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