Russian rock legend bred on Indian traditional music

March 16th, 2008 - 12:44 pm ICT by admin  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, March 16 (IANS) What binds Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov to India? “Sri Krishna, oriental mysticism, Indian traditional music and spiritual guide Guru Chinmoy,” says the lead vocalist of the 35-year-old Aquarium Rock’n’ Roll band, one of Russia’s oldest rock music groups. Grebenshchikov was in the capital for a concert with his band at the Siri Fort auditorium as part of a joint cultural initiative by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography of Russia.

A two-hour performance by the band saw a vintage Grebenshchikov perform at least 30 original scores from his vast repertoire of rock, fusion, jazz, blues, reggae and Russian folk songs. For once, language was no bar. At the end of the concert, the audience clamoured for more.

“My music has no language. They are the songs of life, everyday things. I seek universality in my music,” Grebenshchikov, who is in his 50s, told IANS in an interview after the concert.

Grebenshchikov’s band has played an important part in the evolution of modern Russian rock music, which arrived in the nation surreptitiously after a World Festival of Youth and Students in 1957 when the state had clamped an iron curtain in the red bastion at the height of the Cold War.

Founded by Grebenshchikov and his friend, dramatist Anatoly Gunitsky, in 1972 as an underground band, Aquarium helped consolidate the creative powers of the largely disorganised Russian amateur rock movement and turned the global spotlight on contemporary Russian music.

“I was training to be a mathematician at Leningrad University, but music got the better of me bit by bit. And by the end of the 1960s, I became a full-time musician,” said the rocker, his face creasing into folds of laughter.

The troupe’s first concert in 1974 came as a surprise to Communist Russia, which, according to Grebenshchikov, was bred on “doctored and artificially enriched music”.

The concert introduced Russians to Indian spiritualism, American rock’n’ roll music, folk songs composed by bards and the literature of the absurd. Aquarium came to be known for its powerful language and instrumental innovations that drew from a great wind (pipe) section.

Grebenshchikov’s mellifluous compositions are dominated by flute, very Indian in essence.

“I love the flute, picked it up from traditional Indian music that I studied in great depth. In the course of my pursuit of Indian religion and philosophy, I realised that the pipe had a tremendous impact on the country’s music and I decided to experiment with it,” said the musician, a native of St. Petersburg.

“Flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia has collaborated with us in one of our albums, ‘Careless Russian Rover,” Grebenshchikov said, driving home his India link.

He claims to have been reared on Indian music. “Courtesy my parents in the 1960s, who were profoundly influenced by Indian music. It was probably a fallout of the popularity of Raj Kapoor starrers in Russia. While they fell in love with Bollywood, I explored its sounds. But my first big brush with Indian music was post-Beatles. I was enchanted by the Indian beats of Beatles and decided to dig its Indian roots,” the musician said.

The trail took Grebenshchikov to Indian religion. “My first book about India was ‘God, Demons and Others’. I don’t remember its original Indian name but that was how it was translated into Russian,” the musician recalled.

At a time when Russian rock musicians had to be content with minimalist sounds and almost primitive recording technology because of the ban on rock music under the communist regime, Grebenshchikov contributed significantly to a secret recording mode called “magnitizdat”, do-it-yourself records by amateur rock bands in underground studios that were hand-delivered to hundreds of fans.

An album called “Red Wave” featuring music by four bands from Leningrad, including Grebenshchikov’s Aquarium, which was released in the US, legitimized Russian rock music.

How does it feel now that the walls are down and Perestroika is well entrenched on Russian soil? “Strange. The decades have been marked by much of change. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, rock music was illegal. Then the social standing changed and we found ourselves all over the stage. It was like hey, yesterday we were illegal and today, legal,” explained Grebenshchikov, trying to put together the chequered history of state-controlled music in Russia before the break-up of the red bloc.

Music took a beating during communist rule. Much of the folk traditions, especially music, were lost, he said, because the state “tried to enrich it culturally”.

So Aquarium is “reinventing folk music”. The band now performs all the time - “it has been never ending for the last 17 years,” is how Grebenshchikov likes to describe the present.

As for the walls, there is still a long way to go, rues the rock legend. “The social barriers may have lifted but the barrier in each person’s consciousness remains. So wherever I go, I have to begin it anew, the process of liberating through music,” he said.

Aquarium, he said, has also evolved over time. “When you are young, you try to impress, but over the years the emphasis has shifted to people. We now make music for the masses.” The band is working on a new “softer line-up” for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in May.

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