Picture by Kingshuk Chakraborty
An arm draped casually over the side of the couch, Gaurab Chattopadhyay leans back and gets comfortable in his seat, before turning his attention towards me, who is rather distracted by the room we are sitting in. Shelves full of books, CDs, records and a huge record player hide one wall, while another boasts a big portrait of his late father, the pioneer Gautam Chattopadhyay, holding a guitar with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Assorted mementos and paraphernalia are also placed strategically around the room, memories and history dissolving into each other.
The warmth of Gaurab’s (or Gaboo, as he is called) smile calms my rather conscious self, and I compose myself. One would not have guessed that the person sitting opposite to me is one of the giants of the music scene. A friendly and humble spirit, even a tad carefree. After some initial small talk, I ask him a question regarding his initial association with music. “Music was always present in the family. Probably all my cousins play some instrument, and music was a staple at family gatherings,” he says, and we move into the interview.
Gaurab with his father, Gautam Chattopadhyay © Tushar Kanti Dutta
As a child, Krosswindz, a band where his cousin Neil Mukherjee played, made a very strong impression on him. “I used to watch concerts with my parents from a very early age. Watching the bands play made me want to have my own band,” he says. The bonding that a musician has with his instrument was sealed at the tender age of 4 when his father got him a child’s drumkit. “There was a brief period when I learnt western classical guitar, but the drums is special, probably because I played it at such a young age. First instrument.” Beyond basic lessons from his father and Neil, and tips from senior drummers, Gaurab is self taught. He watched how drummers played at concerts and emulated it while practising, and learnt in this organic manner. Maybe that is why he does not sound like anyone else, which is a top priority for him. “I cannot describe how I sound, but whatever I do, I want to sound like myself!”
The first musical imprint was forged in 1995, when Gaurab and a bunch of his friends, who later went onto form Lakkhichhara in 1999, recorded ‘Porashonay Jolanjoli’ for the album Aabar Bochor Kuri Pore, part of the songs released as Mohiner Ghoraguli Shompadito Bangla Gaan. “After we recorded the song, Krosswindz went in and recorded ‘Prithibi’. It was massive, hearing a thing like that back in ’95!” The same year, their names appeared in an issue of Rock Street Journal as a result of sending a demo named ‘Juvenile Delinquents’ for Great Indian Rock (GIR).
Lakkhichhara has been going strong for eighteen years, with five albums out, and there has been more than a few interesting experiences. He says, “My first foreign show was with Lakkhichhara in 2010. It was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in front of 40,000 people. We were being scorned by the crowd as we were from Kolkata, but after the show, everyone was on our side. The best part was seeing the crowd’s transformation in front of our eyes!”
The association with Mainak (Bumpy) Nag Chowdhury, which started with Kendraka in 2012, is instrumental in his growth as a musician because that got him out of his zone. “Kendraka’s music has Carnatic taal structures and Hindustaani classical melodies, with major influences of jazz and Latin music,” he says, “I was a rock drummer. My job was keeping it steady and solid, irrespective of shifts or changes. But with Kendraka, I had to play melodically as the sound operates in a much more fluid space.”
Kendraka also gave him opportunities to play at memorable venues including No Black Tie in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland. Gaurab’s incorporation into free jazz playing happened at Kendraka’s ‘Root Map’ tour where they played in Kolkata, Gushkora (Kartik Das Baul’s ashram), Kuala Lumpur and Japan. The line up was him, Mainak, Nishad Pandey, a Japanese flautist Miya, and a viola player named Benedict Taylor.
Besides Kendraka, Gaurab and Mainak have played together in Percussion Mania – a project with Steve Thornton and Valchino Anastasio; Kolkata Jam Masala featuring French guitarist Paul Brook, classical singer Surpiyo and Laetitia Ferrière, a visual jockey; and E.B.U. (Ekti Bangalir Upakhyan). A separate free jazz project he is associated with is Hatchlings, with Nishad Pandey, Jonathan Dreyfus and Sukanya Bhattacharya. They performed in 2016 in Melbourne, Australia, and recorded an album too, which will be released soon.
