ElectroRaga – from dawn till dusk and then some..

Phew…..just woken up from Saturday’s all dayer – 4 outdoor concerts in Manchester during the Futuresonic festival. The plan was to improv with people we’d never played with before – in locations and times to suit the ragas we’d be jamming on. It was to be :

  • Dawn (5am) Chorlton Water Park – Bhairavi raga
  • Afternoon (3pm) Castlefield – Multani raga
  • sunset (8:50pm) St Anns Square – Yaman-Kalyan raga
  • Midnight Portugal Street East (the red light district) – Malkauns raga

My reasons for doing this event were both simple and complex….

  • it’s less hassle to have everyone just turn up and go for it rather than rehearse
  • it fits with my punk ethic of taking ‘fusion’ away from pious jos stick crowd and putting it in a context that people don’t expect
  • using non trained musicians to mix it up with easterners
  • applying the raga time and location concepts used in Indian music to our new context of Manchester
  • to be a little irreverant with Indian classical music and musicians
  • cos it’s romantic

Not one of the locations (except Castlefield) had been agreed with the council authorities or location owners because I didn’t have the time and they would never agree leaving me stuck in treacle with the ‘authorities’ then knowing about my plans. That aint the Art of War script at all.

I did try negotiating the top of an NCP carpark for the sunset concert but after initial positive talks it was rejected – the guys wanted to measure out the number of car parking spaces we would take up (and work out a charge) in a car park that was permenantly half full…..I wasn’t feeling it…even fallback positions of £200 to cover admin costs meant that I wasn’t so bothered when they said – “no go cos of internal schmernals”

I wasn’t too deterred and after a quick scope of the city we chose St Ann’s square as the sunset spot. In the days leading up to the event I flyered Rusholme (the ‘curry mile’ as it’s known) to much bemusement by local residents and shopkeepers. The HSS hire shop magically had lost my booking of a generator so Friday was a crazier run around than it needed to be.

On the Friday late afternoon I picked up the main melodic lead player from central bus station. He is a Carnatic (south indian classical) saxophone and mandolin player called E.R. Janardhan or otherwise known by the snappy title of ‘Saxjana‘. Trained in Chennai India by Kadri Gopalnath the musician who brought the saxophone into the lexicon of Indian music. He was coming from London and was arranged through my Keralan contacts in the UK.

We rehearsed in my living room on the Friday night and after some changes to the key/tonic/shruti to suit the saxophone (which was in Bb) we had some great fun playing around. SaxJana also plays a mean mandolin and other than U Srinivas there aren’t many playing this instrument in Indian music.

Sinik (Tom Rochester) the guy that had been agreed to manage the filming of it turned up at 4am on the Saturday morning and we loaded the van and headed off. We met up with one of his friends, Abigail Merrick, from art college whom he had just graduated with. Tom had gotten the nickname Sinik from mates for his strong opinions but any man getting up at 3am to do a days worth of madness like ours could only be a romantic realist at worst.

The Sunrise Concert – Bhairavi
Bhairavi is one of the key ragas in Indian music. The ancient rules state that it must be played at dawn but because of it’s popularity it is often played at the end of concerts to fit in with modern Indian lifestyles. The mini-paintings, called ragamala’s, that are often associated with ragas tend to show Bhairavi as a woman worshipping a lingham/phallus/penis. It could well be representative of life-forces and rebirth but I guess it could also be quite literally have roots in ‘morning glory’.

The main worries with pulling this concert off were :

– running a generator in a public park at 5 in the morning without permission
– being harassed by fishermen that we were disturbing
– not finding the back entrance to the park to avoid the security cameras
– nobody being there
– the park attendants or police being called

We didn’t find the back entrance but the front seemed to be open so we decided to risk it and hurriedly unloaded the van near to the lake. The generator weighed a ton but we got it into the back of the tree’s so that the trunks and leaves could deaden the sound a bit. It had been a dry couple of days so I tried not to entertain the thought of the generator going on fire and setting the wooded are of the park alight.

Daniel Weaver
, from Manchester, the contemporary composer and performer turned up to play banjo. Daniel is a kindred spirit in the game of putting on ‘event’s or happenings that are a little bit outside the ‘Night and Day’ 30 minute indie set. Those that believe in magic have got to stick together these days.

