Bleeding blue

Bollywood, be warned. The Blues is finding a new audience after venues slot regular gigs, annual fests celebrate the genre and indie names set on giving it a local twist

When Mihir Joshi takes the mic and croons “Was riding with my baby... launched her in the air. We hit a real bad one... you should have seen her hair” — from his 2014 song, Pothole Blues — it’s a line that resonates with the Mumbaikar. That he plays the Blues, a genre that’s neither like high-energy EDM nor like peppy Bollywood music is slowly becoming a non-issue.

“I tell stories that matter to Indians — about potholes, traffic jams and Sachin Tendulkar. Even Bollywood buffs love my music,” says the 34-year-old, who set up The Mihir Joshi Band in 2012, to play his version of the Blues for audiences. That he introduces it through rock ’n’ roll, is just part of the genre’s history.

The Mihir Joshi Band, which incorporates the Blues with rock ’n’ roll, plays at Hard Rock Cafe in Worli last Thursday. pic/bipin kokate
The Mihir Joshi Band, which incorporates the Blues with rock ’n’ roll, plays at Hard Rock Cafe in Worli last Thursday. Pic/Bipin Kokate

The Blues was introduced in America of the 19th century by slaves, ex-slaves and their descendants. Typically, the songs expressed their angst over life’s struggles about their life situation, and of broken hearts. The music is typically a 12-bar sequence, and its legends include Robert Johnson, BB King, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry. Blues also saw a revival in the 1960s when bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin incorporated the Blues in their own music.

Kanchan Daniels of Kanchan Daniels and the Beards
Kanchan Daniels of Kanchan Daniels and the Beards

But, Joshi and his band aren’t the only ones playing the Blues to Mumbai. In 2007, Warren Mendonsa, a singer and guitarist, once part of rock band Zero, formed the Blackstratblues. The 36-year-old often incorporates rock and psychedelic with the Blues to make it interesting. “Even the Eagles did that. If you listen to I Can’t Tell You Why, you know that they have been listening to BB King,” says Mendonsa. Another Blues band, The Howard Pereira Trio, based in Malad, mix up popular songs with Blues, just so audiences can find a hook. “For example, I sing the U2 line ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ in a classic Blues melody,” says 36-year-old Pereira.

Ayushi Karnik, 21, won the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt Contest in 2015
Ayushi Karnik, 21, won the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt Contest in 2015

“Mixing it up with modern Western music makes it relevant,” agrees music composer Ehsaan Noorani of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. “Even when we compose film music, it seeps in, because it’s a big influence for me, the guitarist. If you hear songs like Mera Yaar from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or Agar Mein Kahoon from Lakshya, you can hear the Blues.”

And, if the audiences have been growing, Mendonsa is quick to grant credit to the Mahindra Blues Festival. Ever since automobile manufacture Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. introduced the festival to the city in 2010, it’s seen the footfall double.

From 1,500 per day the first year to 3,000 this year, the two-day festival held every February has seen numbers double. “People who’d never heard the genre started listening to it,” says Mendonsa.

Ehsaan Noorani  Music Composer
Ehsaan Noorani, Music Composer

Along with the festival, which has seen performances by legenadary Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, venues like Hard Rock Cafe and blueFrog, have been at the forefront of scheduling Blues bands, with at least a couple of gigs a month. Since this July, the city-based True School of Music has started collaborating with the National Centre of Performing Arts, inviting professional Blues musicians to play with their students for a monthly Blues N’ Jazz series.

The genres may not earn the venues their most profitable night, but Ruchika Tiku, head of programming at blueFrog, says, the turnout is decent. “It's about creating a buzz. When there is a buzz, youngsters want to be part of it. It’s not a classical form like jazz that’s harder to get; Blues it’s from the grassroots, it has more mass appeal,” she says.

Warren Mendonsa of the Blackstratblues
Warren Mendonsa of the Blackstratblues

This year’s winner of the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt Contest was Ayushi Karnik, a 21-year-old from Surat. “The Beatles covered Chuck Berry a lot. That’s how I was introduced to it,” says Karnik, who had to put together a make-shift band to take part in the contest. When I told my friends I wanted to play the Blues, they laughed. That didn’t bother me, and neither do I think about if i will make money. I wouldn’t be playing the Blues then,” says the Fender-endorsed guitarist who is now heading to Bengaluru to play with many Blues bands there.

Young musicians like Karnik and 23-year-old Kanchan Daniels, who fronts the two-year-old Kanchan Daniels and the Beards — they only perform originals — has helped the genre evolve, feels Brian Tellis, curator of the Mahindra festival. Tellis, who also hosts a popular radio show about the Blues, says, “I push musicians interpreting the Blues in their own way on the radio show. It’s not a fuddy-duddy genre anymore, it’s young and modern too.”

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