Singer-songwriter TL Mazumdar, who lives in Mannheim, Germany, is among a handful of Indian musicians who are trying to break the Western stereotype that they have to play sitars or tablas, or sing Bollywood and bhangra numbers. However, it isn’t easy to categorise Mazumdar’s music. A multi-instrumentalist, his songs have elements of rock, jazz, funk and a healthy dose of electronic sounds. Some have described his music as Nu R&B. Mazumdar is also willing to take risks – often his concerts are highly improvised, as heard on Kolkata Tapes #2, which is available online. He’s no mug in the studio either, and his first album Four Walls V.2, released in 2010, shows production skills that a veteran would be proud of. Mazumdar spoke to Time Out about his musical identity and his approach to songwriting and improvisation.
You lived in three different continents as a kid. Did this have an effect on your music?
I grew up in Libya (a country I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit again), London, India and Germany. All this travelling happened within the first decade of my life, so its mark was permanent. It taught me not to be judgmental, and not to trust social conditioning. Any theme that rings true to one culture and false to another can’t be a truth, but an idiosyncrasy. I’m a diehard globalist and think the concept of a nation in the form it is exercised is already past its expiry date.
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
A lot of Indian classical music, thanks to my parents. My mother was a bharatanatyam dancer, who quit to become a doctor instead. My dad loved Al Di Meola and ABBA – a funny combination, I know. I spent my teens being a rocker and later got into Latin American music and jazz thanks to my mentors Monojit and Amyt Datta [a percussionist and a guitarist from Kolkata]. I eventually went on to get a formal degree in jazz piano performance, so that’s where the bulk of my musical grammar lies. I’m heavily into electronic music, mostly because of the independence it gives me. I have been studying Indian music privately for a few years now.
How do audiences perceive you – an Indian who does not play Indian music – in Germany?
It differs from situation to situation. Germany today is a multicultural society, although some parts of its population still struggle with the idea. I never wanted to be an exotic coloured man playing exotic music. My music is a reflection of who I am, which is as European as Indian, even if the colour of my skin won’t show it. I do get the clichéd question every now and then about whether I play tablas or not, but… Frankly, I don’t consider it a part of my job to spend time worrying about others’ perceptions of it. I try to live from my heart and hope those who do the same will step into the orbit.
You’re currently occupied with the Experimental Singer Songwriter Project. Can you tell us more about it?
Spending a lot of time working with mainstream, major-label artists during a certain phase of my life, it often saddened my heart to see how sterile and premeditated the process of writing a song can be.
I really needed an outlet to exercise my beliefs in life and music. That’s the ESSP, where songs are written, composed and performed with a great deal of attention to staying in the moment and letting the music happen, as opposed to trying to fill in a pre-conceived box with music.
In a Times of India interview last year you mentioned “using songs as a vehicle of improvisation”. What did you mean by that?
To play a song, but in the moment. Not to reproduce a preconceived idea, but to understand the core content of a song and to interpret it. We never play a song the same way the next night.
How do you think improvisation relates to songwriting?
The same way it relates to life. We improvise every moment of our life except we don’t put that into a box with a label saying “improvisation”. We don’t wake up with a dialogue to speak through the course of the day. Music is communication. A language. The idea is to use it to say what is on my mind at the appropriate moment, as opposed to reciting lines I learnt.
Singer-songwriters are conventionally seen as having less to do with improvisation.
Singer-songwriters in the ’50s, especially in the jazz idiom, would improvise with songs all the time. In Indian traditions singers are using songs to improvise all the time too. Except it’s never really talked about particularly. I’m not inventing anything new, really. The musical language I use may just be a different one. It’s a combination of my very different musical and cultural roots and influences.
Four Walls V.2 is more composed and comes across as an extremely personal record. Even short songs like “Wonder Why” seem like fully-formed stories.
That album is a very different phase of my life. It was also me experimenting with my new bedroom studio. I played all instruments, except drums, myself, so I had to have a pretty defined structure in mind. Also, generally speaking, performing live and composing/producing for me are two different art forms. The content is roughly the same, but the idea in the studio is to paint a permanent picture, knowing it’ll be permanent. Whereas live, it’s about playing with the energy appropriate to that moment. That room. That audience. It’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
By Kingshuk Niyogy on August 13 2012