People who had specifically come for the concert began to arrive aswell as some random punters that had been clubbing. Once we managed to convince some of the more hyped clubbers that there was no way we were going to play ‘Girls’ by Studio B and that I didn’t want a pill we managed to begin our ElectroRaga version of Bhairavi. (I do like that Studio B track though;)

It went really well and my ideal of the birds and park waking up to the music happened just as I’d liked. The clubbers skinny dipped in the lake and everyone watched the widescreen view of Chorlton Park over the lake as we played. To come up with the idea and then to find myself in the middle of the situation playing the music and improvising was a real will to flower power moment.

After we finsihed the folks asked for one more….so we decided to play Malkauns (a dark midnight raga) as it’s quite accessible. The bad supernatural forces were at work for Malkauns (read more about it during the midnight slot below) and during it I looked up to see a little oik with two sticks in his hand telling me to shut the music off now or else….he had a PCP style rage on him and he was desperate to fight somebody. Us and the clubbers were caught off-guard with his forced change of mood and he harssessed a few more people (male and female alike) before he was wrestled to the ground by some of the audience. In retrospect we should have thrown him in the lake.

After he was ‘managed’ he legged it to get his brother who he said had a gun. Little brothers always shoot off their pistols using the big brothers bullets ….Uh huh….it’s Manchester so that could be true….we had done our thing and if we ever needed a sign of when to quit while you are ahead this little mentalist has been it.

The crowd helped us get the stuff into the van before the possible spectre of a cavalry from the schemes in Chorlton arriving and after quickly showing the video footage of the oik to the cops that had turned up we were ready to leave. Only one resident came down to complain about the noise – he explained that the lake was a natural amphitheatre and that it was echoing all around the place. I bit my lip and held back the temptation to mention that the lake basin and area was chosen specifically for that reason.

Verdict – big thumbs up, magic moments and an agrro ending

Castlefield 3pm – Multani – Afternoon Raga
My favourtie versions of Multani are by Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Bismillah Khan (shennai – reed instrument). It’s an afternoon raga that is meant to be played on the banks of a river and I took inspiration from Bismillah’s version which I have a great video for – he is on a boat in the Ganges with people on the riverbank. His son is also playing backup shennai and eventually began to take over many performances as his father aged. Multani is meant to have a solemn, compassionate mood.

Our Multani was taking place in Manchester and our bank of a River was the Castlefield Canal.

We were meant to have the keys to the old tourist centre meaning that it was our one legit gig but when we turned up it was locked and we couldn’t get in contact with the organisers…no matter….we set up at the top of the steps – another perfect little amphitheatre again.

A mate of Sinik (Tom) called Tom Clancy who was filming turned up to help and looked spookily like my little brother….even his disposition aswell….luckily that meant he mucked in with the setup. The heat of the day was pretty intense and there wasn’t much wind around….I was proper stewing in my own sweat and remembering the tropical heat of India.

This concert was just SaxJana and me and I really enjoyed this one. The PA was clear and we really managed to move back and forwards more comfortably. Musically I think this one was the most cohesive and it’s a shame that the rallies and event in the middle of town had taken some bodies it’s way instead of ours.

People on the banks of the hill lay and listened and some came up to the steps to watch and listen. I did a brisk trade in Scale Cd’s and we had a little respite before the next raga at 8:50pm.

2 down 2 to go.

St Ann’s Square, Manchester City Centre – Raga Yaman-Kalyan (Evening Raga)


Yaman-Kalyan raga or Yaman is one of the first ragas taught to students and is considered to be one of the grandest and most fundamental ragas in Hindustani music. The raga is an evening raga and we are trying to get some of the sunset thing happening here in Manchester. Some ragamala paintings use the image of a poet with vast knowledge of music and a voice that can change character like a cuckoo while other paintings and lore use lords in white garments on lion thrones with pearl necklaces through to simplistic brave noble minded hero figures.

Our security guys were here for this one – Colin and Tom (another Tom now making the count 3 in our stage crew or 5 if you count the SatNav in the van). I went to attempt to park the van in a carpark that didn’t have a 6ft height restriction while the rest of the crew tried to find a spot to play. The Manchester Jazz festival had been using the square earlier in the day and there were empty tents and structures all over the place. I tried to get one of the security guards to let us use the stage but the mentality is a jobsworth one these days and there was no go. We got set up – the PA was starting to groan now and one of the speakers wasn’t working.

Olly Farshi (in the hat) turned up to play e-bow guitar. It was the first time I’d met him. While he got up to speed on the scale I warded off the female security guard who was freaking out about our generator and whether we had written permission,.

