WHAT happens when you try to translate Indian contemporary sound into music that can be understood internationally? Colonial Cousins, a collection of eight songs produced by south Indian ghazal and classical singer Hariharan and composer-music director Leslie "Lezz" Lewis. This maiden album, named after the recently formed group, says Lewis, "is a firm denial of Indian sounds being an apology for the popular music scene in the world. This is how we speak, this is how we sing and this is how we make music."
The result is indeed refreshing. The songs are in English, the music ecumenical and the tunes, Indian. "We worked for almost two years over this album with some of the best musicians in the world. I didn't want high-brow, avant garde music; nor were we keen on bringing out an excuse for Hinglish pop that is out in hordes," says Lewis.
And judging by the response to their album, it is beginning to grow on people's minds. Says Mohan Mohapatra, chief of Plus Music: "I liked what I heard. And I think that such experimental music in the pop genre is on its ascendancy."
The market too has responded well. Says Joel Pinto, salesman at Bombay's Rhythm House: "Initially we were selling between 30 and 35 cassettes a day. Now we are averaging between 10 and 15." According to Meena Iyer of Magnasound (India), over 42,000 cassettes have already been sold since the month-old launch and after the March 8 release of the CD version, volumes are expected to pick up. The real marketing is yet to take off though. But, says Lewis: "Once the songs are aired on TV we expect a better response from the market."
Lewis, who has albums like Sunita Rao's Paree, Alisha Chinoi's Bombay Girl and Asha Bhonsle's recent tribute to R.D. Burman Rahul and I to his credit, spent four months in the UK with Hariharan getting the album ready.
Lewis has interesting anecdotes to tell about their beginnings. Living Colour, which performed at the Grammy's this year, was recording in England. Doug Wimbish, who is a bass player for the group, was playing for Colonial Cousins in the same studio when Vernon Reid, the renowned guitar player walked in to meet him and said: "This track's got a really wicked groove man. Can I play on it?" Reid indeed has played a "wicked" riff in that song. For the first time, you find Indian folk tunes with English lyrics and a stanza or two in real local dialect added to emphasise the folk element.
Interestingly, it was chance that got the album going. Hariharan, who has also sung popular tracks for the films Roja and Bombay, was doing the vocals for one of the ad jingles Lewis was composing at his 24 track state-of-the-art studio, Purple Haze. During a break Hariharan started improvising Indian classical music against the stray blues and jazz tunes Lewis was picking out on his guitar. "The fusion was electric," says Leslie. "Two radically different minds, contesting, pushing each other, at the same time caressing each other musically to create that magical moment."
That magical moment was further enhanced by an extremely talented group of musicians including Grammy award winner Viswa Mohan Bhatt who has recorded a solo track for them on his Mohan Veena.
Colonial Cousins, as Lewis pointedly says, is not an amalgamation or fusion of different genres of music like jazz, rock, Indian classical and pop. It is an alchemy influenced by all schools of music and is yet in the genre of most pop songs today. However, it remains one of the better attempts at bringing Indian sounds in the realm of the English pop scene. If Gloria Estefan can bestow pop with her Spanish influences, if the Caribbean can adopt English in their folk tunes, if Paul Simon can blend African music in Graceland, Colonial Cousins deserves to be a refreshing winner all right.