instantly in love. The greenery. The tea plantations. The white sand. How life was so inexpensive. I think I spent the princely sum of $50 for a 10 day visit (including accommodation and transportation costs).

During those ten days I discovered a band called Supertramp. Some French Swiss longhair had it on his Sony tape recorder. Sadly, the music of the land I was visiting didn’t even register.  And it would be several more decades before it would.

Even now I consider myself an infant in the nursery school of Sri Lankan music and have nothing meaningful to say about it that others have not. Baila is probably the island’s most well known popular form of dance music and traces it roots to the Portuguese time.  But to limit the music of Sri Lanka to the baila would be akin to identifying Punjabi music as only bhangra.

And here, dear readers is evidence of that statement.

This is a recording which can only be described as delightful. A 30 track tour across Serendip in which including bubbly baila you will be treated to folk, rural and urban species of sound from all round.

Six out of five!

Out of the park.

Get down and get back up again!

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Track Listing:

01Instrumental Baila Medley

02 Soken Pala Ne

03 Gamen Liyumak

04 Naan Unnai Thedum

05 Instrumental Baila Medley

06 Netha Giya Hematana

07 Kaffiringha

08 Ceremonial Drums

09 Jeevithe Vasanthaye

10 Anbil Valarnthai

11 Pinna Mal

12 Mama Bohoma Bayauna

13 Vairodi Wannama

14 Handa Haami

15 Goyam Gee

16 Eka Dawasak

17 Mindada Heesara

18 Roshi

19 Sigiriya

20 Deepa Tupe Vihare

21 Drum Orchestra

22 Gavaskar the Century Maker

23 Bolanda Katha

24 Sinidu Sudu Muthu

25 Malli

26 City of Colombo (with Noeline Mendis)

27 Durakathanaya

28 Amma

29 Kimada Naave

30 Perakumba Davasa

SRILANKAGOLD

Harmonium up and playing again! Nandu Bhende’s Disco Duniya

Naacho ! Disco Chalo!

Naacho ! Disco Chalo!

Well, all systems are go! At least for now, even if behind the scenes a veritable tech menagerie is working overtime to stave off complete oblivion. In my free hours since the loss of my digital world I’ve dug out ancient tiny external drives and copied the most complete libraries of music and photos that survived to other safe havens. My desk is a bomb site of USBs, wires, little external drives and those two ugly fat Seagates, still dead as stones.

Even the MacAir which was similarly defunct has been persuaded (by the good unblocker, Ganesh, perhaps?) to come to life again. So while the panic levels have decreased somewhat there is still some ways to go before I can sleep completely easy at night.

Thanks to all of you who provided comfort and even offers of help and cash to get the show back on the road. That was unexpected and really, very deeply appreciated!

So to celebrate the resurrection Harmonium lets get right into it with a VERY special disc: Disco Duniya by Nandu Bhende.

Nandu Bhende is a seminal figure in the history of Indian popular music, about whom I am very poorly placed to write anything. Others, especially Sidarth Bhatia, the author of a history of India’s rock ‘n roll scene (India Psychedelic- The Story of a Rocking Generation), are far better placed than me to speak about Bhende and his many incarnations on the music scene.

A young Nandu Bhende

A young Nandu Bhende

An early founder and member of many rock groups that played the clubs of Calcutta and Bombay, Nandu was drawn into the world of film music where he both composed, performed and sang. From an artist family tree which includes one of India’s greatest modern writers/critics the Bene Israeli poet Nissim Ezekiel, Nandu Bhende produced this disco record that is now quite the collector’s item.

Capitalizing on the new disco sounds (the electronic pops and squeals are well represented here) Bhende basically sampled and blended and twisted the sounds of Bollywood into two long seamless tracks. Side A reviews some of the biggest filmi hits of the 1970s and revamps them in a sound that (for that time, the early 80s) was the absolute height of funkiness. He brings in the voice of a young lass (who remains nameless on the credits) and sings along on some of the tracks himself. I am also assuming Mr Bhende played all the ‘instruments’ himself, as they are all keyboard generated.

Side B, is a similar long (but very interesting) journey through the ever green hits of Shammi Kapoor, the handsome, romantic Hugh Grant of 1960s Indian cinema.

So without further ado…get on your dancing shoes and head out to the disco!

Disco Duniya front Disco Duniya back

01 Hits of the Decade

02 Shammi Kapoor Hits

disco

 

 

Bold Experiment: V. Balasara and His Singing Sitars

cinthol_ad_1970s He was taken with an inordinate feeling of nostalgia these days. Nostalgia was not an emotion he particularly tried to nurture; nor was he fond of the sappy unreliable memories it always delivered. But probably because he was tired of being alone, living far from his family and because he had recently returned from a short visit to India he did not resist the feeling.   Though he was not nostalgic he did inhabit a certain psychological world where the brightest and most attractive things seemed to have been conceived and created in an era before digitization and virtual reality had become the norm. The album cover before him showed a young Indian woman with makeup that suggested 1970 smiling up at a group of rather stiff sitars. It reminded him of the ads in the newspapers that were delivered to the home very morning by a skinny man on a rickety cycle.   Ads for soap and locks and trips to Kashmir. They were always full of ladies who looked exactly like the one the album cover. The title made him smile: Great International Hits. Indeed. As he listened the familiarity of a secure childhood, intermissions in darkened cinemas and background music at swank restaurants in Calcutta and Madras made him feel good. He relaxed. The sitars sounded as if they were not really made for this sort of outing. But they complied and when surrounded by strings, drums and accordions he felt as if they did find their voice. Sort of. The tunes, Stranger in the Night, These Boots Are Made for Walking, Sugar Town and Do Re Mi, were not exactly rock n’ roll, but then they were the sounds of that era: 1966-72 when India and the West seemed to tentatively put forth their hands toward each other. The embrace was sincere but not necessarily entirely comfortable. Hesitation abounded and he could sense that with each track. The sitarists plowed ahead, as quickly as possible, probably convinced that Westerners loved fast moving music.   There was no time to explore the space between the notes or dawdle luxuriantly with such nonsense as ‘alaap’. He had no doubt the record was cut live. One track after another. The experiment of a creative Bengali man, V. Balasara, who had made a name for himself playing all sorts of instruments with strange, modern sounding names like Univox and Melodica in the film studios of Bombay. Did this sell? Did it have an audience other than proprietors of movie houses and up and coming restaurants? He looked at the back of the record and saw it was pressed and issued in Sydney. I guess it must have had some fans.

V. Balasara

V. Balasara

The man put the album down and turned up the sound. Lara’s Theme, which at one time could have stood in for India’s national anthem was playing. When it wound to a close, he started the whole thing again. Damn, this was fun music. Balasara front Balasara back Track Listing: 01 These Boots are Made for Walking 02 Puppet on a String 03 My Favourite Things 04 I Want to Hold Your Hand 05 Sugar Town 06 Edelweiss 07 Do-Re-Mi 08 If I Had a Hammer 09 Strangers in the Night 10 Tequila 11 Lemon Tree 12 Lara’s Theme B S