We started the gig anyway. This one had a few hairy moments with the laptop seizing but I don’t think it was noticeable. I was pleasantly surprised by Olly’s playing having never heard him before we managed to get through a version. SaxJana played Sax.

We all went for a drink at a pub near Sinik’s place. I could only drink one because I was driving. It must have lasted 10 seconds tops. We got talking to Colin and Tom – I know Colin through rapping as MC Bantam – he is an up and coming garage/hiphop MC and I’m doing a track with him as a return favour for helping out the nighttime session of Electroraga. They were both great crack and we laughed as we tried to forget the legistics and location of the next set – midnight in the red light area.

Midnight – Portugal Street East (Redlight Area) – Malkauns
Malkauns is a midnight raga said to have supernatural powers. Some musicians are fearful that playing it enourages connections with evil spirits. Ragamala paintings are filled with heroic lords taking pan (natural amphetamine) wearing a garland of skulls. Malkauns is a dark raga and I have written more in my article Robert Johnson, the Crossroads and Malkauns.

After the evening gig I felt like I was on the home straight right up until we got to the midnight gig area. We still had a mini mountain to climb and this gig was always going to be the most dodgy. Brother Ghazi the rapper who was going to spit some lyrics on Malkauns had sent me a text at 11:13 saying:

“Alright man. I’m at the gig location NW sat on concrete. Lots of cars going past, picking up hookers obviously. Gv us a ring wn u turn ur fne on man asap”

…poor Ghazi had been cruised as he waited – some old bloke had said that he looked ‘warm’. If we hadn’t turned up and got him in the back of the van at 11:50pm he might have legged it. During the day this place was rough but at night it had Sin City overtones that would crush the art-fopp in a hearbeat. Dark, dangerous corners….cars milling about with crazies doing the circuit, prostitutes working the street next to us.

I chose to set up at the loading bay of a disused warehouse – a natural stage of sorts. It was on a part of the polices circuit and low and behold a van came up near the end of us setting up. A policeman driving and a policewoman as passenger. I jumped to make sure I talked to them first. The woman was unhappy and I could see that she wanted to junk the whole thing and make us pack up. The guy seemed better though and I gave him my pitch that it would just take 10minutes and it was the fourth one in the day….I apoligised for giving him such weirdness on his shift and when I said thanks he nodded and drove on. I knew the woman was seething to be over-ruled like that. Thank god the fella must have feared the paperwork or something…

Sinik had sensibly brought some lights for this one and as we switched them on a car of five tough guys pulled up and started getting interested. I could see that our tough guys were getting a little uneasy and that me nervous. There was a load of camera and electronics that would go in the boot of any car or van if the person had the will to take it.

We got started – the PA was still sounding like shit but I decided it diidn’t matter and that this gig was more punk than raga. This was Ghazzi’s first or second experience of playing live and even though he got airborne a few times with the rap he choked a little. It didn’t matter – I jumped up and sang something and then just kept making the music faster and faster until it was indeed the coat tails of the devil himself flapping in the wind. Boom it finished. Jana’s mandolin playing was really good – broken riffs and real grit in the playing.

The tough guys in the car must have been freaked out a little becuase they didn’ t make any weird comments afterwards or try and rush the mikes. Ghazzi went and kept them busy with some talk so they didn’t think to call their mates with hardware and a van and we loaded the stuff into the back of our van.

Another police van came up, we had timed it to miss them when we were playing, and again I jumped to speak to them. I told them we were done and looking to get out of here. They didn’t say a word and just looked at me in disbelief with an expression saying “you are insane to do this – get out of here and save yourselves”

The van was loaded and we had done it. My smile was in danger of splitting my face in two and we’d pulled the mad event off. My driving and concentration were a bit erratic but everyone got dropped off safely in the end.

Jana and me stayed up for a bit and talked musical revolution for a bit and then we crashed before he had to go at 7 in the morning back to London.

Did it all happen? Was it just a dream? ?Yes there could have been more people there but as Tony Wilson says – there was only 12 at the last supper and a few of them at the moonlanding.

Watch www.flyingmountainrecords.com or www.myspace.com/electroraga for more happenings, information and music. All photos on this blog by Tom Rochester.

We filmed the whole day and will put clips up on the Doctor Ongo Mala video site.

There may be a special BBC Asian Network show in the offing too.

That’s how we do.

Finally – I hereby nominate Sat22nd July with ElectroRaga for the Turner prize.

Drongomala

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