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Raindrops and Lullabies: A Chat with Tajdar Junaid

28 Apr

Continuing with our love affair with the Kolkata music scene, one of our favorite musicians right now is the very talented Tajdar Junaid. Taj has been around for quite a while; he’s toured with Blackstratblues, provided music for Bengali art films, and was a member of the now-defunct Cal alt rock band Cognac. He’s just finished recording his outstanding debut album What Color is Your Raindrop, and plans to release it very soon. Tajdar’s songs have a certain wide-eyed beauty that reminds us of the smell of rain on grassy grounds, and we promise you’re going to like his music, too. Read on for a short interview with this gifted singer-songwriter.

Tajdar Junaid

Top Five Records: Tell us a little bit about the musical journey that paved the path for your debut album, What Colour is Your Raindrop. When did you know that you wanted to be a musician? 

Tajdar Junaid: It’s all got to do with the Led Zep cassette that my cousin played when I was 13. I distinctly remember the song was “No Quarter” and then followed “Whole Lotta Love”. By then, I was sucked and swirling inside the speakers of my tape recorder. For two years, I kept persisting to get myself a drumkit but unfortunately we didn’t have enough space to accommodate one in the house. Those two years, I played drums on the school table and irritated my classmates by playing with pens on their back. My elder brother used to play guitars and there was a chord book around. When I turned 15, it dawned on me that my dreams of becoming John Bonham will never see the day, so I might as well learn the guitar to express myself. I started off with the chord book and the first song that I learnt was the riff to Nirvana’s version of “The Man Who Sold the World”. I used to save up my “lunch money” and go and buy cassettes. Of course I’d be hungry at school but man, when you hold that Led Zep or Metallica black album in your hands, you are so satisfied!

While in high school, I started looking around for a good guitar teacher and I was glad to meet Amyt Datta. He totally opened up avenues in my head I didn’t know existed. I started practicing more and more, and music slowly became a love affair. So the decision to become a musician was not a conscious one. It has been more about sticking to and holding onto what you love because it’s a peaceful feeling.

TFR: Your album has a rather peculiar and intriguing name.  What’s the story behind it?

TJ: It’s named after a song which was written on a rainy day. It’s me asking you…”so what’s your story?”

Guess who the cute kid is?

Guess who the cute kid is?

TFR: We understand that there are eighteen different collaborators on your album – from all over the world and of all genres. How did that happen?

TJ: I feel very fortunate to have some very talented musician friends from all across the globe. Thanks to the internet, these songs travelled all across to be recorded. I heard Greg Johnson, who is a fantastic singer songwriter from NZ on a CD when I was in high school and had barely begun to play the guitar then. I wrote an email to him appreciating his music and he wrote back surprised to know he had listeners in India. We lost touch until about two years ago, when we exchanged some music again. He liked what he heard and he asked me to play guitars on one of his song. And when I started recording my album, I knew a song of mine “Mockingbird” suited his voice perfectly. I met Fred White (from the thrice Grammy Nominated UK band Acoustic Alchemy) over Soundcloud.com. We heard each other’s music and got excited about the idea of collaborating and mixing my album. Vishal Nayak , who is an old friend from Calcutta, went to study music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He played drums on a song of mine from his home studio in New York. Anusheh Anadil who is a fabulous singer from Bangladesh sang on a song too. Vache, who is from Armenia, played the traditional Armenian flute Duduk. Nitzan Sagie is a brilliant composer from Israel and I met him over Soundcloud.com. He contributed on a song of mine called “The First Year”. It’s a beautiful surprise when the universe opens up its avenues to you and you end up collaborating and making music with people who you have never met in your entire life.

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TFR: You went from guitarist of an alt rock band [Kolkata’s Cognac] to a solo singer-songwriter with a seemingly endless array of instruments and influences. Did that happen organically?

TJ: At one point of time I just got bored of playing the guitar and chanced upon Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s music which completely changed my life and made me question my existence and role as a musician. I became curious and started listening to all the music I hadn’t heard before and learning new instruments with the help of the internet, such as the Ukulele, Mandolin and Charango. I realized my way to happiness is to remain curious and keep discovering my love for music in newer ways, similar to a kid in a candy store.

TFR: You have toured as a guitarist for Blackstratblues in the past. How did that situation materialize? Have you played for Blackstratblues after that?

