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The Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet has been no stranger to experimenting with world music. Whether it’s soprano Dawn Upshaw or Romanian gypsies, poet Allen Ginsberg or the father of minimalism Terry Riley, British cabaret trio Tiger Lilies or Mexican pop-rockers Café Tacuba, they have all collaborated with the quartet. Now Kronos has brought out You’ve Stolen My Heart— Songs from R.D. Burman’s Bollywood. And what better collaborator could they have asked for their Bollywood adventure than Asha Bhosle herself? Bhosle not only recreated some of her best-known R.D. Burman songs for the quartet, but she will join David Harrington, Hank Dutt, Jeffrey Zeigler, and John Sherba for concerts in September in San Francisco and Los Angeles before their Carnegie Hall appearance in 2006. Harrington, the artistic director and co-founder of the quartet, spoke to me about the quartet’s Bollywood valentine.
How did you get exposed to Bollywood music?
About 15 years ago a friend of mine gave me some. One of the songs was by R.D. Burman called “aaj ki raat.” And I thought this is a great piece and we have to play it sometime. That eventually ended up on our album called Kronos Caravan and we recorded that with Zakir Hussain.
In my collection I put a check or a star next to a piece of music or song that magnetizes me and what I began to notice was the songs that most magnetized me were by R.D. Burman and generally the singer was Asha Bhosle.
About five years ago a friend was doing an interview with Asha Bhosle and he played the Kronos version of “aaj ki raat” for her and took a photograph of Asha singing along. At that moment I thought, wouldn’t it be incredible if through some good stroke of fate we might be able to record with her someday. As I collected more and more favorite R.D. songs, I got her phone number and address and began to correspond.
What drew you to R.D. Burman’s music? Though Bollywood is getting more popular here people still use adjectives like campy and kitschy to refer to it.
There is a lot of attitude about different genres of music that prevent people from enjoying what there is to enjoy in life. For me R.D.’s music is fantastic. So what if he wrote music for movies? A lot of great composers have written for movies. Look at Shostakovich, and Provokiev.
I think R.D. Burman is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The more I have gotten to know the music the more I feel justified in saying that as an orchestrator I’d put him in the same sentence as say Stravinsky or Debussy. As a melodicist I would put him in the same sentence as a Schubert or Mahler or George Gershwin. And as a rhythmicist I’d put him in same sentence as Zakir Hussain or Alla Rakha.
One of the things Kronos has done all these years is we have worked very closely with each composer. Burman died in 1994 and the closest connection we could establish to him was through Asha Bhosle, his wife. So the idea of Asha being our first lead singer became more and more apparent.
But why choose R.D. Burman and not a contemporary living composer you could have actually worked with, like A.R. Rahman?
I have found my ear consistently drawn to Burman’s music. Then Asha told me, “When Mr. Burman (that’s how she refers to him) and I went to a new city, first thing he would do was go to a record store and find out what’s playing in clubs and concerts. Music was everything.” And I thought that sounds a little bit like me.
Who chose the songs?
She said, why don’t you choose the songs, that I would have more of perspective because I wanted to give audiences here a sense of R.D. Burman’s breadth. And she was very happy with the choices. There was even one song, “nodir paare,” that she didn’t know existed on a recording. It was apparently from a private recording where Burman himself sang.
I wish I could say I have heard every song R.D. wrote. I have not. I probably have heard a thousand. Apparently there is a whole studio filled with songs that haven’t been released yet. I wanted to give our audience a sense of this incredibly creative person because most of us have never heard of him. The same goes for Asha Bhosle. This was an opportunity to introduce our audience to a Stravinsky-like figure on one hand and to an Elvis-like figure on the other.
A rather grandmotherly Elvis?
After one of the takes where she did a particularly sexy turn of phrase, she looked over at me and she winked and said, “Not bad for a grandma.” She was amazing. The first time I met Ashaji she was dressed in the most beautiful sari I had ever seen and diamonds and she looked very regal as she came up to our rehearsal space. Then I looked down and she was wearing tennis shoes. Here was the queen of Bollywood and she wore tennis shoes. I thought I love this woman.
She is such a wonderfully modest musician. When she goes into the studio it’s not as if she has recorded 20 or 30,000 songs. It’s as if it’s the first time she has ever been into the recording studio and she wants to be sure that everyone in Kronos is absolutely pleased with her performance.
But why choose such standards like “dum maro dum,” which is on every rough guide to Bollywood?
