Just how “happening” is the rock music scene in Delhi?
One indicator was the first round of the Ultimate Santana Challenge hosted by the Hit 95 FM radio station. The venue was a small, open arena next to the lounge-disc, Six Month Story; the crowd was thin, and 75% male. A high wall of cloth separated one side of the arena from a much larger venue which was being used by what sounded like a wedding party, and every time a band stopped playing, there emanated from beyond the cloth curtain the none-too-faint sounds of Bollywood remixes.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But, the mood was upbeat and live acts, mostly featuring college-age boys on guitars, drums and vocals kept the crowd engaged with covers and original numbers. Hit 95 FM’s popular RJ Sarthak, who played emcee for the evening, didn’t miss an opportunity to make fun of anyone — the five judges, the audience, himself and the drummer who had committed the ultimate rock-attire faux pas by wearing a check shirt.
On one side, displayed in a glass case, was the grand prize — a sleek, shiny guitar autographed by rock legend Carlos Santana. “The idea was to give some exposure and air-time to young, new bands,” Sarthak later told me. “To attract them, we offered the guitar as the prize instead of cash.”
Delhi has had a niche, but thriving, rock music subculture for many years now. And, as many established acts soldier on or even go mainstream (read, Bollywood and Indipop), there is a constant infusion of young blood, which keeps the rock nights going at many venues such as Café Morrison in South Extension, Blues in Connaught Place and Opus in Vasant Vihar.
The last two acts of the evening got the most enthusiastic response, and even to a non-rock listener, they sounded quite different from each other. There was the Barefaced Liars (www.myspace.com/barefacedliar), with what vocalist and frontman Akshay Chowdhry described as a “heavy edge” to their sound. It was definitely “heavy”, with the band’s string trio thrashing away at their guitars. The audience loved it. The singing had become incidental and that seemed to bother no one.
By contrast, 19-year-old Sachid Bista’s vocals were a key element of the songs performed by the newly formed band, Drift (www.myspace.com/driftnudelhi). Reuben Narain, the band’s drummer and songwriter who, at 27, was older than most contestants, explained that Drift is not a rock band. “We are interested in progressive pop, lyric-based music — like Sting and Paul Simon,” he says. “The live music scene here means rock. There aren’t any pop bands. I see us as pioneers in Delhi and in India.”
Narain went to music school in Boston and has embarked on a career as a full-time musician. “It is not so difficult if you are willing to be a little flexible,” he says. But, Drift for him is not about “work”. “The band is an opportunity to follow my heart. Do our own original work,” he says.
That evening, the judges awarded Barefaced Liars the top honours; Drift was the runner-up. This meant that both got to compete in the final round along with Airborne, described by its manager, Gary Steele, as a “funk rock” band.
Steele, manager and sound engineer for two bands, Airborne and Identity Krysis (which plays “Nu Metal”), does not share Reuben’s optimism when it comes to making a living as a rock musician. “The rock scene has not evolved to that level,” he says. His band mates are all in college, pursuing MBAs and other degrees. Gary himself is an advertising copywriter. Still, some are willing to take the plunge. “The idea is to push to make it full-time,” says Barefaced Liar’s Chowdhry. “My guitarist Sumant (Balakrishnan) and I were classmates in school, and we really have kept at it since I was 16. I returned last year from the US after finishing college and we’ve been gigging in the circuit for five months now.”
He lists reasons why he is hopeful. “Over the last couple of years, the music scene has burgeoned, with more and more clubs and pubs opening up for live music. People have more disposable income now and are willing to pay for music.” Chowdhry says they have an album’s worth of original material. “It is music we have made together—I do the lyrics and some melodies, the guitarists do the riffs, someone else does the harmonies.” According to Sarthak, one of the most encouraging signs over the past few years has been the shift in live performances from covers to original. “In 1999, the measure of how good a band you were was how well you nailed Metallica. But now, it is all about originals; besides rock, there is original jazz by bands such as Drift and Soap. There is fusion by more established acts such as Mrigya, Advaita and Indian Ocean.”
Drift’s Narain echoes this sentiment. “Fact is, everybody is jaded by bands doing rock hits from the 1980s,” he says. “Now, you have kids writing their songs and making original music. A band such as Advaita has become famous doing original stuff.”
Sarthak feels that compared to Mumbai or Bangalore, Delhi matured late. “We never had that Anglo-Indian choir heritage these cities did,” he points out. “Herbie Hancock performed in Mumbai. My friends there have shown me photos of their parents at the Police concert.” But that just might be working to the Capital’s advantage. “Now, bands often list Delhi as their first choice of venue, because the audience is more open to new stuff, unlike Mumbai and Bangalore, where tastes are rigid.”
A week later, it is Saturday evening again and time for the final round of the Santana Challenge. The venue is not bursting at the seams, but it is crowded, the sex ratio is refreshingly even, and there is no ambient Bollywood remix. Airborne takes the stage with vocalist Che Guevara belting out four original compositions, besides the mandatory Santana cover. He concluded with a song in his mother tongue, Garo, his singing voice suddenly sounding Indian.
Drift followed, led by singer Sachit with his boy-band looks. They did covers by Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and a Charlie Parker jazz number. A rather novel turn was Sachit’s mimicking the sound of the trumpet, something fellow band member Reuben later likened to the jazz tradition of scatting. The crowd loved it, asking for more as Drift made way for Barefaced Liars. Charged up, Akshay and band mates outdid themselves — the high point again being the relentless “heavy” thrashing of the guitars, which sent many in the audience into a headbanging frenzy.
By the end, the audience was evenly divided, with shouts of support for Drift countered by equally loud ones for Barefaced Liars. The judges voted for the lighter sounds and melodies of Drift; Barefaced Liars couldn’t help but look a little glum. The audience got what they had come for — a great show by some of Delhi’s latest talents.