23 July 2014

The amazing Debashish Bhattacharya

Every week I write a short column that appears in the M lift-out in The Sunday Age newspaper. It's called Six Burning Questions and I love it. I love it because I get to interview all kinds of people who do interesting stuff from all over the world. Although the interviews are pretty short (I get about 20 minutes tops) and over the phone, we often get into some pretty interesting territory. The trickiest part is editing the interview down to a short, snappy piece within the word count – I often have to cut out some of the best stuff and it kills me.

So, with my editor’s blessing, I’m going to start publishing some longer versions of my Six Burning Questions here – sometimes to seven and beyond. The first is a quite recent one I did with Indian guitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya, who I called in Kolkata before he made his first trip to Australia. Debashish is an extraordinarily accomplished musician, who, amongst other things, pioneered a new approach to Indian traditional music using a Hawaiian slide guitar, started his own school, and invented three guitars. He is also extremely fun to talk to and very inspiring. We went along to his concert last week and it was incredible. He performed with an amazing tabla player and his daughter, who is a fantastic singer. She is also a hilarious teenager and would respond sarcastically every time Debashish told a story, with something like, ‘here we go again,’ or, ‘no you didn’t’.

The music was great to hear live and he had even brought the three guitars he invented along. At one point he said he’d like to thank Singapore Airlines, and we all groaned, expecting to hear a story about lost luggage, but Debashish explained that not all news is bad news and that he had had a wonderful experience with Singapore Airlines and they had delivered all his instruments safely. He then asked for a round of applause for Singapore Airlines and his daughter rolled her eyes.

When did you first play a guitar?
At age three my mum and dad gave me a Hawaiian steel string slide guitar. It was an immense pleasure from the beginning to have the guitar on my lap. I played little mini concerts as a child and at the age of four I played for the first time on our national broadcaster, the All India Radio. 

Did you know straight away that this would be your life?
I did not know about the rest of my life but I still clearly remember how bright the energy of that first sound of the string of the guitar as I plucked it. I became so deeply involved with that little instrument. 

What do you love about the Hawaiian slide guitar? What is your connection to Hawaiian culture?
There is so much similarity between the music I heard in my childhood and Hawaiian traditional music. It gives me a very strong belief of remaining in the tradition. Music is not a sound only. When you hear Hawaiian and old Indian raga music, you understand that music is not only sound. 

Your music is both innovative and traditional. How do you walk that line?
I always felt that in music it is a huge responsibility for a performing artist to carry the tradition in one hand and keep it running so that the tradition has some wheels and a motor to run into the future. When I started playing the guitar, I heard Ravi Shankar and so many stars of our country. But my guitar didn’t sound like the soundscape of those traditional Indian instruments. To follow the tradition of an old Indian heritage of raga music I had no other option than making something new and different, so my slide guitar could accommodate more soundscapes of Indian origin.

You started the Universal School of Music in Kolkata. Is your hope that musicians continue to innovate traditional music?
My school is very interesting. Drummers, vocalists, saxophone players, jazz pianists, a bagpiper from Ireland and many other instruments come to our school. Every student learns differently, and stays for up to two months with us. We started in 2004 so this is the tenth year. We have worked with 80 musicians and apart from that we have also given our school facilities to another 150 students. In January 2015 we are staging an international guitar festival in Kolkata. 

What would you like to achieve next in your career?
First of all I want to play a little better every day. I want all my questions related to music to be answered. I want to create a group of the younger generation of guitar players who can play Indian classical slide guitar. I also want to do loads of recording which I could not do before because I was always busy with something else. Also to collaborate with different artists, including some African, some European. And to write some music for Philharmonic Orchestra. Those are the things I want to achieve in the next 10 years before I retire.

What do you like to do besides play music?
If I have time I watch and play football. I play cricket as well but I stopped playing badminton because it hurts my tennis elbow. I also watch action movies and cooking is also my passion. Also sometimes on a Saturday night if I don’t have any concerts, I bring some musicians to my home and we play together and eat together.

It sounds like a great life.
(Laughs) that is what you wanted to know! You did not want to know the sadder parts of my life, so I am not telling you.

Debashish Bhattacharya performed at Arts Centre Melbourne on July 16, 2014. The Six Burning Questions version of this interview was published in The Sunday Age on July 13, 2014. An online version can be found here.

20 July 2014

A weekend in Landsborough

We came away for the weekend, this weekend. We are still away. I’m writing this from a comfortable chair with a footstool, right by the fire in the living room. Leonard Cohen is playing on the lovely old stereo, Tess is asleep on a cushion next to a globe of the world and Rosie is seated at the dining table, waiting for her computer to restart and looking up what vegetable our baby resembles this week. Apparently it’s the size of a cucumber – what kind of cucumber? Lebanese? Continental? Surely it’s not as cylindrical as that. These vegetable/baby comparisons are batty.