I think it’s a great song, and for me it had to be there because it gave this element of rock-and-roll to the music of Burman. And it also allowed Hank to play the organ like he was a member of the Doors! It had to be there though it’s on every collection, but ours is slower and, if you ask me, it’s sexier.
But Bollywood songs come with a full orchestra. You are a quartet. How did that work?
I wanted to give the group the idea that we could do things we had never done. Here you’ll hear Hank, our viola player for almost 30 years, playing many of the keyboard instruments, and you’ll hear John Sherba, our violinist for 30 years, might be playing the trumpet violin, and I was playing instruments I haven’t played and doing the producing.
Early on it was clear we needed the greatest percussionist we could find and for us that would be Zakir Hussian. Asha said she had known him since he was a little boy but they had never recorded together. And Zakir showed up with a truckload of instruments.
We’d also worked with the great Chinese pipa player, Wu Man, for many years and it has the largest vocabulary I know of any plucked instrument.
What do you say when people say, why tinker with a classic and try to compare with the original?
We took the original recording as a point of inspiration. The sounds we had found for our interpretation are related to the original. There is one point in the solo that I play (saajan kahan jaoongi main) where John and I overdubbed ourselves over 30 times because we wanted the screaming violin sounds you only hear in Indian cinema. You know, the 101 violins each playing as loudly as possible!
Was Asha Bhosle hesitant about re-recording iconic songs like “dum maro dum”? After all, her voice is 30 years older.
I don’t think she was hesitant at all. If she was, she didn’t let me know. She actually suggested we include an entire verse of music and words in “dum maro dum” that hadn’t been recorded before. So this version is the actual complete song as originally written.
One of the great experiences I have had was recording with her. I asked her, what is this other sound I hear faintly when I listen very carefully to the songs. And she said, “Oh, it’s a violinist. There will be a violinist in the corner playing along just to keep the pitch.” I said, “Are you going to want someone to do that?” She said, “Oh, yes.” And I said I’ll do it. So I was playing along with her on every song. In “dum maro dum” we left a little bit of me in on a couple of the notes and it creates this kind of sympathetic sound and you cannot tell what is joining Asha—is this a violin or is this a voice?
What do you think of her voice now as opposed to 30 to 40 years ago?
Her voice has moved into this amazing realm of experience. Take the song “mera kuch samaan.” She said she has only sung it in concert once and she couldn’t finish it. The words are so sad. Her voice has become this reflection of life. Asha has transcended her own history in a way and has established so many new ways of approaching music. As a vocalist, her voice is so instrumental—there are moments she sounds like a trumpet, other moments she is a violinist.
How do you think it compares to Lata Mangeshkar’s?
Both women are amazing artists. To my ear Lata is slightly more rooted in the classical. But Asha told me she practices ragas three hours a day. That’s how she keeps her chops. My ear was drawn more to Asha. And then I found in early years not only did she do the songs but the laughter of the female actresses was often Asha Bhosle’s laughter. And you can hear a little bit of that at the very end of our recording.
How did the recording process compare to R.D. Burman’s time?
I heard there might be 50 musicians in a very small room. And several microphones, so sound that would be made on one side of the room would leak into the microphones on the other side and we actually tried to recreate that. So for some of the overdubs we had seven or eight mikes picking up reverbs from all sorts of different directions to create a kind of sound Kronos has never done.
Take the opening of “chura liya.” Asha said that was played on a glass. So we tuned some glasses and came up with a tuning we liked. Or the opening of “mehbooba mehbooba” where I played the violin and used my bow a foot-and-a-half away from the bridge and as close to my fingers as I could get. She said that sounds very good, how did you do that? I told her, and she said, well, Mr. Burman did it with a Listerine bottle. That sense of playfulness was in his character in thinking of the world as a musical instrument. If R.D. Burman were alive today I am absolutely confident he would be writing music for Kronos.
But he died in 1994. So you could have conceivably collaborated.
We could have collaborated. I have to say, it’s my ignorance that prevented me because I didn’t know how to reach him. I was certainly aware of his music but the world is a big place sometimes. It’s not often we find music or anything in life that actually makes you feel better. This music makes me feel better. And I trust that.
Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle perform Sept. 22, 8 p.m., and Sept. 23, 8 p.m. at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) Theater, 701 Mission St., San Francisco; Sept. 24, 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles. www.kronosquartet.org
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.