Queer pitch


Musicians and academics try to understand and define music’s queer side

I am not musically literate, so to speak, but my day rarely goes by without a song playing somewhere within the peripheries of my living or working space. Naturally then, when I glanced upon an event in Birmingham Weekender’s itinerary with the mention of queer sound, my interest piqued. It was a fortunately warm afternoon in Birmingham and the gathering at the Lower Bar in the city’s town hall was no different. Organised by the Fluid Festival which aims to discuss and celebrate several aspects of queerness and gender fluidity.

Discussing queer

From R-L: Michael Wolters, Henry McPherson, Rolf Hind, Darryl Bullock and Rebekah Ubuntu

Five panelists took to the speaking area. Rebekah Ubuntu- a London-based electronic musician and producer, Henry McPherson- a composer and performer based in Glasgow, Darryl Bullock, an author and publisher from Bristol, CN Lester- a trans-musician and writer from London, Rolf Hind- a pianist and composer from London and Michael Wolters- composer and faculty at the newly opened Birmingham Conservatoire. Here’s the full text of what the speakers have to say:

Keep up with all the exciting stuff the Fluid Festival is upto here: http://www.fluidfestival.org/

Q.1: What does “queer” sound like? 


Rebekah Ubuntu:  98% of people studying music are men and about 98% of the student body studying and working on their voice are women. So naturally, the first question I’m asked is if I am a vocalist and that’s an unfortunate assumption. Queer in music, therefore, is about breaking down those assumptions. People are surprised that I know my technology and that I produce, mix and master. Queerness is more than your sexual orientation. Your music will sound like the components of your personality and queer is about dismantling structures that have handicapped our understanding of art.


Queerness is a call to protest, to resist. There is always something that has to be challenged – Rebekah Ubuntu

Darryl Bullock: Queer has been the sound of a century of people  lgbtweb-04making music. You have opinion leaders in each genre of music. Lot of people assume that homosexuality began in the 60’s and associate the history of queer sound also with that timeline. As a community, we’re making records for about hundred years now. We are creating music and empowering people.

Check out his book, David Bowie made me gay, here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/David-Bowie-Made-Me-Gay/dp/0715651927


Queer is empowerment and comfort. Queer sound is about someone putting an arm around you and telling you that no matter how shitty your life is, things will get better- Darryl Bullock


Rolf Hind: A lot of people who I happen to know very well in classical music questioned the need to have a discussion like this.  Music is often abstract so people wonder what’s so queer about that. The 19th century impression of western music is very structural and patriarchal in a sense. There’s an expression in music called feminine ending. We are trying to go at it bit by bit and break those structures.

So the question really is, Is there a way to make queer about the sound rather than the agenda?- Rolf Hind

Henry McPherson: Within our tradition, people don’t consider it necessary avatars-000204320981-be1o1x-t500x500to address queerness. Classical music has been used by politics, spirituality. But sometimes music written by a woman or by a queer person isn’t given as much importance for a number of strange reasons. Queer stands for silence within the classical music tradition for me. People at the top of music have invariably been white and men. And we hear people say, oh that composer is gay, we can make that out in his sound/music. So the challenge is to fight the system from within without coming off as abrasive. Discussing queer issues or other issues is considered distracting. “Why is it important to bring this in”, people ask. Our identities are obviously going to come out in your work, through your work and your gender presentation.

Queer, for me, stands for silence but hopefully not for long- Henry McPherson


Michael Wolters: I’m a gay German artiste. I think I can best describe queer for me, by looking back at when gay marriage was legalized. In the 60’s, we were fighting to be different. I haven’t been waiting for the moment for someone to allow me to marry. For me, it’s important to continue to say that what I do and who I am is different and not lose that narrative. My pieces were always different, the hardest piece in the set. That difference could be because of skill, or whatever else. I don’t like working with established ensembles because you don’t difference in structure. I find it important to challenge composers to find solutions that are not confirmed to rules and norms, to create new structures and constantly keep creating. Rigidity is an issue.

For me, it’s important to be different. I am not waiting for a moment for establishments to tell me that I am finally allowed to do something – Michael Wolters

CN Lester: The problems are particularly hard for trans artistes. The three barriers that Imaxresdefault1 can underline for us are: lack of foundational, educational support and structural barriers including societal policing. Trans men, for instance, were told that going for testosterone would be that you won’t be able to sing. That’s a myth. Societal ignorance has cost several trans musicians either their career or their identity. There’s always an experience of prejudice at various levels. I have been told that I don’t fit in classical music and i was completely dismissed. There was disgust. There are so many artistes who struggle through college and end up in conservatoire and are crushed by the rejection from their peers and end up becoming doctors or writers. You need a network to flourish. If your network rejects you, what does one do? For instance, at a recent gig, all musicians had to bring passports. Unfortunately for the trans people who arrived, their physical presentations didn’t match their passports so they were subject to a strip-search. They ultimately ended up not attending the gig at all.