We are in Landsborough, a little town at the base of the Pyrenees ranges, in country Victoria, not France. The house we are staying in belongs to Hugh and Caroline, old friends of Rosie’s who now live in London. It used to be the bootmaker’s cottage. I know this because there is a plaque attached to the front fence telling me so. We’ve noticed quite a few of these plaques during our walks around the town, sometimes in front of patches of land with nothing on them any more apart from a lemon tree and a sheep.

It turns out that Gary, who lives over the road and makes one half of Gary and Janeane (the couple who keep an eye on this place while Hugh and Caroline are gallivanting around), is responsible for the plaques in his official capacity as president of the Landsborough historical society. ‘Last year was our sesquicentenary,’ he said with some difficulty last night, after I’d pushed the wheelbarrow around to the back of his house to pick up some more firewood (I had to go past the pub, where bikie types were drinking out the front and laughing at my wheelbarrowing. ‘Anyone call a taxi?’ I joked as I trundled past. I was quite happy with that one. They were laughing with me, not at me, I’m pretty sure) and we were standing around talking about stuff.

‘What is a sesquicentenary?’ I asked, trying my hand at the tongue twister. It’s hard to say sesquicentenary without sounding like you have a lisp. ‘It’s 150 years,’ said Gary. ‘We all got dressed up in historical gear and did all the things they used to do in the old days.’ I tried to imagine what those things they did were, but Gary was already onto something else, explaining how they wanted to buy the house from the next door neighbour, and how there was a selection of plaques out the front of the town hall, and how in bushfire season they had a clear plan of action. ‘As soon as we smell smoke, we’re gone,’ he said, staring at me straight. ‘All this, you can rebuild.’

He gestured expansively to his property with its multiple clotheslines, Jack Russells and luxurious passionfruit vines. I agreed with him, while secretly feeling envious that he had already lived in the city for decades upon decades, long enough to have careers and change course several times before moving out here and focusing his bristly friendliness on this little town. I walked the wood-laden barrow back, taking a shortcut through the bowling club so as to avoid the pub.

There’s a great collection of records in the front room of the house, which I suppose is where the bootmaker used to make and sell his boots. I’ve been going out there a few times a day to make selections and bring them back to the warm room (it’s freezing here) – Roy Orbison, Burt Bacharach, the Bee Gees, Sergio Mendes, Shirley Bassey. Now we’re listening to Outkast, which is a bit out of left field.

Yesterday was Rosie’s birthday. After presents, breakfast and a walk, we went for a drive around the Pyrenees. We were the only visitors at both of the wineries we stopped at so it was a bit awkward, but I still managed to get pretty soused and sucked in by the schtick of the winemaker at the second place, which was comically named Warrenmang. It was a fantastically understated performance, rustic as hell, only betrayed by his insistence on showing off all the awards he had won. Then we each ate a meat pie in Avoca, which was a big mistake. Then we drove back slowly through the countryside, on a knife’s edge, terrified of hitting a kangaroo after Janeane's warnings. Then I made a birthday banana cake soaked in caramel sauce – definitely the best cake I have ever baked, even if it did look like a giant crumpet. We played a few hands of cards and went to bed.

There are kangaroos everywhere here. They hang out in people’s backyards. We walked to the football oval on the first night we arrived and there were at least 30 of them standing there staring at us, like we had interrupted their team practice. Tess gave chase and they bounded off, jumping with ease over the big boundary fence and off into the grapevines. Tess loves it here – she has started behaving like a hardened little warrior as opposed to her usual domestic cat vibes. In the house, she’s either asleep or chasing a ghost mouse, and when we’re outside, she’s constantly chasing rabbits and kangaroos, or rolling in shit.

On Friday night we got take-away pizza from the pub over the road for dinner. We sat and had a drink at the bar while we waited for our food, and listened to people talking. It is a nice old pub, with a friendly resident dog and lots of signs hanging everywhere talking about how terrible it is to be married. Some men had gathered by the fire, making each other laugh by saying quiet remarks while keeping a straight face and sipping their cokes. They reminded me of meeting up with my friends on Friday nights for dinner and beers. One of the men asked us if we had seen the ghost of the old bootmaker. He said he had thought it was him who had lit the fire when he saw smoke coming out of the chimney. Another one of the men asked us if we had chased the possums out of the chimney before we lit the fire. Then the first man asked us what we did with ourselves and said he used to be the principal of the primary school, but now he was retired. As soon as he said that I could picture him as the principal, with his broom head moustache.

We’re only here for the weekend but I wish we could stay longer. I’m quite aware of the stereotype I’m playing into, even down to my bushman’s shirt, but the relief of being away from the internet and being worried and cynical about everything is just lovely. I know it would be different if we were here more permanently, like Janine and Gary. I’d get bored, wouldn’t I? I’d miss doing a lot of things at once, I’d miss being a part of things as they happen, I’d miss Raph burgers and Uniqlo and cinemas in furniture warehouses and meeting up with the boys for our Friday night debriefings. I’d miss skating and bumping into people on the street. I don’t know, would I? Anyway, we’ve had a nice weekend. Many thanks to Hugh and Caroline for letting us stay!