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2020: My year in music

A year when so much of the world seemed uncertain, there was always one refuge, music

2020, a year in music. (Photo: Istockphoto)
2020, a year in music. (Photo: Istockphoto)

I’ve been playing music for over 20 years, but I’ve never really learnt music. I never learnt music theory, that is, beyond what I’d picked up from learning how to play hundreds of songs on the guitar, mostly to accompany my singing. But all that changed this year, as I took refuge from the daily shower of bad news in the generosity of music. The story really began in October 2019, when, for the first time in my life, I spent money on a really good acoustic guitar. I’d spent years telling myself that I wasn’t ‘worthy’ of a quality musical instrument until I became a better player. Turns out, I had the cart before the horse all along.

The Alvarez LJ2 Little Jumbo is a beautiful spruce solid top guitar with a rich, booming tone, that was simply begging to be played. When I got it, I decided that the only way to justify this would be to learn how to play it, ‘properly’. I had it set up, meeting a fantastic Delhi-based guitar repairer and luthier in the process, and got down to playing. But matters really came to a head when the pandemic hit India in earnest, prompting the strictest lockdown in the world and a work-from-home life that continues still. Once the initial anxieties of feeding my cats and myself had subsided, I decided that this was it. There wasn’t going to be a better opportunity of ‘learning’ music, or at least getting started on that journey; I had no one to meet, and nothing else to do when not working.

The Alvarex LJ2 Little Jumbo. (Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya)
The Alvarex LJ2 Little Jumbo. (Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya)

So I dived headlong into the world of YouTube music educators and online tutorials. A module for ‘guitar A-Z’ was bought, as was another one on jazz guitar. Well, I haven’t completed either yet, but just knowing that I have lessons pending is reason enough for me to pick up my guitar at least once a day. This also involves waking up as early as I possibly can so I can get at least an hour to play the guitar in the morning before settling down to work. Some days, I don’t even go past basic warm-up routines, but even doing just that is extremely enjoyable.

Music as social commentary

What is music really? I mean, at its most basic, it’s a sequence of notes and beats that’s pleasurable to the ears. But beyond that visceral thrill, how does one describe what it is one’s hearing? I’ve always loved reading about music, ever since I came across Lester Bangs’s immortal essay Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung in high school. In that seminal piece of music criticism that Bangs wrote for the music magazine Creem in 1971, Bangs is ostensibly writing about an obscure garage rock band, the Count Five. But what he really is doing through some incendiary prose, is writing a sociological piece on a particular branch of noisy-verging-on-avant-garde mid-Sixties rock, of which the epitome, for Bangs, was the Yardbirds. Later in his career, Bangs would go on to join the dots between the Yardbirds, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, the New York Dolls and punk rock to create an ‘alternative’ canon of rock music.

This canon existed in parallel to The Beatles-The Rolling Stones-Led Zeppelin-David Bowie mainstream, and in the hands of later music writers, the alternative canon would go on to include new wave, hardcore, goth, grunge and more obscure forms of heavy metal. The house that Bangs made still exists today, and you will just have to read Jim DeRogatis’s music journalism in the Nineties or listen to his music podcast Sound Opinions with journalist Greg Kot to know what I mean.

Anyway, what it taught me was to look at music as a social phenomenon, much like Travis “Yoh” Philips’s Best Damn Hip Hop Writing: The Book of Yoh taught me to understand hip-hop in its cultural context or Robert Palmer’s magnificent Deep Blues, gave an 18-year-old me a deeper knowledge of the blues than mere clichés about crossroads deals with the devil. These are both books that I re-read this year, along with all the jazz album liner notes I could get my hands on. To read these is to get an education. In the year of the Black Lives Matter movement, reading about musical histories gave me a different perspective on the African American experience, running a line from Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ to N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ to Outkast’s ‘Rosa Parks’ to Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’.

Lately, this socio-cultural approach to music writing is being put to excellent use by Indian journalists as well. I often return to former Lounge staffer and freelance music journalist Bhanuj Kappal’s pieces, especially his definitive piece on Mumbai’s hip-hop phenomenons Naezy and DIVINE. My colleague Omkar Khandekar’s piece on the performance poet Sambhaji Bhagat provides a unique perspective into the quest for Dalit dignity in India. Or take the remarkable story by my colleague Asmita Bakshi on the Balti families divided by the Line of Control, who strive to keep their culture alive through their poetry and songs. My colleague Uday Bhatia’s excellent piece in Lounge from earlier in December on listening to music in 2020 was the epitome of writing about music as feeling.

But what I wanted to learn this year was to understand music in the context of musicality; the artful arrangement of notes, chords, scales, modes to elicit a particular reaction in the listener. I wanted to learn about songwriting as an art, as a process. Everyone says that Paul McCartney is a genius songwriter. I wanted to understand why that was so. And to do that, I found, there is no place like YouTube.

The wonders of YouTube

The one thing that the internet, and especially YouTube, has done is to democratise music learning. In Kolkata in the Nineties, many of my friends would regularly go for classes with the likes of the guitarist Amyt Datta, or his late percussionist brother, Monojit “Kochu” Datta. I didn’t care, then, to take the trouble to learn the circle of fifths or any other music theory, as long as I knew enough chords to impress a crowd at parties. It’s too much effort and travel, I told myself. Well, in 2020, there was no such excuse.