To me the embodiment of being a queer artiste isn’t silence but to be silenced- CN Lester

Q.2 : How does one teach queer sound? 

Rebekah: I have been socialized explicitly and implicitly that music production isn’t for women. People can be patronizing and that socialization with men (that’s a whole issue by itself; let’s not go into that) needs a change. Your music school has a majority of men. It can be quite intimidating. At the workshops, often you have to silently find people like you to collaborate. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You’re not disconnecting from structure or convention, merely finding your own way of fitting in.

I love classical music but I don’t feel represented by that music, especially in this country- Rebekah

CN: I do a little teaching myself. I have dealt with voice types that go against set traditions- like women who wanted to try baritone or men who wanted to try soprano. The challenge is to present it to people who have no knowledge of this presentation, especially when some cannot afford a mismatch in their presentations. Teaching queer sound is an ongoing process. There’s not too many solutions but it’s a very progressive process. One major problem, however, is lack of supply of teachers who you can actually approach and tap your identity and sound without affecting the other.

Michael: The world of composition is tiny, conventional and maybe even a little fascist space. There needs to be the space to discuss and improvise on pieces. The ultimate aim is to better the piece and that’s something we need to take forward.

Q.3: Where does money go in art grants? Where does queerness play a role?

Rebekah:I feel like things have aligned for me well. British institute of modern music has a very modern and liberal program centering around the interest and identity of the student. I’ve been doing research about the pioneers of African futurism. It brings today my gender fluidity with my blackness. I got a good budget, total creative freedom( when does that ever happen) and went around to do my thing. Because of colonialism and those structures, and subsequent white guilt, I just think a lot of people need to die off. Maybe then we will see some fresh air, see some existing structures being broken.

Henry: In Glasgow we have one conservatoire that is for the entire of Scotland. Despite the various identities, despite the intersectional nature of the body, there are still struggles. We don’t see where the money is going and don’t think student ventures are as well funded. The conservatoire has been quick to put its name on somethings and shy away from some others. I’m white, gay and they can handle it as long as I don’t talk about it. But others who have inter-crossing identities have it harder, including just getting access to that education. The queer scene has always been underground so how do you get it out for someone to associate their name and backing on it?

Q.4: Invisibility has been a survival tool for queers. Today, that’s one of the main barriers. How does one overcome it? 

Rebekah: There have been a whole host of underground queer and Queer of Color nights in London. These get a lot of media attention as well, so much so that Victoria and Albert museum and their associated media wings have also paid attention. So that’s a traditionalist imperial conservative power brushing shoulders with people looking to go beyond boundaries. I don’t feel isolated, personally. So I feel lucky. People need to make their own spaces but that happens only if they feel welcome to create these spaces. I had it easy but there’s a lot of work to do. Lot of festivals have empowered people. Those institutions didn’t make the people it’s vice versa. But we can’t rely on them. There is a constant need to keep creating.

Darryl: The internet and social media are critical here to make these kind of spaces. For more flexible musical genres, their own rooms and their own spaces are being used in ways like never before. Maybe people don’t have resources or confidence, but these platforms are making a difference and empowering musicians.

Henry: Social media can be great to connect but also completely isolating. Social media can be a huge force for good but it can also create alienating pockets. Everything can become exclusionary but the internet so far has been positive.



  • Almost every narrative of a queer artiste is so much about people who have a lot of power and influence deciding to give you a chance, besides other part of their struggle, and that’s as scary as inspiring
  • The queer concept moulded itself as a deliberately vague one where anyone who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else, be it axis of impressions, politics or social scenarios would have a place to belong.
  • Queer became about going beyond categorical descriptions, binaries. Being queer eventually became about going against this sense of purity around structures, irrespective of the field in question.

From Calcutta to the world


In conversation with Santanu Datta and Pierre-Antoine Lasnier from the Santanu Datta trio post their first gig in the city

17758308_1002315649869176_2450204270676053441_oIt’s a usual long and sultry day in the city. The Eduardo Michelin Auditorium at Alliance Francaise just about begins to fill up and audiences have come expecting respite, some from a long day and others from the long drawn monotony in contemporary music. The stage is set, a classical guitar, a bass guitar and tablas taking their spots on stage. Soon enough, the air is filled with a confluence of sound- ranging from the age-old melodies of Europe to odes to love and rain emanating from the soils of Bengal. Essences of Mozart and Tagore make their way across the room as Santanu Datta, Pierre-Antoine Lasnier and Subhasis Bhattacharya from the Santana Datta Trio make the evening their own.

