Indian Ocean are based in Delhi, and have been together since the early 1990s. Though they've flirted with crossover commercial success, the band has built up a devoted underground following without selling out to the demands of the market. (The audience at last night's concert seemed to know all of their songs.) They play a unique style of music that fundamentally defies categorization. A phrase on the Indian Ocean Wikipedia site takes a stab at it: "Indo-rock fusion with jazz-spiced rhythms that integrates shlokas, sufism, environmentalism, mythology and revolution." Another phrase they use is, "organic fusion." Whatever it is, it works.
What I liked most about the band's performance last night was the sense of personality each of the four musicians brought to the table. They work together quite well as a band, but they are also highly individualized players, each quite different from the others. Indian Ocean isn't quite a jazz band, where one often gets the feeing that the players are "putting in time" until they get to do a solo. And it's also not really a rock or pop band either, where the lead singer dominates and the musicians are for the most part subject to the demands of the song. In Indian Ocean, three of the four band members sing, and no one seems quite to be the "band leader" (the standout vocally is Asheem, who plays tabla, and sings for the most part sitting down). There is no generic formula for how these four very expressive and distinctive musicians create harmonious -- and yet improvisational -- music; they simply seem to know what to do.
There is a hardcore musicians' interview at All About Jazz, but some of what Susmit Sen talks about there goes over my head. For the lay, non-Jazzhead reader, the best description of who Indian Ocean are and what they're up to musically is probably this article in the sadly-defunct magazine SAMAR. First, let's tackle the fusion question:
At a time in which the "fusion" label has been rendered meaningless, the band vehemently asserts that about the only things fused about them are their brains. According to them, fusion is a band like Shakti -- great people trained in completely different styles who come together. "We are uneducated technically" they say, "and are representative of a modern Indian urban setting where one is exposed to all sorts of music from day one. So lets say the fusion, if any, has happened in our head. And the influences are every single thing you have ever heard -- rock, western pop, Indipop, classical, ghazal and qawwali, and a hundred different types of Indian folk music..."
Susmit's distinctive guitar style based on intricate Hindustani classical scales has been a founding influence along with Asheem's soul riveting voice and imaginative layering of rhythms on the tabla tarang (a set of tablas tuned to different notes). Meanwhile, Rahul's deep brooding basslines syncopated to Amit's intelligently improvised drumming provides the essential backbone to the group's sounds. The rhythms employed are not the regular 4x4 rock beats, but the more leisurely 8ths, 12ths and 16ths frequently employed in traditional music from the subcontinent. These longer cycle patterns allow for more improvisation, and force drummers to not just play in beat but also keep with the flow and the roundness of rhythm. "A good tabla player will fill every single crack and do it differently each time" says Asheem, "you're using fingers not sticks, so you can do a lot more stuff." (link)
Fusion here is not an attempt to make traditional music hip or fashionable, nor is it an attempt to keep some element of "Indianness" in pop music. With Indian Ocean, it's something entirely different. They acknowledge that they are part of the "Indipop" movement that started in the mid-1990s, to describe popular music that wasn't written for films. But while most Indipop ended up getting drawn into the Indian film industry (witness the demise of Lucky Ali), Indian Ocean seems to have gotten more deeply invested in "roots." They have matured and grown more proficient, while their filmi counterparts have seemingly withered.
The SAMAR article also has some details on the content of Indian Ocean's songs:
From "Hille Le Jhagjhor Duniya," based on a poem written by a Bihari revolutionary poet called Gorakh Pande, which urges its audience to throw away the old order and replace it with the new, to "Ma Reva," a eulogy to the Narmada river, a tune Rahul learnt from local communities engaged in the struggle for self determination against the large, ecologically unfriendly Sardar Sarovar dam, to "Kandisa," a soul stirring 2nd century Aramaic mass that used to be sung by the Syrian Christian community in Kerala. But even though they borrow freely, Indian Ocean distance themselves from others who use copyright laws to exploit folk music. "These songs belong to everybody," they claim, "and more specifically to the people who sing them. How can anything that has been sung for hundreds of years be anybody's copyright?"
My favorite song from last night's performance was also derived from the folk tradition -- Kabir's "Jhini".
Since this is a Youtube age, I should point out that the music video for "Jhini" is viewable here. It's not the greatest music video ever, but you can get a sense of who these guys are musically from it. There's also a video that seems to have been shot on a cell phone at a live concert in Mumbai; it gives you somewhat of a sense of what they are like live.
A few more links:
A decription of the band and the musicians at a U-Minn website
Another article at AllAboutJazz
Streaming audio to their album "Black Fridya"
Streaming audio to their album "Kandisa"