TJ: Warren is a good friend and we have mutual respect for another’s music. Our common ground is our love for blues. He was preparing his first Blackstratblues tour in 2010 and I was visiting Bombay for a recording so it worked out well. I did play with him again recently and it was great fun.

TFR: Some Bengali friends of ours – ardent enthusiasts of the region’s cinema, of course – informed us of your role as music director/composer in noted films such as Iti, Mrinalini (about a suicidal once-famous actress) and Dui Dhuranir Golpo (about two young transgenders from Kolkata). Very impressive! Do you find that there are differences in the composition process between Taj, the music director and Taj, the solo musician?

TJ: If a scene from a film needs a simple melody, I should put aside my intellect and play a simple melody. And if a song on my album needs me to play a blues slide line,I should practice hard and learn to play that line because the song needs it. When I say “needs” I mean to say songs or any work of art has a life of its own and will tell you exactly how to shape it, only if one shuts his ego and intellect and listens quietly to the song or painting unfolding itself. It’s actually quite simple, we just love making things complex. But the bottomline of everything I do is to have fun and like what I do or else don’t get into it.

Tajdar

TFR: Our favorite song from your upcoming album is the mellow “Though I Know” [download from NH7 here], which reminds us a bit of Eddie Vedder (and occasionally Beirut). However, we think that the title-track “What Colour is Your Raindrop” has a strain of melancholic beauty that can often be found in Hindustani classical music. Tell us a bit about your undoubtedly wide spectrum of influences.

TJ: I’m in love with music and with everything it does to me. It makes me happy, brings me calmness, it excites me, makes me travel in my head. Over the years I’ve understood that all forms of music have something good to offer so absorb the good and the bad will filter itself out. I love the serenity and etherealness of Indian classical, I love Chopin and his melodies, I absolutely dig Albert Collins and all the blues greats, simply because it is very moving, And Thank you Lord for the Beatles. It’s silly not to enjoy so much goodness around you.

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TFR: “Aamna” [another track from his album] is the kind of ethereal, delicate lullaby that parents should play to their young children. Tell us a few special things about this song.

TJ: Aamna is my pride and joy. She is my little niece who is one year , four months right now. When she was born I used to keep her on my lap and play music to her and put her to sleep. I am a musician and the truest part of myself that I can offer is my music. I wanted to gift her something that could put her to sleep even when I wasn’t around.

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TFR: We’re very intrigued by the instrument that you play on “Dastaan”. What is it? How many instruments do you play on this album?

TJ: It’s a 10 string folk guitar from South America called the Charango. I first heard it in the Ost for Motorcycle diaries and fell in love with the sound. I have played the guitar,charango,mandolin,ukulele,glockenspiel and sang on the album. I would like to learn the piano. It’s a beautiful instrument !

TFR: Finally, on a lighter note. Who is that cute kid on the cover of What Colour is your Raindrop? [see above]

TJ: It’s me when I was 4 years old . Calcutta used to have a lot of strikes then and the roads would go completely empty. I used to be amazed by the traffic police and delighted to see huge cars and trucks stop with simply one wave of their cane. So I was filled with pride holding that cane and posing on the empty road. Perhaps I was grinning and thinking I brought the entire road on a standstill.

You can listen to Tajdar’s amazing work on his SoundCloud or visit his website here.

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NH7 Weekender: Delhi edition

24 Oct

By Anjishnu Kumar (Photographer Siddharth Shah)

As soon as I got out of the car on the Saturday of the Delhi Weekender, I was struck by the scale and sheer ambition of the event that was unfolding.  Buddh International Circuit’s gargantuan Grand Stand stood tall beside the curtained enclosures housing six stages that were to host around sixty bands over the next two days.

This is NH7 Weekender, the biggest music event to ever happen near the national capital.

The last biggest-music-event-ever-to-happen-in-the-capital I’d gone to in the NCR was the Metallica concert in Gurgaon. That day ended with me standing in the sun for four hours without water, with a rather obese gentleman vomiting next to me in regular intervals and having to run away from the venue before the police arrived.

As you can imagine, I was going into this event with a perfectly justified sort of cynicism.

The event was already showing signs of better management than the Metallica affair. The parking lot was a small ocean of grass. I was handed a complimentary glass of water at the entrance, and led through the security check. Things looked good.

We followed the music and ended up at the largest stage, the Black Rock Arena, where a perfectly mediocre whiny alt-rockish band was just finishing up. I didn’t bother finding out who they were.

Next up was Vir Das’s Alien Chutney, boasting of the comedian plus two stalwarts of Indian rock- Warren Mendonsa and Sidd Coutto.

