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What is Bossa Nova?

A brief history of bossa nova: a look at this Brazilian music genre to discover how it started and later evolved to reflect Brazil`s changing politics.

Created in Brazil in the late 1950s during a period of political change and economical growth, bossa nova has been often described as the music of the Brazilian middle and upper classes. This music style originated in the wealthy neighborhoods that sprouted along the beaches of the city of Rio de Janeiro and both its music and lyrics were composed by middle and upper-class musicians and marketed to the same economic group. For this reason, bossa nova was criticized by some for emphasizing a carefree way of living that little resembled the life of most Brazilians, the great majority of which belonged to the working class.

Indeed, bossa nova compositions often spoke of love, the beach, and beautiful women and seemed to be a depiction of the author s bohemian life rather than a tale of Brazilians daily struggles as usually happened with samba, a music genre popular among the working class. The Girl from Ipanema, which became popular outside of Brazil both in its original Portuguese form and in translation, is a perfect example of the uncommitted quality of bossa nova songs. The Girl from Ipanema is nothing more than the composer s description of a woman walking down towards the beach, the sweet way in which she moves and how beautiful she is, culminating with the author s statement that she s the most beautiful thing he s ever seen go by. The music that accompanied the first wave of bossa nova lyrics, while unique, used the same altered chords found in jazz music combined with the drum beat characteristic of samba.

Perhaps ironically, bossa nova, the music style associated with complacence, is also considered responsible for the birth of the protest music of the 1960s that denounced the political uproar Brazil found itself in that led to the military coup of 1964. Critical of the insipid character of bossa nova lyrics and influenced by the precarious political and economic situation of Brazil, artists started using music to voice their opinions and as a vehicle to teach the largely uneducated Brazilian population about their country s current social, political and economic status.

Following the coup of 1964, a new generation of bossa nova musicians emerged. The music they composed was radically different from that created by the first generation of bossa nova musicians and depicted the plight of the Brazilian population and denounced the country s newly installed military government. In addition, this new type of bossa nova music had a nationalistic character that its predecessor lacked. This new wave of bossa nova musicians not only sang about the hardships of Brazilians, especially about the life in the drought-stricken northeastern region of the country; the music they composed to accompany their lyrics also made use of traditional Brazilian instruments and borrowed from other genres of Brazilian music like the type of samba heard in the urban slums. But in spite of the differences that distinguish them from one another, both styles of bossa nova were intrinsically linked to Brazil s history and reflected the historic period in which they were created, one born during a time of growth and the other created in a time of struggle.

Written by M. Isabel Viana -

A Stroll in Ramrang's Garden

The early decades of the 20th century were a period of social and intellectual renaissance in Hindustani music with the two Vishnus, Paluskar and Bhatkhande, at the helm of the movement. Bhatkhande had initiated and brought to fruition his investigations of the shAstraic basis of our music, uniting it with the practice of the day. He had also successfully assembled and documented hundreds of traditional compositions from diverse sources. In him were joined a powerful intellect and formidable musical talent, both of which he brought to bear on his epochal work. The formalism he developed has become the touchstone in our times informing all musical discourse in Hindustani music. Bhatkhande's oeuvre - the volume and quality of its content - is a miracle. That it was accomplished single-handedly is an inspiration and a revelation what a man armed with resolve and fixity of noble purpose can achieve. At the conclusion of his opus Bhatkhande made clear the scope of his work. He declared that he had only laid the foundation and that it was the responsibility of the generations following to extend and to improve upon him.

Bhatkhande's mantle was inherited by his primary disciple, Acharya S.N. Ratanjankar. In his time, Ratanjankar was acknowledged as the most accomplished student of Ragadari. He was also, like his mentor, an outstanding vaggeyakara (pronounced "vAggeyakArA") and will long be remembered for his superb 600+ compositions, notated and documented diligently by his disciple K.G. Ginde.

Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" teaches Shubha Mudgal -->

Cut from the same cloth as Bhatkhande and Ratanjankar is Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" - Vidwan, Shastrakara, Vaggeyekara, Teacher and Performer. Ramrang joins Ratanjankar as the two most significant Hindustani vaggeyakaras of the past 50 years. To be sure, there have been well-known performers who have composed and composed well. But none that matches the combination of breadth and volume, intellectual gravitas and musicianship manifested in these two.

Ramashreya Jha was born on August 11, 1928, near Darbhanga in the Mithila region of Bihar. His father, Sukhdev Jha, and his uncle, Madhusudan Jha, were his early mentors. But his final calling was nurtured and brought into purposeful focus in the 25 years he spent in Allahabad at the ashram of his guru, Bholanath Bhatt. Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Thumri, Dadra, Tappa - Ramrang mastered the fundamentals of all these forms. He also had the benefit of instruction from other vidwans such as B.N. Thakar of Allahabad and Habib Khan of Kirana. About 15 years of his youth spent with a drama company in Varanasi helped widen his musical vistas and attune him to the pulse of the rustic antecedents of our Art music. In 1968, he was appointed to the faculty of Allahabad University and later in 1980 elevated to the position of Head of the Music Department. This singular move by the University was in recognition of genuine merit for Ramrang holds no formal degrees. He retired from active professorial duty in 1989.

