Interview with Indian musician Rohan Ganguli - continuous music journey with turns and exciting directions

"The blues, how does anyone explain what it means! It’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy, its music, it’s about freedom. Words are not good enough I guess."

Rohan Ganguli: The Blues Globalization

Indian guitarist and singer Rohan Ganguli has been playing guitar since the age of fifteen. The song that got him hooked to the guitar was Led Zeppelin’s version of the Robert Johnson classic ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’. After that life for him was never quite the same. His first guitar was a cheap acoustic from Reynolds which became his best friend. He got it after pestering his parents for a year. Finally when his mom gave in, he didn’t know that this was the beginning of a new life long journey. He learnt whatever little he could from friends and friends of friends till he got to a decent level. But that was not enough. He wanted more and went to learn from his guru, Amyt Datta. The world opened up for him and he spent all his waking hours with his guitar and his lessons and his music. His first band comprised of his friends from guitar classes at Amyt Dattas’. The band was called “Cognac”. The band travelled to Mumbai and Delhi to perform at what was probably the only music festival in the country at that time, The GIR or Great Indian Rock festival.

They were the only band in the festival with an ‘all originals’ set which at that time a fairly risky way to go! His blatant love for all kinds of music has allowed him to learn from various genres, which lends versatility to his playing and a certain exciting unpredictability. His influences are varied, ranging from SRV, BB King, Brian Blade, Hendrix, Charlie Christian, John Scofield, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Bismillah Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Derek Trucks to The Beatles to name a few. He is a member of The Supersonics, a Rock’n’Roll band from Kolkata. He released his album titled ’Maby Baking’. The album received rave reviews from all parts of the country. He has released his second album with the band titled ‘Heads Up’. On board both his albums was the legendary, Miti Adhikari (producer.) The band has played at almost every popular venue in the country and had a tour of the UK. He travelled with a blues band from Bologna, to various cities in Italy, playing acoustic blues in pubs, busking on roads, restaurants and galleries, realizing his love for improvisational music. He is ever willing to take chances and risks to discover newer musical grounds. He had two minor stints with veteran Kolkata blues band, ‘The Saturday Night Blues Band’ before he formed a band of his own called, ‘Big Family Blues Ensemble’. They are currently writing their own tunes and will hit the studio once their harp player returns for his annual winter vacation from Canada to the city of joy. The band plays regularly in the city circuit spreading the gospel of blues music to all that lend an ear! His musical journey is continuously unfolding and taking newer turns and exciting directions!

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Rohan Ganguli's archive / All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I started playing guitar after I heard Led Zeppelin play Travelling Riverside Blues, the Robert Johnson classic. I was immediately attracted to that sound as a kid (I think I was 10 then). I wanted to know what was going on! It was one of those moments in life that shape the direction you have been chosen to follow but are unaware of its calling consciously. I started going backwards, tracing the roots of the song and the style and realized that’s what I want to be, a blues guitar player! The blues, how does anyone explain what it means! It’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy, its music, it’s about freedom. Words are not good enough I guess.

"I don't miss much from the blues of the past. It is always there to guide us. The music today is in very good hands. There are beautiful performers keeping that fire burning still. I wish to be one of them."

How do you describe Rohan Ganguli sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I wish I could say I have my own sound! I’m a sum of my influences. I keep changing all the time. My moods, thoughts, feelings, etc. So to be identified as someone with ‘a’ singular sound for me is probably not something I’m chasing, with all due respect to my teachers and the greats who are easily identifiable with just one note from their guitar.

I try and play to the mood and the vibe of the moment and try to capture its essence through the music. If I can do that successfully, I might be reaching closer to what I would like to call my sound! Besides that, the blue notes are the ones I’m chasing! The ones that hit pull the heart strings a little harder.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Being from Kolkata, it’s hard to meet the people you look up to as your idols. However, meeting my guitar teacher, Amyt Dutta, was special. He has taught me about life. I go to him whenever I can. He is an inspiration and an institution by himself. I wish he gets more noticed than he currently does. He is one of the finest musicians I have ever heard and a real gentleman. His approach to life keeps me inspired. To just carry on pushing your own limits.

The best advice given to me was a few years back, when I was beginning to get a little confident about my playing and got called to play a few gigs for which I didn’t get paid anything! At that time a friend told me this one line which I never forget, “There are no free lunches, get real!” What he actually meant to say is realize your worth and don’t short change yourself. It was actually a compliment that I didn’t realize at the moment…                                    Photo by Kunal Kakodkar

"A lot of art is lost with technology. I wish more people would play more traditional instruments."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, studio and busking on the road which you’d like to share with us?

