Broken Beats: Mix The City Mumbai Is A Fun But Incomplete Representation Of Local Sounds

Mix The City Mumbai launch.

Keyboardist Louiz Banks, guitarist Ravi Iyer, flautist Rajeev Raja and bassist Naina Kundu at the Mix The City Mumbai launch.

What is the definitive sound of a city? The British Council’s self-described “interactive digital platform” Mix The City attempts to answer this question with a set of audio-visual clips that viewers can use to create soundtracks for locations across the world, including Hamburg, Istanbul, Mannheim, Moscow and, most recently, Mumbai and Delhi. For each city, 12 musicians based there have each contributed a pair of eight second-long snatches of music for users to play around with. There are multiple combinations to be made and when you’re done recording your production, you can view it in the form of a music video.

When you think of the sound of Mumbai perhaps you think of Bollywood tunes or the percussion rhythms heard during the Ganesh festival (arguably our most familiar street music) or maybe rock (we’ve always been a contender for rock capital of the country) or even the new breed of local hip-hop. But you will hear none of these among the selections provided in Mix The City Mumbai, which was launched last month. The sound from the city’s musical history is a nod to the city’s legacy of jazz, which was all the rage from the 1930s to the 1950s, in a clip by keyboardist Louiz Banks. He is joined by fellow veterans of the scene, percussionists Sivamani and Taufiq Qureshi, guitarist Ravi Iyer and flautist Rajeev Raja.

Despite two drum players, there’s not a single Bombay street beat in Mix The City Mumbai unless you count an unnamed horn player from the Chauss Brass Band from Vaijapur in Maharashtra. Folk music appears in the form of Rajasthani morchang player Rais Khan. Young India is represented by bass player Naina Kundu as well as singer-songwriter Alisha Pais and beatboxer Meghana Bhogle. Strangely, we don’t hear Pais’s voice but a snatch of her playing the acoustic guitar and Bhogle doesn’t beatbox but sings. The Indian classical music contingent is made up of sitar player Imran Khan and rabab player Chintoo Singh Wasir.

What we get with this raw material is not so much the sound of the city as an approximation of some of the sounds of the country. Part of this could be attributed to the ‘creators’, members of British alternative rock band Django Django, who were assigned the tough task of choosing (on the basis on YouTube videos they were sent) and recording the musicians. In a Skype interview conducted after the press conference, bassist Jimmy Dixon said they were inclined towards more traditional forms of music. “Personally I listen to a lot of Indian composers from the ’60s and ’70s,” said Dixon. “I wanted to experience some of those instruments. It wasn’t a conscious thing.”

It’s not like they didn’t try to get rappers or DJs on board. (If our weekly events listings are anything to go by, there seems to be a new Mumbai-bred electronic music producer on the horizon every week or so.) Many weren’t available, said Dixon. Kurla rapper Naezy, for instance, was part of their long-list. “We wanted to keep a balance between young Indian producers and musicians who have been around for 30 to 40 years,” said Dixon.

Mix The City Delhi, released earlier this month, features three electronic musicians, Frame/Frame aka Nikhil Kaul, BLOT’s Gaurav Malaker and Curtain Blue aka Abhishek Bhatia. Given the city’s place in the history of north Indian culture, there are, understandably, more Indian classical musicians, from vocalist Vidya Shah to sitar player Shubhendra Rao and violin player Sharat Chandra Srivastava. Rock is repped by a couple of riffs courtesy Superfuzz’s Sanchal Malhar.

Put the bits together and you might roughly get something along the lines of what capital-based electro-folk-fusion duo Midival Punditz do. So it’s a better example of music that has come to be associated with Delhi than the Mumbai mix. But there are no Punjabi rhythms. And as clichéd as it might sound, bhangra, despite the inclusion of a dhol player, is conspicuous by its absence.

Such a project of course has inherent difficulties. How do you ask musicians with decades of experience to distill their sound down to a mere ten minutes (the duration for which each of them were recorded)? How do you edit the recording to two segments of a mere eight seconds? Using such a method, is it at all possible “to showcase the diversity of sound, music and cultural influences in each city”, as the press release proclaims? That said, it’s fun selecting and combining the clips and watching the resultant video, which is interspersed with shots of city landmarks such as Nariman Point, Dadar Chowpatty and the Bandra Worli Sea Link.

Kolkata and Chennai are to follow next in the Mix The City series. The four places have been chosen as they mark east, south, west and north India. At best, the mixes can be loosely described as the sounds of certain regions. Alas the souls of the cities can’t quite be heard.

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