The Timeless Music Maker

Soumyojit Das, Stefan Stoppok, Sraboni Sen, Sourendro Mullick

As a youngster in Essen, Germany, in the 1960s, Stefan Stoppok laid hands on an album by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, a name that Europe was beginning to wake up to, thanks to the Beatles. “I heard it often, and the music went deep into my heart. And in the early ’70s, Anglo-American musicians thought it cool to include Indian influences in their music,” he smiles.

In the 1980s, having started his musical career as a street musician, he went to form his own one-man band, Stoppok, in 1982, and shifted base to Bavaria. As he went on to become one of Germany’s foremost folk and rock guitarists and singer-songwriters, however, his connection to Indian music remained confined to the memories of his childhood and youth.

Now, the wheel has turned full cycle. For the past few days, Stoppok has been stationed in Kolkata, working on an album of Tagore songs along with noted Rabindra Sangeet exponent Srabani Sen, and musician duo You & i.. (vocalist Soumyojit Das and pianist Sourendro Mullick), who Stoppok met in Germany in 2005, and whose idea it was to invite him, on his first ever trip to India, to collaborate on the album as a guitarist and singer. Incidentally, Stoppok was a guest artiste on the duo’s debut album, Back to the Future (2009).

The experience has been a revelation. Sitting in Sourendro’s north Kolkata home, Stoppok gestures freely with his hands and consults his mobile phone dictionary as he hunts for the right words to describe Tagore. “He is so rooted in this area,” he says finally. “What is wonderful is the way everyone here knows him, and I find it exciting to reinterpret his music, without any idea of how listeners here will react.”

Sourendro and Soumyojit say that reinterpreting Tagore the composing genius is the biggest theme of the album. And the other USP is that all the tracks have been recorded live, in real time, in a brave departure from the mandatory mechanised studio recordings.

“Tagore’s music is so timeless and versatile that you can recreate his songs in a modern soundscape for a national audience, even if they don’t get the lyrics,” says Soumyojit. “And we opted for live recordings, as they used to be done in the past, because we didn’t want the lifelessness of computerised rhythms.”

“What I love about this project is that it connects the past with the present,” adds Stoppok. “As a musician, when I look beyond the boundaries that I know, the East is exciting because Anglo-American music has become too familiar. Tagore is a different taste.”

So Khorobayu Boye Bege has taken on a contemporary romantic pop sound, aided by guitar, electric piano, and a few notes of Raga Bilawal. Aj Jemon Kore Gaichhe Akash features “Bavarian percussion patterns”, says Sourendro, or Kaar Milan Chao Birohi, essentially a dhrupad in Raga Shree, is embellished with the electric piano and electric guitar, and a hint of the theme from Manihara, the Satyajit Ray classic. Then again, Brahms’s immortal lullaby, Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, has found a spiritual cousin, according to Soumyojit, in Amar Raat Pohalo.

But that isn’t all that has kept Stoppok busy. He has also been shooting for a music video in Kolkata along with filmmaker Sebastian Niehoff, for Tanz (Dance), a solo that he has composed. The video is themed on Stoppok’s street singer days, which required him to pose as a street singer in this city, too. “In Europe, street singing is a completely different culture, but people here actually started requesting Stefan for songs,” laughs Sourendro.

If the response to the Tagore album is anything close, Stoppok certainly won’t complain.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 22, 2011

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Double Tone

Soumyojit Das (left) and Sourendro Mullick

They were probably the youngest guests at former governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s recent farewell dinner. At 26, Soumyojit Das and Sourendro Mullick may be greenhorns when it comes to the music album circuit, though they have become veterans of numerous live performances. On December 19, however, they joined the ‘music album’ club when they launched their debut collection, Back to the Future (Cozmik Harmony), featuring vocalist Kavita Krishnamurti.

For those who haven’t heard them perform, Sourendro plays the piano and Soumyojit sings, and they call themselves You & I. A ground floor room of the city’s legendary Marble Palace, which is home to Sourendro and which seems to be the duo’s favourite practise pad, resonates to timeless Hindustani raag sangeet, of which the two are staunch adherents.

“The idea is to get people interested in Hindustani classical music, in India and abroad, and if we have to take a roundabout route, so be it,” says Soumyojit.
The ’roundabout route’ is evidently the eclectic mix of musical genres which lies at the core of their music. Their experiments have taken Soumyojit and Sourendro to many parts of the world, notably Europe. They are even set to score for a French film this summer and have already composed for a number of international documentary films.

Having begun performing together at St Xavier’s College, their alma mater, Soumyojit and Sourendro credit their former principal with bringing them together. They laughingly admit to having been “virtually inseparable” since. As they exchange jokes and casually produce snatches of brilliant, quirky, music, they reflect shades of the training that they have undergone under such luminaries as Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, and the late Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan and V Balsara.

“We have been fortunate to receive guidance from some of the giants in the field, and in our collaborations, too,” says Sourendro, who first began playing the piano at three, guided by his grandfather. “This is perhaps the first album where an artiste of Kavitaji’s stature has performed as a guest,”

Apart from Krishnamurti, who was in Kolkata for the launch, the album also features vocalist Stefan Stoppok, guitarist Roger Schaffrath, Western classical bassist Bernd Keul, pianist Martin Kubert, jazz guitarist Norbert Scholli, and drummer Phillipp Imdahl. “There are also some very talented musicians and artistes from Kolkata and Mumbai. So this is a truly international album,” says Soumyojit.

Having experimented with sources as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore, Mirza Ghalib and William Shakespeare, the two believe in finding their own sound, and no territory is too sacred. “Indian classical music is a living, dynamic thing. The more you experiment with it, the more possibilities it throws up,” explains Sourendro. “If we seek to popularise classical music through popular forms of music, it is because we want people to be aware of this great tradition.”

As they span various musical genres, You & I push the envelope with both their lyrics and music, writing of love, peace, and nature, inserting a Tagore couplet here, or parts of Goethe’s translation of Shakuntala in the track Banke Bihari, but none of it is forced or conscious. Watch out for some spontaneous sound, then.

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