Music sessions

A music platform with no-food, no-booze policy is drawing Indian independent musicians to Kerala

Building a music scene requires more than just muses and musicians.

“It’s better now, but for the longest time, Kerala had no venues for bands to play in,” complained Govind Menon, a violinist and composer. “That’s why most musicians from Kerala would come to Bangalore to get an audience.”

For musicians like Menon, who rued Kerala’s lack of performance venues, two music lovers from Kochi found a solution in June 2016 with The Muse Room – small dedicated platforms online and offline that host upcoming independent musicians every week.

The idea was conceived by Sumesh Lal along with ex-Motherjane frontman and founder of recording label Aum-i-artistes Suraj Mani, the same people behind the popular Music Mojo series on the Malayalam music channel Kappa TV (a show similar to Coke Studio).

So far, Lal and Mani have propped up four venues, one in Kochi, another in Thiruvananthapuram, and two in Bengaluru, where gigs are held as part of The Muse Room theme. Unlike regular restaurant-cum-live music venues, most Muse Room venues stand as somewhat pristine citadels for musicians – they serve no drinks or food to minimise distractions for the audience and allow the music speak for itself.

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The platform has a fervent admirer in Jitesh James Dharmaraj, bassist for the Chennai band RJD who also plays for Junkyard Groove. At the end of RJD’s show at the OO Heaven, a small concert hall of at the Aum-i-artiste office in Bengaluru, he declared to a small audience of about thirty people: “In all my years of playing music, never have I played in a place like this. A place for musicians by musicians. It’s so rare to find a place where the audience is there only for the music.”

His brother, Ritesh John Dharmaraj, lead singer of the RJD who plays drums for Junkyard Groove, agreed. “I normally never talk about the stories behind my songs, people tend to simply talk over it and not listen, but here I could do that.”

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Mehdi Deobandi of SMAKmahadev, an acoustic, experimental band which has also performed at the OO Heaven, said, “Most places that hold gigs, especially in Bangalore, charge concert rates but they’re just bar gigs, where the owners are looking to fill up the venue and provide some entertainment for the night. Don’t get me wrong, playing to a crowd of drunk and excited people is fun as well, but you don’t really feel like your music is reaching anyone.”

With alcohol and weekend socialising, the music becomes secondary, Deobandi added. “[At the Muse Room] for the first time, I had people coming up to me after the show and asking me about the meaning of certain lyrics and the slightly odd tuning that I give my guitar,” he said. “They were actually paying attention.”

Suraj Mani explained the Muse Room’s novel style – “What we’re trying to do is to create infrastructure to help build the music scene. One of the ways is by making a simple format of acoustic shows which we can take directly to people.”

Until now, only acoustic bands have been featured at The Muse Room venues. Ranjini Menon, who is in charge of artist relations at The Muse Room, said they were open to all kinds of music. “The Muse Room in Kochi at least, where all the videos on their YouTube channel have been recorded, is a small venue that can’t accommodate a drum kit which is why we’ve been somewhat limited,” she said.

Encouragingly, the lineup sees several musicians singing in Malayalam apart from English, perhaps as a consequence of the venue’s location. However bands from other parts of the country have also been making their way down south to be featured on the channel.

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As of now only the performances that take place at the Kochi Muse Room have been put up on the Muse Room’s YouTube channel, which has a little over a 100 videos. Audio recordings of the performances at the OO Heaven are being compiled for a soon to be released album. Like Balcony TV, a multi-city YouTube music platform which started its Indian edition in 2012, Muse Room hopes to curate and showcase some of the best upcoming talent in the country (as well as all over the world) in recorded performances. There are plans to expand to more venues and host similar shows in apartment complexes and other community spaces.

Packaging music content in a video format is crucial for any new band, but popularity depends on the quality of content they produce, both online and offline. “A video that we put up three years ago had only 10,000 views to start off with,” said Menon. “Only after we performed at several gigs, it has gone up to lakhs of views now.” Earning money through the sale of albums or songs themselves is practically unheard of. What brings home their bread are still concerts – and so multiple, good venues are crucial.

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Another way to discover music is to attend music festivals like NH7, Strawberry fields, Sula Fest or any other from the other growing list of events. These events showcase several bands over the course of a few days – known and unknown – which is a great way of boosting the music scene. However, festivals come only once a year and last for about a week at most.

Compared perhaps unfairly to the West, India is missing the effort that goes into building a music scene – musicians being able to reach their audiences and listeners having easy access to fresh content. Infrastructure such as promotion of new bands on the radio, billboard charts, dedicated venues and even good music journalism for that matter, is sorely needed. This is where Muse Room comes in. “We’re championing independent music,” said Mani, in a fundraising video. “We believe in it. We have been rewarded many times over by the content that we have seen come out of this country.”

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From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.