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10 Questions for Musician Debashish Bhattacharya | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Musician Debashish Bhattacharya

10 Questions for Musician Debashish Bhattacharya

The Indian raga slide guitar genius talks Hawaii, Brighton, punk rock and more

Clearly a man happy with his lot

Debashish Bhattacharya (b 1963) is India’s leading lap steel guitar player. Equally happy in the worlds of Indian classical and West-leaning fusion music, it’s no exaggeration to say he changed the way his instrument is regarded, at home and abroad.

Born in Kolkata (AKA Calcutta) to parents who were both classical singers in the gwailor tradition, he embraced both sitar and western guitar as a young child, then spent most of his twenties studying with Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, a master of raga slide guitar. His career since has seen him push raga slide into whole new areas, including the invention of new instruments, such as the 14-stringed Ghandarvi, the 22-stringed Chaturangi and his miniature slide ukulele, the Anandi. He has played all over the world, recorded multiple albums - including work with “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin - and set up his own music school in Kolkata.

Debashish Bhattacharya will be coming to the Brighton Festival on Saturday 28th May to take part in Dr Blighty, a multi-faceted series of events celebrating the use of Brighton Pavilion as a military hospital for Indian soldiers during World War I.

THOMAS H GREEN: Have you been to Brighton before

DEBASHISH BHARRACHARYA: Yes, I played there twice around ten years ago. It is one of the most beautiful festivals away from London. I remember it was very warm and there were lots of people - barefoot and with minimal dress because of the heat - and I came out with a full jacket and hat on looking like a joke. I found a roadside artist sketching portraits for £5 so I sat there and had my face done. The night of my concert there was such a cheering and enthusiastic audience - it was unforgettable. A lady and her husband came up on stage and complimented me saying, “Your hands on the slide guitar were making love - dancing in melody and rhythm. We saw the real India in your music.” I have never forgotten what it was to come from thousands of miles away and hear those words after the show. I love this festival!

Why is music such a family affair for you?

I come from a culturally supreme family. Seventy-six generations of my family have never had a profession other than making music, writing epics or teaching Sanskrit to the Royal family and their associates. But nobody played a slide guitar before!

Have you ever been to Hawaii, home of the steel guitar?

My first concert was at Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1995 before any other Indian guitarist. I've played onstage with musicians like [Hawaian guitar wizard] Led Kaapana many times and was lucky to discover the Hawaiian legend of steel guitar, Papa Tau Moe, who brought the steel guitar to British India in the 1930s. I played a two-hour concert at his village in front of him in 2004 just before he passed away. He remembered Calcutta and called me “Debashish Calcutta Wala”. I'm making an album in tribute to Papa Tau Moe.

How often and how much do you practise?

I practise - including mind practice - 18 hours a day with a few hours of actual practice of music, teaching and composing included.

Who are your heroes?

Any human who exists, whether I know them or I don't, who obeys the laws of nature and planet Earth, who keeps his word, who loves rather than hurts others, who helps, who gives, is my hero.

Given John McLaughlin’s history in Indian fusion music, notably with his groups the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, you two seem a partnership that was always waiting to happen. What was it like working together?

John is an inspiration to many guitarists, music lovers and seekers of freedom through the music of the Indian subcontinent, and I'm one of them. I'm the luckiest because he brought me close to him for a few shows and a few recordings. He even appeared in my award-winning album Beyond the Ragasphere. He is a true symbol of dedication and grounded workmanship. As a white English man who learned the Indian music to such depth, automatically he is close to my heart, and I have deep respect for him. I have many great memories with [tabla player] Zakir Ji and him. Respect to both of them.

You are not only a musician but a musical instrument inventor. Which was the hardest instrument to create and why?

In my country in the 1970s people used to play on two stringed, plywood, cheap lap “Hawaiian Guitars”, tuning them in open A or open E, playing slack rhythms and slow sweet pop tunes. I had no other option than upgrading the music on slide guitar, upgrading technique, style and the instrument itself. There is now an understood law of slide guitar, so 40 years of my hard work has not been in vain. More than 3000 students today strike one string with the thumb and forefinger - in the history of slide guitar that is my first contribution. I had to because without that slide guitarists from India would not be invited to Brighton and 2000 other festivals.

What do you think about electronic music?

I like in general any music if it has expression, if it makes my heart feel happy. I like some electronic music but not all. Many of my disciples use electronic music. It's a sign of youth.

Can you appreciate music that doesn’t involve huge technical skill but has a power of its own – such as punk rock?

I love slow pop songs, the trance-like sound of the music. Music is a Thali of food, it includes everything - pickle to sweet, bland to spicy. To me music of all genres is a combination of several moods, several reasons, and several colours. I've been told that young audiences in Europe think I'm a punk rocker!

What do you have lined up this year?

Too much! I can't keep up with it at times. First is my next album, then my daughter’s first album, which I'm composing, along with a tour. It’s challenging. Also, I am designing my next slide guitar, and making video footage for training purposes. I need five more heads and ten more hands. And my last album Slide Guitar Ragas From Dusk Till Dawn has been nominated for Best Album in the Asia category of Songlines Music Awards 2016. The result will be announced on 6 May…

Find out more about the Brighton Festival

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