February 25, 2020
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On The Road

Baby I Can Drive Your Car

So why is our magazine designer and deputy editor on a tour of Europe with a "raga-rock" band? Hmmm. Let's see. He has an international driving licence, for one. The first instalment of his, well, travelogue, in which he introduces us to his travelli

Baby I Can Drive Your Car

I feel no less than Christopher Hitchens nor the band I am travelling with, Orange Street, feels any less than the Rolling Stones, as we fly out of India on "a rock tour of Europe".

The Indian rock bands have largely been playing music originally played by the western bands in festivals of IITs and other colleges. All of us have heard, and some even swayed to the tune of, our home-grown "rock-stars" when they strummed Deep Purple or a Queen number on college campus. And we all have known the time to leave: when they would announce, "We will play some of our own compositions now".

The reason why these bands failed to attract audiences was their inability to put together an album. So what one ended with was some good ‘covers’ and some fan following in the college circuit. Once the festival was over, the group disbanded. But the 90s changed a lot of things. Today whatever change we find in our urban lives--cars, mobiles, home-loans, what we wear, hear or tear, new age dharma, karma or pharma--is invariably attached by an umbilical chord to the one goddamn budget of Manmohan Singh. But there is no thought of the old captor --the control raj - or its victims -- the young, talented people of India, as I touch down in Stockholm. I finally find myself bereft of its ill-famed syndrome.

In the mid-90s, a gentleman named Amit Saigal (who by the way did not re-christen himself as Fuyu or Zoko, a name which would have been more suitable for his profession) started the Great Indian Rock Festival (GIR). The ‘greatness’ of this festival lay in the fact that it invited rock bands--as the name suggests, indigenous bands--to play what we were at one time allergic to: "own-original-compositions". Many bands and fans surfaced.

The interest these festivals generated year after year in the metros of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata and once in Shilong, made the epitaph of underground music a bit misplaced. For instance, this year's GIR in Delhi witnessed 8,000 fans and six bands over two days. Not just that, people had actually bought tickets to listen to the band's own compositions. The prominent bands of Delhi and Mumbai like Parikrama, Indian Ocean, Bombay Black and Zeros have all jammed at the GIR gigs regularly.

Orange Street, the band on tour of Europe, is playing together for nearly six years now, with Baan, its lead vocalist, as the pivot. Rest of the band members have changed over the years because Orange Street decided to experiment with heavy metal. The introduction of "Indian flavour" by peppering the sound with Indian percussion like dhol and tabla, and the second lead vocal of Hindustani classical has given the band an original look and feel.

Perhaps it is this raga-rock flavour that made the die-hard metal-head members leave the band, which at present has Imran Khan, the Hindustani classical vocalist, Donnie and Dara, on lead and base guitar, Ashwin, the 21-year-old energetic drummer and the percussionist, Golu. But for Imran, who has travelled the globe, courtesy the ICCR, for the rest of the band members, whose average age is 23-24 years, it is the first time in phoren land.

We are at the Indira Gandhi airport, six in the morning, all geared up. Both the guitarists are carrying an extra backup guitar. Ashwin has to carry just his drumsticks; the drums will be supplied at the different gigs. Therefore he has to lug the cable bag, which is quite heavy. Khan saab is made to carry the video camera; the band will shoot the tour and make a documentary later. Baan has the 808 mixer.

But Golu gets stopped at the Lufthansa check-in desk for travelling excess baggage. Some of his gear, which by the way is packed in huge cylindrical boxes, gets left behind. Carrying them would mean an extra baggage charge of Rs 28,000.Golu does quick mental math and says "not worth it". A friend had told him that Indian instruments fetch good money in the gora land so Golu had packed two extra pair of tablas, complete with iron stands and the works. Pity it doesn't work out..

We let the first hiccup pass and board a near empty plane.

Most of us stretch ourselves on the middle row, where they have four seats, folding up the armrest. There is a lay over of six hours in Munich before we reach Stockholm. The band is a bit awed at the first sight of the airport. Munich airport is not as big or plush as Frankfurt or Amsterdam are, but it will score an easy eight on ten when you compare it with any of our own. There are at least seven hours to pass before we can get our next free meal on board. The band makes a quick conversion in their head from Euro to Rupee and decides to hang on.

Khan saab from his many previous tours knows he will have to deal with many forbidden foods. He is carrying some home made mathis, which he shares with me on our Munich-Stockholm flight. He confides in me that the only band member he hasn't got on along with so far is Dara. He thinks Dara doesn't quite accept him. It's easy to see why. Dara has modelled himself on the 70s hard rockers: dark glasses even at night, spiked hair, loads of attitude, wants to do all the dirty things he should be doing as a rock star. He ain't cool, he is bad.

We have time to kill, so Khan saab proceeds to tell me his story. He belongs, he says, to the Dilli gharana, which was founded by Amir Khusro. His father, the late Naseer Ahmad Khan was bestowed the rare honour of Taan Samrat and was a close contemporary of Ustad Bade Gulam Ali and Ustaad Aamir Khan. The youngest twin in the family of seven brothers and sisters, Khan saab lost his father at a very young age. Baptism by Hindustani classical singing was natural for Khan, as all his older siblings were part of some established classical musician's troupe. Khan is a keen cricketer -- has played for the Delhi Ranji team -- but finally decided to give up cricket for music.

Baan had heard of him and invited him to rehearse at Donnie's flat for their new album Dharma after Golu declined to sing and play the dholak at the same time. It took Khan some time to convince the family before they approved of his flirting with rock music. The entire Khan family had come to the British Council auditorium, at the official launch of Dharma, the night before we flew, and had reluctantly given a go ahead to Khan's rendezvous.

Through the two-hour Munich-Stockholm flight, Khan saab regales me with gossip from the classical music fraternity and has me in splits with his superb mimicry of Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan and Ustaad Zakir Hussain. We reach Stockholm at 10 in the night to find the sun still shining brightly. Amit Saigal, who is the tour manager has organised two cars from Hertz rent-a-car, for the Scandinavia leg of the tour. I will be driving one of the two cars as other than Amit, I am the only other member to have an international driving licence.

I get a red Ford, a station wagon, which gets loaded to capacity with the baggage and the gear. My rear view is totally blocked by the luggage and I can only see through the side view mirrors. I gingerly drive on the right side of the road on a left hand vehicle, first time in my life, to our hotel which is 5 km away. Tomorrow morning we will be joined by our local friend, Hans, a lead guitarist in a Swedish band and a part time tour-leader for Swedish tourists in India, to Borlange - 300 km from Stockholm, for the Love and Peace Festival....

(to be contd.)

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