Take Rick Beato’s Everything Music channel, for example. A former producer, and a musician, the 58-year-old Atlanta, Georgia resident is a music educator par excellence. From be-bop to bossa nova to nu-metal, he knows all the styles and is eager to teach. Since starting in 2015, Beato’s channel has now grown to have over 2 million subscribers. I’m one of them. I’ve learned more about music from Beato’s videos this year than I have ever before. Beato uploads a video nearly everyday and these range from live-streamed classes on music theory and songwriting hacks, to videos on guitar technique and interviews with musicians like Eric Johnson and Steve Jordan. Beato’s interview series introduced me to the rising hotshot guitar player Tohsin Abbasi. Abbassi is a brilliant composer and leader of the progressive metal band Animals as Leaders. I’m a fan.

My favourite series of the lot is Beato’s breakdown of hit songs called “What Makes this Song Great”. Currently on number 97, over the past two years Beato has analysed songs by artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Steely Dan and even Tool! In these videos, Beato dissects the songs right from the first note to the last, pointing out production details, songwriting techniques used, instrumentation and mixes. He often plays the different parts himself to elucidate better. And he doesn’t stop there. He has the knack of extrapolating any given artist’s musical personality from the song he chooses.

One of my favourites is his analysis of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Amelia’, from her 1976 album Hejira. Beato discusses Mitchell’s fondness for alternate and open guitar tunings, her interplay with jazz greats like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius and the legendary Larry Carlton’s guitar playing on this song. Then he does something even better. Beato talks about the song’s use of modulating vocal melodies with and against the chord progression and describes how Mitchell’s predilection for suspended chords defines her music. And then he plays a clip from an old Mitchell interview where she says, “I think because men need to solve things, and come to conclusions, there is a law...Wayne Shorter once told me, ‘never stay on a sus chord for too long. Never go from a sus chord to a sus chord to a sus chord’. Well I know I’m going from a sus chord to a sus chord, you know, chords of inquiry, because my life is full of questions...I’d stay in [a state of] unresolved emotionality for days and days.” It’s such a brilliant insight into her music, and Beato shows exactly how she uses them.

Less highbrow, but no less insightful is guitar player Paul Davids’s channel. I’m still trying to figure out the folky ‘travis picking’ style from a brilliant tutorial he made some months ago. Davids also introduces his viewers to other guitar YouTubers by involving them in guitar challenges, and thanks to this, I’ve now started following the amazing blues guitarist Helen Ibe, and looping masters Sean Angus Watson and Hvetter. And the learnings don’t just stop there. Can’t go to the Berklee College of Music? No problem, you can follow master funk and jazz guitarist and Berklee teacher Tomo Fujita’s charming channel on YouTube. You want to understand music theory from the perspective of a pianist? There’s the fantastic David Bennett. You just want to unwind with a cup of coffee to great live music, why, there’s Josh Turner’s channel. You want to break down Beatles songs into their individual instrumental parts? There’s Ably House. Jazz guitar? The incomparable Jens Larsen.

With a little help from my friends

And this brings me to the other thing which I’ve been so grateful for this year, the generosity of musicians. No one makes money from album sales any more, unless you’re, like, Taylor Swift. Musicians have to gig to pay the rent, and this year, that’s been impossible. Especially in India, where non-Bollywood/non-classical music is anyway a niche concern, musicians are especially struggling. And yet, despite that, you’ll find singers, pianists, guitar players, saxophonists, drummers from around the world giving freely of their talent, from music teachings to impromptu live gigs to rig rundowns.

There have been many musicians, both famous and not, whose regular videos have kept me from doom-scrolling this year. One of those that I tuned in to regularly was John McLaughlin. The legendary guitarist of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti has regularly doled out live performances on Instagram this year. These have been solo performances, as well as with members of his band The 4th Dimension on Zoom and also, in one video, a spectacular performance with Shankar Mahadevan on vocals and Zakir Hussain on tabla. Who says social media is rubbish?

And then, there has been the musical contributions of my friends. Take the Instagram account of Rohan Ganguli. Formerly the guitarist of The Supersonics, Ganguli, who’s based in Kolkata, is a jazz and blues composer and bandleader, who released a couple of tunes last summer with his band The Rohan Ganguli Quartet, ‘The King of Summer’ and ‘Scorpio’. On Insta, he gives short lessons on arpeggios, voicings, legato exercises and all sorts of wonderful things. I send him songs I’ve written or recorded and he sends me his enthusiastic inputs. In Delhi, for over a decade now, I’ve played with an old friend, Sujoy Chakravarty, a fantastic fingerstyle guitar player. This year, once the lockdown lifted, we started meeting every weekend at the JNU campus, where he teaches as an economist, in a safely-distanced setting, and resumed playing. One of my oldest friends, Devalina Mookerjee, a publisher and researcher, joined us on bass this year, making it a trio. Lately, it’s become a four-member band, with another friend, Jenny Jose, who runs an audiophile store, joining as a vocalist. Learning music theory is all well and good, but there’s no greater pleasure than playing live.

So that’s how my year in music has been, and I haven’t even mentioned how obsessively I’ve listened to The Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday Night at the Village Vanguard, Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio’s Smokin’ At The Half Note, Víkingur Ólafsson’s Philip Glass: Piano Works and Arthur Rubenstein’s Chopin: Nocturnes all year. Suffice it to say that I’ve made some musical friends for life in 2020.

I’ll leave you with my performance of the Velvet Underground song 'After Hours', which, for me, pretty much summed up the year.

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