True Blues

True Blues
July 2, 2009
By Ipshita Kumar

When Eiffel 65 sang “Blue are the words I say and what I think / blue are the feelings that live inside me”, they probably did not know what effect it might have on the audience! Think Blues, think remorse, misfortune, betrayal and the likes. When the economy recedes into the pits of recession, you get the blues. Your boss gives you the slightest hint of retrenchment, you get the blues. Your beloved falls out of love with you, and you are blue. Your pet dies, you get the blues. Well, there is no end to describing blue (other than the colour, of course)!
Often dealing with personal adversity, Blues music itself goes far beyond self-pity. Blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down and simply having fun. The best Blues are congenital, cathartic and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion than the Blues.
The Blues, let’s not forget, also gave rise to Rock and Roll — the first electric guitar was designed and made by a white musician by the name of Les Paul (whose folk singing with wife Mary Ford was all rage during 1940s and ‘50s) who simply stuck a pre-amplifier onto a hollow body acoustic guitar. It didn’t cut ice with any type of listener. Then came the real, electric guitar — the solid body version that today no rock musician would be seen without. Muddy Waters was the first black man, a legendary Blues singer who volunteered to play it in public, though well-wishers warned him that he would be ‘rocking his way to heaven or hell’, that is, get electrocuted.
Thus, Chuck Berry the first superstar of Rock, just followed suit (and incredibly, though now in his 80’s, he still tours around the world to belt out his original rocking tunes like Long Tall Sally, or Johnny B Goode, Roll Over Beethoven) Bill Haley and Comets, Joey Dee and the Starlighters. Finally Elvis Presley mimicked these 'Blues' singers or Blues-influence rockers. Among the ladies, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith and, of course, Big Mama Thornton who could scream better than Janis Joplin, the ill-fated rocker whom drugs claimed in the prime of her youth, were Blues superstars. BMT could play a mean harmonica, jamming with greats like Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Muddy Waters.
The Blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. Originating on the Southern plantations in the 19th century, the inventors of the Blues were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves — African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields. It’s generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country-dance music.
The Blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz. Blues and Jazz have always influenced each other and they still interact in countless ways today. Unlike Jazz, the Blues didn’t travel significantly from the South to the Midwest until the 1930s and ‘40s. Once the Delta Blues made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, the music evolved into electrified Chicago Blues, other regional styles, and various Jazz-blues hybrids. A decade or so later the Blues gave birth to Rhythm 'n Blues and Rock 'n Roll.
Yes, the Blues have always remained in the background, a fringe phenomenon — mainly due to racism. They may have a Black president but Bessie Smith breathed her last on the doorsteps of a whites-only hospital, and though very rich, she was refused treatment for drug withdrawal symptoms.
Delhi boasts of the only Blues and Jazz bar in the country. Haze Blues and Jazz bar, owned by Kiranjit Sant, host Blues nights every week. Over the years Haze has become a popular joint for music lovers and live acts. Bands like Soulmate (Blues band from Shillong) Lou Majaw (also from Shillong performing folk and blues and rock and roll music), and Groove Wallah (a Blues band ) perform there quite often. “When I started the Blues Club of India in 2006, I knew that artists across the country needed a platform to perform and bring their music to the fore. There couldn’t have been a better place than Haze to do so,” says Sant.
Talking of popularity,
we see divergent reactions from people in various cities across India. Mumbai-based Debolin Sen, who calls himself a traveller and a high altitude Himalayan trekker and runs a travel portal called 18 Days, loves Blues and listens to them. “I have a decent collection of them and Albert King is my favourite artist,” says Sen. According to him, it needs a dedicated fan following which the present generation cannot provide. Their music tastes are very different. “So Blues as an art form is rarely played anywhere. Even in Mumbai, we do not have Blues-specific lounges/bars/pubs.
All live act venues cater to Rock and a mixture of Rock and Punk,” says Sen. Talking about the non popularity of Blues music among the youth today Sen says, “Blues isn’t cool; hip hop is. It catches the fancy of the youth today. Often, youngsters tend to go with what’s popular. It was cool in the 1960s, but it is no longer. Every decade in music has its own highlights.”
There is an apparent decline as far as interest in Blues music is concerned and there are no exclusive joints in Mumbai that play Blues music. But what music buffs in the city are proud of is the city’s best live music venue called Blue Frog, set up in a defunct textile mills compound in central Mumbai. The acoustically designed Blue Frog gives a new meaning to live music six nights a week, every week, with acts that cut across all genres, including Blues. One of the reasons why Blue Frog has proved to be such a successful concept is that it's been created by musicians for musicians. The founding partners of Blue Frog are composer-musicians Ashutosh Phatak and Dhruv Ghanekar, film director Mahesh Mathai, film producer Srila Chatterjee and fund manager Simran Mulchandani.
Banglaore-based photographer Parikshit Rao is not an avid Blues music fan. Rao does not go out and buy Blues music to add to his collection; but he does not mind listening to them while whiling away his time in a pub or when it is playing in the background.
Contradicting the above views, Viraj Suvarna, director of Take Five — a resto-bar in Bangalore, says, "I think youth today likes Blues a lot. I have seen it both in Bangalore and Goa, People like Blues the same way as they like Rock and other forms of music." Take Five plays blues every Saturday. Though there’s an array of mixed opinions, Blues is still popular there.
Pune is a leading city for Jazz, and though those who became fanatics about bebop and hard bop and Miles Davis type of Jazz, never learnt much about the Blues, they do agree to go foot tapping when a Blues band performs. Max Babi, a metallurgist and a plasma technologist by profession and a Jazz /Blues writer and critic by choice, is a founder member of the Pune Jazz Club. He says, “There is no question of 'interest in blues' fading. The interest was always there in a very minimal quantity, so it remains. At no point of time, any music critic or observer would have felt that the Blues could become a phenomenal success like Rap or Hip Hop. Sadly, Rhythm and Blues, a derivative of the Blues has camouflaged the blues all these years from 1940 onwards. Thus you may see BB King getting a Grammy award in the R&D category, because there ain't no category for the Blues!”
The Blues is the mother music out of which jazz grew. Probably it was Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, believed to be the true face of jazz, who famously said; “ There can be blues without Jazz, but there can never be Jazz without blues...”
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