Alien Chutney was half rock-band and half stand up comedy act in which Vir Das regularly walked the thin line between acerbic wit and vulgarity. Alien Chutney started with the surprisingly addictive ‘Villageman’, a ballad about having sex with Haryanvis.

He followed with some more originals, such as his rendition of the Delhi Belly classic Bhag Bhag D K Bose (“Bhag Bhag Madarchod”) and the Heavy Metal Song (“Iron! Iron! Aluminum!”), before finally ending with his attempt at wizard rock, a piece entitled “Harry Is a Randi!”

One band down and nobody had puked near me: already better than Metallica. A pretty good start to the fest.

Up next was Indus Creed, which is apparently one of India’s best alt rock groups.

Stripped of the Alien Chutney’s novelty factor, it was clear that Indus Creed was lacking in a lot of ways. At their peak they came up with decent but somewhat generic alternative rock riffs, with lyrics reminiscent of Linkin Park.

Their seminal song “Fireflies” had an almost Porcupine Tree sensibility: a breath of fresh air in the middle of a rain of angsty power chords.

I found myself wandering to the Other Stage, a small set up next to the much larger Dewarists stage, where we found Barefaced Liar: a trio consisting of a vocalist, flute player and a guitarist that specialized in Spanish inspired music. However, the band relied heavily on lead vocals, and the other musicians did basically nothing but provide backup.

We moved on to the Dewarists stage where Advaita was playing. While their music was technically quite sound, I’m sorry to report that it did not get the blood running. This was a fest that was supposed to be headlined by Megadeth, and I did not feel excited.

Back to the Black Rock Arena, where Zero was just going up on stage. Zero is one of the most critically acclaimed Indian bands, performing an average of only one gig per year.

But damn do they make it count.

Frontman Rajeev Talwar adopted the persona of a hedonistic but rather likable British opera singer on stage. His overblown antics and Warren Mendonsa’s guitar set the tone for the performance from the outset, leading the audience through quirky lyrics, solid rock riffs and tastefully constructed solos. Finally some REAL rock at the Black Rock Arena!

Zero finished with their cult rock classic “PSP 12”, topped off by another blistering solo by Mendonsa.

Still a little dizzy after Zero, we wandered into the Bindass Fully Fantastic Stage into a performance by Gandu Circus. Now, Gandu Circus is the band that composed the furious Bengali-Rap soundtrack for subversive Bengali movie Gandu. Sadly, however, performing the movie soundtrack was only notable highlight of their show.

Following them was Menwhopause, a witty alternative rock ensemble from Delhi. Menwhopause brought to the table impeccable instrumentality and original melodies that combined both Indian and western elements. Menwhopause played a solid repertoire of soft rock songs, such as “Circles”, “Can’t we be Dreaming?” and “Downtown”. Meanwhile, there was a steady drift of people (from Pentagram which was playing in the Black Rock Arena), saying they wanted to hear a band in which people “could actually play the guitar and sing”.

But compared to the other solid act of the day (Zero), Menwhopause seemed rather subdued… until their final song, that is.

This song took the ‘soft rock’ label, smashed it to bits, and then proceeded to jump up and down on it repeatedly.

“Katil Sardar” is zany, irreverent, and possibly the product of fundamental deranged mind, but all in a good way, of course. This hard rock song has a soft rock song built into it: its lyrics jump from describing a hearty Punjabi meal, advising horny old men to move to New Delhi and ascribing the attacks on World Trade Centre to a malfunctioning bong. Besides, they had an entire verse is made up of terrible Punjabi puns.

Katil Sardar’s National Anthem is Bande-Marte-HUM! (“We Kill People!” -for everyone not from the North)

Is it genius? Or merely the the first step of a progression towards dementia? I cannot say. It probably doesn’t matter.

Following Menwhopause on the Fully Fantastic stage was Shaa’ir and Func , an experimental electronic duo consisting of vocalist Monica Dogra and guitarist Randolph Correia.

While S+F had a few interesting moments (“Shine” was one), I honestly lost interest in the electronica quickly, and spent the majority of their performance staring at Monica Dogra gyrating on stage.

So did the rest of the audience.

We decided to leave Shaa’ir and Func early and head over to Anoushka Shankar on the Dewarists stage, but soon decided that we really had not come here to appreciate Hindustani classical music. Thus ended day one, which definitely offered its moments but had several disappointments as well.