Out of all this, one certain concert remains embedded deep. “Bumpy Da and I were invited to play with this French musician Sig, Chris Stalk and the Malaysian guitar legend Jose Thomas. This was in No Black Tie. So we went there and were roaming around, waiting for rehearsals to start. But there weren’t any! On hearing them play, I was blown away. Free jazz edging towards psychedelia. Extremely difficult music. And we had to play along. It was a completely open set, in the moment there. Sig led and we followed. That was a life changing experience for sure!”
Mainak (L) and Gaurab (R)
If Kendraka got him into jazz, introduction to Indian classical based fusion music happened in 2009 when he started playing with Bickram Ghosh’s Rhythmscape. He played there till 2013 and now, he plays with Tanmoy Bose’s Taal Tantra. “I am always learning from Tanmoy Da. It’s important to always have a guru,” he says, “In December 2016, he got a project from the government of Madhya Pradesh to create a sort of percussion symphony. There were 80 musicians from different tribes with their own indigenous instruments. It was mostly percussion and some string instruments. I assisted him in that project, and it was a great experience!”
Getting up, he pulls out a vinyl record from the shelf and shows it to me, saying “I’m on record as well,” with a proud grin. The record is the album ‘Haveli’ by The Three Seas, a project which fuses the worlds of jazz and baul music. Led by Australian saxophonist Matt Keegan, the band includes the legendary bassist Steve Elphick, singer and khamok player Raju Das Baul and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Deoashis Mothey, besides Gaurab himself. “We went to the Piramal Haveli in Bagar, Rajasthan, to record the album. The place was very close to nature with lots of plants and animals. Naturally, it gave off very creative and inspiring vibes,” he says, “For seven days, we played, recorded and roamed around there. One day I saw an entire tree filled with peacocks, from top to bottom! Just imagine! Amazing place.”
The Three Seas
In hindsight, the vastness of his musical repertoire isn’t really surprising as he was exposed to a variety of genres while growing up, due to his father. Bauls such as Paban Das Baul, Gour Khyapa and Tinkori Chakrobarty even lived in their house at times. And of course there was the influx of rock music through MTV after satellite TV was available from 1992. “If I had to narrow down my top influences, the list would include Baba, of course, The Beatles, The Police, Dream Theater, ’80s rock bands and grunge. As for drummers, they are Stewart Copeland, Mike Portnoy, Vinnie Colauta, Chad Smith, and my seniors in the scene – Chiro Da, Clayton Da, Debu Da, Kochu Da and Nondon Da.”
Beyond playing, the other thing that keeps him busy is music direction. His first film scores were for Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Kagojer Bou and Shekhar Das’ Necklace, which were released on the same date incidentally. “A very terrifying prospect had come my way when I had to do the score for Bappaditya’s Elar Char Adhyay as I had to work with Robindro songeet (songs of Rabindranath Tagore). Now, since it is Robindro songeet, every Bangali feels that he/she can criticize any work being done with it. Thankfully, only 20% abused me!” he exclaims laughingly.
Beyond the bands already mentioned, Gaurab has played with a metal act, Cyanide Angels in the early 2000s, and in the latter half of the decade with Shut Up & Listen, a thrash metal/80s rock outfit. Currently, he divides his time between Rigmob, a cover band for performing at Someplace Else, Hatchlings, E.B.U., Kendraka, The Three Seas, Taal Tantra and Lakkhichhara.
To wind it up, I asked him what he wants to do musically as well as with his life. “Music is a form of self expression. It is created out of how things revolve in my head,” he says, “I want to play at different festivals and interact with a lot of musicians. Travel and make music – that’s all I wanna do.”
Photos courtesy: Artist
Check out the video of Lakkhichhara’s Kemon Achho Shohor :