May 24, 2024

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Bollyjazz, a music band from Delhi, performs jazz versions of Bollywood classics: Video, Photos

Bollyjazz, a music project that revamps old Bollywood songs with original jazz arrangements. A drumbeat starts. It is picking up pace. A grand piano joins in. Then, the trumpets and the saxophones. A flute. A trombone. Slowly, a familiar melody from the movie Solva Saal (1958) emerges and the singing begins. ‘Hai apna dil to awara…’

We have walked into a Hemant Kumar song makeover. At a rehearsal room at the Neemrana Music Foundation in Hauz Khas, members of the 10-piece jazz band, Bollyjazz, are swinging and swaying to trumpet notes and the smooth saxophone melody as they rehearse for their upcoming show at Delhi’s Akshara Theatre.

Who would have thought old Bollywood songs could be groovy like that? Started in 2011 by singer and multi-instrumentalist Nikhil Mawkin, Bollyjazz is a music project that revamps old Bollywood songs with original jazz arrangements.

“We change everything around the melody,” says Mawkin. The reprises are of some of the most beloved film songs from the ’50s to the ’80s, from ‘Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh’ and ‘Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein’ to ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ and ‘Jahan Main Jaati Hoon Wahi Chale Aate’. The disco classic ‘Dil Bole Boom Boom’ from the 1982 movie, Star, has only got peppier in the hands of Bollyjazz. Mawkin, born in Chandigarh and brought up in Delhi, discovered jazz while studying music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, US, and he hasn’t looked back since. He got the idea for the band at a time when DJs were producing tacky remixes of “beautiful melodies” of Bollywood. He says that he wanted to put his training in jazz to good use and was intrigued by the possibilities of Bollywood music. For many, the fusion of jazz and Indian film music might seem unlikely, but not for Mawkin. “Jazz was always present in Bollywood,” he says. “Songs like Kishore Kumar’s ‘Eena Meena Deeka’ or Geeta dutt’s ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’ are heavily influenced by jazz.”

Bollyjazz is a diverse group. Chie Nishikori, the trombone player, is from Japan while Fabio Carlucci on the trumpet is from Italy. Nathalie Ramirez, who plays the flute, is from Mexico. She is married to Mawkin. Other members are Iliana Gandhi, Sentirenla Lucia and Jasmin Saxena on vocals, Aman Mahajan and Rhythem Bansal on the piano, Bhaskar Gurung on the bass, Harmish Joshi on the saxophone and Siddharth Jain and Shantanu Sudharshan on the drums. Eeshan Govil takes care of the audio production. The Indian members are from across the country, from Bangalore to Ahmedabad; what glues the band together is a shared love for Bollywood music and jazz. Ramirez, who was smitten with Hindustani classical music after attending a workshop in Mexico, came to India over 12 years ago to learn bansuri. She learned the instrument under the tutelage of eminent flautist Kailash Sharma at Delhi’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. She feels that jazz is similar to Hindustani music—both allow improvisation.

“Jazz is essentially very improvisational. There are solo sections in the song where every musician gets an opportunity to express something of his or her own. That happens in Hindustani performances as well.” Ramirez cites the example of ‘Aajkal Tere Mere Pyar Ke Charche’ sung by Mohammed Rafi as a song that has quite an evident jazz musicality to it. “Bollywood music has gone through a lot of phases. From being deeply influenced by Hindustani classical music in the early days to the disco songs of the ’80s and ’90s, it has always been changing. Now there is even reggaeton. Bollywood has always accommodated a vast range of influences,” she says.

The journey of the band has, however, not been easy. “When we were starting out, we were rejected by both lovers of jazz and Bollywood music,” remembers Mawkin. People felt that both the genres could never sit comfortably together. Mawkin agrees that jazz is seen as an elite genre of music, and many venues did not want them because the songs were in Hindi. On the other hand, people who expected loud Bollywood dance numbers couldn’t accept their jazz versions. Over the years, the tables have turned. Mawkin talks about how people are more and more interested in what Bollyjazz is doing and how new bands are trying to follow suit. “Nowadays Bollyjazz is used as the name of a new genre. There are ‘Bollyjazz nights’ at clubs.”

When not doing a public show, the band plays at weddings and other private venues across the country. Mawkin and Ramirez have performed their jazz versions of Bollywood songs in Mexico, along with 25 jazz artists from the country. “Everybody enjoyed the performance despite not understanding a word,” recalls Ramirez. “Everybody understands the language of music,” she adds. Bollyjazz aims to become a “big band” or jazz orchestra, which would have multiple artists in the horn section, including on saxophones, trumpets and trombones. For Mawkin, the band is also a way of popularising jazz in India. He feels that jazz has been misunderstood in the country because it has been largely inaccessible to the common people. Mawkin has a deeply personal connection to the genre. He talks of its roots in African- American history and how it was considered the “music of freedom”. For Bollyjazz, the genre allows the freedom to mix seemingly disparate things together, the result of which is quite delightful.

Bollyjazz, a music project that revamps old Bollywood songs with original jazz arrangements

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