The second day had its work cut out.

Day 2:

I was late to arrive on Day 2 and jumped quickly into the fray.

The Black Rock Arena was hosting Indian metal band Scribe, whose frontman urged the audience to “tickle his balls” as the band passed out beach-balls into the crowd.

Scribe performed reasonable metalcore if you weren’t particularly bothered about things like lyrics, melody, rhythm or originality of any sort.

Their songs apparently had names, but I was not able discern any through the growling.

Sadly, I had to make a hasty egress when the lead singer of Scribe announced that his favourite ‘metal’ band was, in fact, Limp Bizkit.

Next up were Them Clones at the Fully Fantastic stage. Barring atrocious work from the sound technicians that kept the volume far too high for a normal human being, the performance was excellent.

Them Clones as a band seemed transformed from the last time I saw them (in 2010). They seemed much more professional and progressive, and much less like a college band. They played one of the best renditions of “Long Live The Dead” that I’ve ever heard, and introduced us to some of their new music, before ending with the perennial hit “My Life” and a version of the hit “Zephyretta” (accompanied by saxophone).

Them Clones were followed by Shillong-based blues-rock band Soulmate. I hadn’t heard this band before and they turned out to be quite a find. Slick, stylish, original, and supremely confident, Soulmate delivered a performance that would shame most of the more established bands.  Besides, vocalist Tipriti Kharbangar gets my vote for being both the sexiest and most talented woman on stage during this fest.

Soulmate’s cornerstone tracks “Set Me Free” and “Voodoo Woman” transpose effortless, free-flowing blues melodies onto Tipriti’s vocals as they shift between silky smoothness and surprising force. The result is a musical tour de force.

The Bindass stage was already starting to dominate the concert, and next up was Blackstratblues, Warren Mendonsa’s instrumental guitar project with Sid Coutto on the drums.

Mendonsa had already delivered brilliant performances as part of Alien Chutney and Zero, and he did not disappoint here.

Most of his songs were from his new albums, the only two exceptions being “Ode to a Sunny Day” and “Ode to a Rainy Day”. For the majority he didn’t even bother naming them, letting the music speak for itself.

Since I can’t simply tell you to listen to song X on Youtube, I must tell you that Mendonsa painted sonic landscapes with his black Stratocaster and guided the crowd through a gamut of emotions that blues music rarely takes one to: sheer bliss, hope, and childish wonder.

However, it cannot be described in words so perhaps it is futile to even try. Blackstratblues was my favourite performance of the event and for me, Mendonsa was the star of NH7 Weekender, not Megadeth.

Mendonsa was joined by Vishal Dadlani of Pentagram and Prithwish of Them Clones as Blackstratblues ended with a reinvention of Zephyretta.

With some reluctance I left the Fully Fantastic Stage to return to the Black Rock Arena.

It was Time.

The crowd that gathered in front of the stage was immense but it was already tired after the fierce moshing that took place during the last concert.

(One source maintains that Bhayanak Maut’s Mosh Pits involved people punching each other with buckets.)

But as Dave Mustaine walked up on stage, all the injuries and tiredness were forgotten. And the crowd went up in a deafening roar.

I honestly have no idea what Megadeth played for the first fifteen minutes. I found myself headbanging even as a mosh pit opened up and I was pushed in. The next few minutes are a haze of bodies slamming into each other until Megadeth paused playing to tell us that they were touring to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their studio album Countdown to Extinction.

Megadeth played the entire tracklist of Countdown to Extinction.

Debris rained from the sky.

Clothes were torn.

People were sent sprawling onto the ground.

Girlfriends were hurriedly evacuated from the front rows by their boyfriends.

At one point I was the only guy with a shirt on in a five-metre radius.

As the Countdown album ended, Megadeth receded from the stage.

It was ten pm. Time for the concert to end.

The crowd roared, demanding Megadeth come out and play “Tornado of Souls”.  Mustaine walked out onto the stage, exhorting the crowd to cheer, playing one half of the audience against the other.

He told the crowd that he considered people in America spoilt, compared to the hardships his fans have to face in a country like India, shedding a lone tear at the end of the monologue.

The irony of that statement was not lost on me. After all, he was addressing possibly the most pretentious, privileged and generally spoilt group of individuals in this nation today.

And suddenly the rest of the band was back and Megadeth’s trademark riffs filled the air. The hitherto sobered crowd went wild, and for one last time, I found myself in the eye of a tornado.

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