I busked a lot when I was in Bologna. I met these crazy Italian guys, who are now my friends, busking on the streets. I was so surprised to hear Blues in the streets of Italy! They were very good and even carried a double bass around for their gigs! I played with them regularly for 2-3 months. I ended up recording their demo. In London, I used to frequent a blues bar every Tuesday. I forgot the name but it was somewhere in Central London, very close to Soho. They had jams where I would have a go every time I could. That helped a lot.

Another time a friend visiting from New Zealand came for one of our gigs at a local Pub in Kolkata. He loved the band and decided it was time for a drink. So he took out a bottle from his bag, and asked the bar tender to give him shot glasses. He proceeded to give the band a round, while the bouncers came and to drag him out of the venue. All the while he kept shouting “You can’t do this, they are very good and I want them to be happy. You have no clue what you’re doing. They are a very good band!” on repeat. I stepped in to help him and it got resolved peacefully. It was a crazy moment!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don't miss much from the blues of the past. It is always there to guide us. The music today is in very good hands. There are beautiful performers keeping that fire burning still. I wish to be one of them.

I think this form of music will never die out. It is a reminder of our history. People are always connected to that. I do not have any fears as such. I think the future is bright. The legends are handling the mantle on to the young turks who will make them proud in turn. Players like Derek Trucks, Matt Schofield, Kirk Fletcher are as good as they get. I would like to spread the blues in my country where I see a good future. The form is such that it doesn’t take much to like it a lot. There is an immediacy to it which is honest and beautiful.

"I would like to go for a day to the Mississippi delta and live the life of a bluesman there and learn everything I could in that one day…what a day it would be!!"

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

A lot of art is lost with technology. I wish more people would play more traditional instruments. That being said, it’s about moving with the time so I think maybe it is laptops and softwares that are the musical instruments of our time! It’s a personal opinion, but I’d rather watch BB King sweating and playing his life on stage on a guitar than watch one guy behind a mega computer. So yes, more power to tradition please!

Make an account of the case of the blues in India. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

The blues has been around here for a long time. Especially in my city which has hosted probably some of the finest musicians in the world. (Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock to name a few). In the present scenario there are a few very good blues bands around.  I look up to Soulmate, a blues band from Shillong. Rudy Wallang is an inspiration for me. He is a great guy and loves what he does. It shows in the music. In fact, after he called me up for a jam randomly at his gig, it gave me the courage to form my own band, Big Family Blues Ensemble. We will now be recording our album end month! (March, 2015)

There is ‘The Saturday Night Blues Band’ that I used to play in a great blues band from my city. I think now is the best time I can think of for the blues in my country. I am privileged to be a Fender India endorsed artist as well as Ernie Ball, which is something great for me and the scene. It instills hope amongst the younger musicians. There are festivals promoting the music and the support is beautiful. There are lots of gigs and venues and the interest level is higher than ever before. Big names visit the country so it’s a great time! It all looks very promising.

"I find a lot of similarities in the local forms of folk music and blues. Where I come from there is Baul music from Shantiniketan. It is uncannily similar to blues music."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to India?

It is roots music so it is universal. People cannot forget their roots ever, doesn’t matter where you are from. Whether you are in the UK or the USA or India or Japan, it doesn’t matter. With the internet now, the music is just as easily accessible in the United States as is in India. Besides I have noticed that most roots music uses a very similar pentatonic mode so that similarity is quite obvious. A lot of Raags from Hindustaani classical music are similar to the blues scale, or close in getting a similar vibe. So it’s all connected if you listen closely. You can join the dots and create your own picture…

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

There are many things to laugh about if you are inclined that way. I wouldn’t like to mention the situations from the local music circuit, but there are some really unbelievable situations that can make any one laugh out loud. Mostly coming from shaky musicianship, or ridiculous songwriting or an inability to communicate the idea at all. Funny stuff.

There are many good things to learn as well. Like the desire to learn, I have noticed is a lot higher in my city than the other cities I have visited. I guess it was the cultural hub in the country so the people are inclined naturally towards the arts.

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of local folk music and forms?

Yes I find a lot of similarities in the local forms of folk music and blues. Where I come from there is Baul music from Shantiniketan. It is uncannily similar to blues music. The themes are similar. The lyrical content is similar. It’s just the language that is different and the given geographical differences. But deep down I think it’s almost the same thing. The essence is the same. I guess it comes down to the question, how different are we really from each other!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That’s a tough one! I would like to go for a day to the Mississippi delta and live the life of a bluesman there and learn everything I could in that one day…what a day it would be!! I can’t even begin to think what that would be like! Gives me goose bumps to even think of it!

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