A common problem with so-called "fusion" artists is that the fusion between the different aspects of music seems forced. This is true especially of wannabe popstars with art-house pretensions or one of the many emigrant/second-generation South Asians on the underground scene in the UK or USA. The best (Nitin Sawhney is one name that comes to mind) have definitely have made use of their hybrid upbringing and myriad influences, bringing something of that into the music they make . However, the worst of the 'fusion' genre generally involves an obligatory tabla or dhol beat interspersed with hip-hop rhythms and rap competing with Indian vocals.
At the other end of the spectrum is the one Indian band whose music brings the word "organic" to mind. Indian Ocean fuses together various elements of their influences and beliefs as musicians and human beings to create music that may be called 'fusion', but this fusion sounds natural and not forced.
Be it the dramatic segues on Bhor (on Jhini), or the Knopfleresque flourish of wizardry at the end of Khajuraho (on Kandisa), Indian Ocean has time and again shown why it is so difficult to pigeon-hole them as a band. Promiscuously absorbing influences from Indian folk, rock music and adding the improvisational sensibility of jazz, Indian Ocean creates a collage of sound that is uniquely Indian and contemporary.
Indian Ocean is a paradox in many ways. They've been around for 15 years, yet haven't had the kind of mainstream success that you'd expect. They have a cult following among certain sections of the population and yet, a large number of people haven't heard of them, leave alone heard their music.
They are Indian, yet they follow the American band model of incessant touring and live shows to build their popularity (versus the traditional music-video route, though they have had a music video for Jhini out). They perform songs that are political in tone (Ma Rewa - based on a traditional folk song, is about the river Narmada - a dam on this river is at the center of a controversy), yet refuse to be labeled a political band. Ironically, their biggest shot at mainstream attention - the soundtrack for Black Friday went down quietly since the movie itself ended up running only for a day in theatres before being pulled.
The band, however, soldiers on, going from strength to strength. They are on the road continuously, and are now on their fourth tour of the US, where people who've heard them back in college(or not) attend their concerts to be blown away by their live performances.
Still grounded and extremely down-to-earth, the band members are a revelation. They made the courageous decision to live off their music a few years after they started. Was it a hard decision to make? "When we decided to, it didn't seem like a big thing." says Susmit, the guitarist. "But then, as kids you do things that when you are grown up, you think about and say "I could have died doing that."" he says, and laughs.
Animated and well-read, the band members are livewires off-stage too. Effortlessly riffing off well-known Hindi and English film songs, satirizing everything from the humble coconut to George W Bush, they keep their hosts and us (the host's guests) in splits. For a group that just rocked a 500-strong crowd for two and a half hours, their spirits are high and their energy infectious - a requirement for the time spent away from family on tour. "The band is like family to each one, in some ways substituting for our real families back home, at least when we are on the road." says Asheem.
One can only hope that the effervescent spirit and passion that resulted in the formation and sustenance of Indian Ocean takes root in the hearts of more talented artists throughout the country. The purity of their music, their refusal to compromise on their beliefs and their success despite the odds is a beacon of hope for creative people who despair at the present state of Indian popular culture.