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Living and breathing music

It's just music all the way for Louis Banks. This composer, pianist, keyboard player, who is also a painter, shares his thoughts on jazz, fusion and film music.



MUSIC MAESTRO: Versatility is his forte. — Photo: P. V. Sivakumar

IT IS hard not to admire the impressive credentials of Louis Banks - a composer, pianist, keyboard player. He is in fact hailed as the best jazz pianist and keyboard player of the country. A man who gave the nation Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Desh raag, Spread the light of freedom (which were eulogies of national integration - portraying unity in diversity) which were aired on the small screen in the late Eighties and occasionally telecast even now. One who is the king of jingles, who has performed with musicians of repute - national and internationally, who has constantly experimented in different genres and whose body of work is notable for its music. And when one meets Louis Banks his unpretentious personality is striking.

"The war seems to be escalating," was Louis' first remark as he sat at the Coffee Shop of Taj Krishna catching the news on television. And the conversation had to veer from war to music. Since he is part of fusion one had to elicit his views on it. "Fusion is a new direction in music - not something discovered recently. It's been there in the context of jazz. In the 1970s musicians felt the need to experiment and find newer approaches. That different genres could be brought together was evident from the success of the attempts of the band Weather Report. This new direction in electronic rock and jazz fusion set the ball rolling. This inspired many more attempts. The Shakti group (John MacLaughlin and others) `pioneered' Indian fusion," he says.

Not many know that Louis Banks (who hails from Nepal but grew up in Darjeeling and whose original name is Dambar Bahadur Budhapriti) formed a group called Sangam where he teamed up with classical vocalist Ramamani (after he heard her mind-blowing performance in Calcutta where he says "her improvisation in Carnatic music was brilliant and she sang like a jazz musician) and performed about 60 concerts all over Europe and participated in festivals there. Of course his initial interest in fusion stemmed from a desire to experiment. As he was heavily steeped in jazz he realised that Carnatic music gave him scope to test it out. So when the duo got together they created 15 compositions. "I got to rediscover Indian music and how to apply it in the Indian context and the response was unbelievable. This was the first time audiences abroad saw a jazz group with a sari-clad woman musician singing in the forefront. Unfortunately Sangam could not be sustained as Ramamani was in Bangalore and I was in Mumbai. Moreover there were not enough concerts to keep the group going," he says.

This fusion was not a mere jamming session. Fusion according to Louis Banks has to be "well-thought out, arranged and structured. There should be some substance. Just getting a tabla player and playing does not make it fusion."

Louis' desire to continue these attempts was instrumental in the formation of a new band called Silk with Shankar Mahadevan, Sivamani and Karl Peters. Is fusion here to stay? "It will never go into the mainstream but will have its niche audience. Its popularity has grown in the last few years judging from the numerous concerts we do now," he answers.

Louis however stresses that a high calibre of musicianship is necessary for fusion and a sound grounding in one classical style helps. Spontaneity on stage is also crucial as there is improvisation.

Musicians too have an open mind about fusion. "If it is done well there is nothing wrong but jumping on the bandwagon and cashing on popularity should not be the case."

Louis Banks feels that the younger generation has to take up fusion. "My son Gino has a fusion band Nexus. They play their compositions and they have a fan following."

Louis has worked mostly with Carnatic music but admits to have only scratched the surface. "It is very rich, has an extensive library and boggles the imagination." What about Hindustani? "It is melodius and evocative but builds up slowly. The great rhythmic vitality and variations in Carnatic appeal to me. Moreover, like jazz, the action is faster."

The fusion compositions are interesting because there is lot of improvisation, points of departure and synthesis. "Therefore it sounds different every time and freshness is maintained." It's the quality of freshness which attracted Louis Banks to jazz. At times words are woven into the composition. The new album of Silk includes a shlok incorporated by Shankar Mahadevan."

Louis Banks is passionate about jazz. He is a self-taught jazz musician. "When I was learning classical music on the piano I happen to hear a jazz record of Oscar Petersen brought by my musician-father and that was the turning point in my life," he reminisces. Since then he tutored himself through books and listening to Voice of America. And the learning never stops. "Every day I learn something more," he says. His zeal for jazz is reflected in the annual jazz yatra (a festival) he organises in Mumbai.

The transition from jazz to jingles happened more out of necessity and fewer opportunities. "When I used to play jazz music at the nightclub in Kolkata it fetched a lot of flak. People wanted me to play pop. R.D. Burman heard my piano play in Kolkata and wanted me to play in films. I took it up and then when I got advertisement offers I went on to do jingles and corporate anthems. Subsequently I left Bollywood assignments."

Louis Banks scores music for films too. Why is he not serious about it? "I have done two English films Bokshua, The Myth (a Nepalese word meaning the evil spirit) and God Only Knows (a comedy satire directed by Bharat Dabholkar). Directed by Shama Prasad "the music of Bokshua is very symphonic blending Tibetan chants and tantric elements. It is slated for an international release." What about Bollywood offers? "There are lot of clichés in Bollywood. I need directors who think differently. In English films I get a free hand in composing."

What about operas? "After Roshni (directed by Alyque Padamsee) there are no operas. In fact I would like to do that as writing and composing is my forte. But a Westend, Broadway kind of theatre culture is yet to come," he rues.

Art is another passion for this maestro. "I have been painting since childhood. I do abstracts and impressionistic works in acrylics and oils. Though I never studied art I love to visit art galleries and interact with artists.

The whole family is deep into music. "My wife is my manager and my biggest critic," says Louis Banks. With such a keen interest in music, it is no wonder that music reverberates at his home.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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