<-- Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" celebrates Ganesh Chathurthi at the author's home in Goa (Sept 2000)

Ramrang's composite personality unravels into four related strands. He is a shastrakara of the highest class and the fruits of his lifelong meditations into the nature of Raga constitute the five published volumes of Abhinava Geetanjali . These classics represent a signal contribution to Indian music, dazzling us with the keenness of their author's mind, laying bare his capacity for concentration and reflection, his vast and agile imagination, and the calibre of his scholarship. They redound to his talents in formulating and conveying ideas elegantly and simply. The insights and critical analyses of Ragas together with hundreds of Ramrang's own high-quality musical compositions purveyed impel us to the inescapable verdict: Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" is the Bhatkhande of our times.

Ramrang is a peerless vaggeyakara, the likes of whom infrequently grace our musical firmament. The ancient Sanskrit term "vaggeyakara" is dwelt upon by Sarangdeva in his treatise Sangeet Ratnakara (see the English translation by R.K. Shringy and Prem Lata Sharma, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1991) and is a union of vaka+geya+kara, where "vaka is lit. speech and therefore by context implies the verbal text or the verbal structure of a musical composition; geyam is lit. that which is the object of singing, i.e. dhatu, the tonal rhythmic structure of melody." Hence "vaggeyakara, one who composes the verbal as well as the tonal-rhythmic structure of the song."

Ramrang's astonishing retentiveness and quickness of mind, the prehensility of his intellect which enables him to apprehend the slightest hint of melody and press it into service, are among the key strengths attending his creative urge. Ramrang carries all the essential music in his head and it is always at hand for instant recall. A key requirement of a quality bandish is that it ought to represent the précis of a Raga's melodic content. A typical Ramrang composition goes farther: each word, swara and matra are tied together in a symbiotic melodic ecosystem of an aesthetic unity not usually found in your run-of-the-mill 'old' or 'traditional' bandish. Verily, his compositions install him alongside the handful of supremely gifted musical minds in any generation to whom is vouchsafed the mantra of music. Among the earliest leading performers to appreciate Jha-sahab's deep scholarship and come under the spell of his compositions was Jitendra Abhisheki, who sang, popularized and taught many of Jha-sahab's bandishes. Over the years, Ramrang's compositions have found their way into the repertoire of several other well-known performing musicians such as Rasiklal Andharia, C.R. Vyas, Veena Sahasrabuddhe and the like.

As a performer, Ramrang's gayaki is best appreciated by those who know and understand the nuances of swara and Raga. One listens to Ramrang not for his vocal gymnastics and high velocity tans - to be sure, he is capable of neither - but to drink from the wellspring of Raganubhava. His is a lakshana-oriented approach. Even the familiar, well-worn Ragas when refracted through Ramrang's mental prism acquire a distinct conceptual body and flavour. Unlike most Hindustani renditions of the day, Ramrang does not believe in making short shrift of the text of the bandish. Instead, with his acute sense of the dramatic and the poetic, he reminds us of the values embedded in the older genre of Dhrupad, by marrying verse and swara with such felicity as to make the two seem inseparable. Ramrang's creative acumen lies not only in his superbly-conceived compositions but also in his manner of ucchAraNa accompanying the build-up of the Raga edifice (known as asthAi bharnA) from the elemental bandish.

The final cut of Ramrang's jib appertains to his role as a guru. He has trained and counseled several students over the years, many of whom have embarked on productive careers. His senior disciple, Dr. Geeta Banerjee, is an eminent author, scholar and musician who later succeeded him as Head of the Music Department at Allahabad University. Another pupil, Shubha Mudgal, has attained international recognition. Ramrang is an exceptional lecturer who brings to his subject the font of knowledge, clarity of exposition, and an inspirited delivery. His discourses have come to be highly valued as both didactic masterpieces and as vignettes of aesthetic delight.

Today, as he has done for the past 6 decades, Ramrang spends his waking moments immersed in the contemplation and creation of music. True to his calling as one of the greatest vaggeyekaras of all time, Ramrang's intellectual wanderlust shows no sign of abating; every day turns in a new insight or a new asthAi. In this context he lends meaning to Einstein's memorable words: Only in Science and Art are we permitted to remain children all our lives.

Although Ramrang is known to devotees and students of music as the author of the Abhinava Geetanjali classics and as a composer extraordinaire, he has spent most of his musical life in relative isolation, away from the glare of public adulation, and on the fringes of the community of active performing musicians. This is entirely in keeping with his character and inner conviction that music is a lifelong sAdhanA of intellectual and emotional discipline, not a source of pelf.

In summing up the musical life of Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang," the understated flourish of Professor G.H. Hardy in his essay A Mathematician's Apology comes to mind:

Whatever we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest is to have done something utterly beyond the powers of the vast majority of men.

In the current offering, we return to Ramrang's garden (see the earlier Ramrang - A Bouquet of Compositions). This package of compositions has been put together from postings made earlier in the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.indian.classical (RMIC).

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