By Vijay Shah
Indian music has many great qualities. Whether it is bhangra from the Punjab or Carnatic music from India’s deep south, the song talent of the world’s ‘largest democracy’ has been very democratic in its popularity. The Bollywood film industry, as well as its regional variations, has built up an international fan-base numbering the tens of millions thanks to its steady stream of ‘filmi’ songs and sultry dance numbers. Indeed, no Bollywood director could ever imagine releasing a movie without a few feel-good tracks thrown in to maximise audience enjoyment. Not including a ditty or two would be unthinkable and would ensure a guaranteed slaying in the box offices.
A traditional Bollywood film poster for “Gair Kaanoonii” in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, India.
With its haunting melodies, toe-tapping beats and lyrics about love, life and the clouds in the sky, Indian music has enjoyed much success among South Asian communities and Diasporas scattered all over the world – as well as people whose Indian cultural journey may have only extended as far as the local curry house. One of the keys to its overwhelming popularity is its ability to adapt and to absorb influences from other musical traditions, all the while retaining its unique spicy ‘desi’ flavour’. In the United Kingdom, bhangra artists like Heera, Bally Sagoo and The Untouchables have mixed up traditional Punjabi lyrics, dhol drums and other instruments from the ‘pind’ with Western beats and styles since the early 1980s. In making their own take on the music genre once associated with farming villages in rural Punjab, they absorbed cues from nearly every genre, from rap to acid house and dancehall. Even in the birthland of Indian music, playback singers sung their honey-sweet vocals over tunes with Arabic melodies and European classical music. In 2005, the hit blockbuster ‘Bluffmaster’ featured the song “Boro Boro“, performed in Farsi by acclaimed Iranian pop singer Arash. Four years before, Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas joined forces with Carnatic singer Jayashri to create the melodiously haunting fusion song “Habibi Dah (Nari Narain)”
Conversely, singers and performers like Sri Ravi Shankar and Lata Mangeshkar have been wowing people of all ethnicities in packed-out concerts far outside the sub-continent for many decades. Mr Shankar even moved to the United States and had a relationship with a local woman. More recently,hip-hop rappers from the West Coast, usually to be heard rapping about ‘guns and hoes’, have been dropping bars to Indian-style scores. One rapper, Akon, who is originally from Senegal, but grew up in the United States – has even sung for the Bollywood film Ra.One in pure Hindi!. His track, ‘Chamak Challo’ is still setting dancefloors ablaze at nightclubs and desi weddings from London to Ludhiana.
As Indian singers leave no stone unturned in their quest for the next big trendy sound, a relatively unknown group, Botown, have been hitting the road as originators of a new sound on the block – fusing traditional Bollywood ‘filmi geet’ (movie songs) with sharp, guitar-soaked melodies from the African-American musical genres of jazz and soul. A multi-ethnic and multi-cultural outfit, Botown have emerged from the niche of the alternative British Asian scene and have taken the United Kingdom by storm, performing to packed houses at the Jazz Cafe, Momo’s and even London’s Trafalgar Square, gathering several five-star plaudits from music critics along the way. The London regional daily newspaper, the Evening Standard, described one of Botown’s recent performances as “soulful … playful fusion”. British Asian tabloid Eastern Eye said of the group “Apart from making old filmi music cool again, the cool British band has blazed a trail on the live scene, created a new genre and released a critically acclaimed album that has taken everyone by surprise”. The Eye has credited Botown with inventing a whole new genre of music, while preserving musical styles that had often been seen as uncool and unfashionable by some of the younger generations.
Frontman and guitarist Ajay Srivastav is the genius behind Botown. A minor player in the Indian film song industry, he was a solo artist who shot to fame with the song “Aaja Sajana“. Released in India by record label T-Series, a respected name in the field, Aaja Sajana shot to number one in the national charts. Born and raised in north London, Ajay decided one day to change his musical path and drew together a motley crew to form Botown. Even before founding his band, Srivastav was no stranger to cross-cultural musical collaborations, having shared the stage with personalities such as Jamiroquai, Gregory Isaacs, as well as fellow UK Asian fusion singer Apache Indian and Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan, a seasoned big bucks name with many years’ experience under the Mumbai spotlights.
Ajay has assembled a crack team of musicians spanning a wide cultural and musical heritage. Look out for the delightful vocalists Rekha Sawhney and Rajvi Rajani, sharp-suited Pavan Verma on the sax and flutes, who often teams up with fellow saxophonist “Ranchor” Murphy. The smouldering jazzy sounds come courtesy of Paul Batik, with the drums getting put through their paces by Pete Pentreath and Jon Harris. Altogether seventeen different artists come together to fill your ears to the brim with funky soulful Bollywood jazz vibes.
Botown’s characteristic sound has been described as Mumbai meets Memphis. They reboot much-loved and sung Bollywood film classics and add a hefty shot of Sixties soul and funk, lightly spiced with jazz.
Their hit Hindi melody “Roop Tera” made it to Number One on the BBC’s Official Asian Download charts in 2012, as well as an album reaching the top ten of the Amazon Funk charts. They have been featured on the English soap opera EastEnders as background music and have been represented the UK South Asian communities at the London 2012 Open Weekend which was held in July 2011 in collaboration with the BBC’s Olympic coverage – celebrating the Games and London’s cultural diversity. Indeed, Botown have expressed a dream to see their music helping to bridge the gap between communities and cultures. They want to acquaint non-Indian audiences with Hindi music and even getting them to sing along in perfect Hindi. Their growing non-Asian fan base is testament to that. Likewise they hope to introduce South Asians to the beauty of musical genres like soul and jazz, which have currently no real presence in the CD collections and MP3 players of musically-minded BritAsians. That seems to be working too, as they headlined the Lord Mayor’s Diwali festive show in Trafalgar Square in 2010, playing to a crowd numbering a few thousand, perhaps all leaving the square with a grand impression of the latest breakthrough in British Asian music’s thirty-plus years of existence.
Traditionally singing in Hindi, one of the national languages of India, Botown have released their first English-language single, “The Big B Shuffle” in honour of the original angry young man of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan. The Big B Shuffle is where ‘fatback drums meet talking tablas, whilst wild Bollywood strings crash over wah-guitars’. The album has been described as soul flowing over the Himalayas and it could serve a huge boost to the retro funk style. The song itself refers to a dance step made famous by Bachchan that is imitated the world over to this day.
As the world gets smaller and as cultures from opposite continents seamlessly blend into one another, Botown in their own unique way have shown the power of uniting humanity with the sound of music, combining two very different styles and bringing out a powerfully sensual and richly toned mishmash that will be serenading the cool cats in the nation’s jazz lounges and mela festivals for many years to come.
Botown in a live performance of “Roop Tera”.
Many thanks to Anjali Shah for suggesting today’s article – particularly as she was fortunate enough to see Botown live in action.
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“The Legend of Botown”, Botown.com LINK
“The Band” – Botown.com LINK
“Botown Highlights Part 1” – Ajay Srivastav, Botown.com LINK
“big b shuffle” – – Ajay Srivastav, Botown.com LINK
“Hisham Abbas” – Wikipedia LINK