Santanu Datta 1Tracing his penchant for Indian classical music to his mother, Santanu’s tryst with music has been laced with academic prowess. With a graduate degree from IIT, he moved to Paris to pursue his true calling, spending five years learning the nuances of western classical music, adding to his already rich skill set. “What I am doing right now is not fusion, I am looking at ways to combine Hindustani classical with western classical, to try and make the tiny details come together,” says the classical guitarist and singer. We sense the hesitation to associate with the word fusion, a sentiment shared by various performers across the city. “Everyone throws this term around. What we’re doing here is focussing on the core concepts of different musical cultures. If you’re playing a raga, you need to maintain the melodic movement and at the same time try to find a way and harmonise it as well. It’s a technical task and it isn’t just about superimposing different music. It’s about finding a way to make everything work correctly and independently,” he adds with a giggle. Having been associated with Pierre for quite a while, Santanu was introduced to Subhasis by the latter, thereby paving the way for a unique musical association. “We have three people from different backgrounds- jazz, western classical and Indian classical. So I thought it would be interesting to see these cultures come together,” he adds. This, however, turned out to be the biggest challenge in the process of mixing styles, as Santanu points out. “Bringing our philosophies together was challenging. In western classical music, you can have a little rubato and a nice melody with a liberal tempo (which isn’t exactly acceptable in Indian classical). In jazz, you play in the moment; you go along with the harmony. I don’t work that way. My harmony is fixed, bass is fixed. So we had a lot to figure out. We needed to see how much each of us could be liberal and just how much and when exactly we could improvise without ruining the essences of our styles,” he reminisces.

A sociology project brought Pierre-Antoine Lasnier to Kolkata four years ago, a move that he calls life-changing.Pierre 2 Having begun training in western classical music at the age of 5, Pierre found a penchant for jazz by the time he turned 14.  Currently learning Hindustani classical music under Debashish Bhattacharya, the bassist points out, “Before coming to India, I had a very sketchy idea about Indian music. Coming here has opened me to this culture and it has brought me fresh perspectives. It opens some doors you never thought existed.” While Santanu seems visibly excited by the prospects of imparting a few lessons on contemporary classical music, Pierre is clear about staying away from the tutor’s seat. “To teach a subject, knowing the subject isn’t enough, you need to have the skill and propensity to be a good tutor. In that sense, I don’t think I make the cut,” he says with modesty, a perspective Santanu begs to contest. “Before you explain something to your students, you need to understand it in its entirety. One of the duties of being in this business is to pass on your craft. It’s a skill that needs to go through across generations. And to tell it well, you need to know yourself and your art and teaching helps fine tune that knowledge, not just for the student but for the tutor as well. In my opinion, it’s a mandate for musicians.” Currently working on a few film scores simultaneously, he is also quick to add, “Film music has brought down production value and quality of music in this country. The focus is on the story and on keeping audiences engaged without distracting them. In that frame, it’s hard for music quality to take centre stage. Director isn’t concerned about your musical language, and he has no reason to be. His audience is his priority. So it’s a little inevitable in some cases but some really take that for granted,” he rues.

Besides being busy with their tour with Alliance Francaise and independent projects, Santanu promises an album in the coming months as well as a tour to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, a plan that’s still on the drawing board. As they spell out their plans, we wonder how hard it is to stay original and stand out from the crowd in the country’s musical space, to which Pierre responds, “It’s more a matter of communication. If you’re true to yourself, your history and your music, originality isn’t difficult at all. But that is the hard part; it’s easy to get swayed in the process.” As they take to the stage, Pierre sums up the constant process of creating music saying, “When a non-music oriented person asks what this whole ‘finding one’s sound’ is about, we equate it to happiness. It’s not a goal or an ambition, but a journey.”


Musical inspirations:

Pierre: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Debashish Bhattacharya- my guru

Santanu: Johann Sebastian Bach, Rabindranath Tagore, Paco de Lucía

One style you want to incorporate into your music:

Pierre: Western classical music

Santanu: Jazz and flamenco

One musical style outside your comfort zone

Santanu: EDM, too mechanical for me, I am quite old fashioned that way

Pierre: I am familiar with techno because I have studied it back in university so I guess African music. The songs are amazing to listen to but are so hard to recreate.

One instrument you want to master

Pierre: Has to be the trumpet, I’ve tried and it’s not child’s play

Santanu: Piano, but the sad bit is, classical guitar requires me to grow nails which I can’t have to play the piano. Maybe, someday. Oh and the cello too.

PUBLISHED LINK: http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/chennai/2017/apr/02/a-jugalbandi–of-guitar-strings–tabla-beats-1589086.html


The lone sultana



Bollywood’s biggest female sufi voice talks about why it’s a great time to be a singer

LAST month, singer Sona Mohapatra initiated an important discussion on her social media page, asking why female performers can’t headline events sans the entourage of men. Having headlined several concerts and gatherings across the globe herself, singer Harshdeep Kaur agreed with a sigh. “Sona is speaking from experience. I think it’s subjective, however, because we see people flocking to say, a Sunidhi Chauhan concert as well,” she says, not wishing to blindly lay a stamp. Basking in the success of her latest number for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer RaeesZaalima, the Mumbai-based artiste talks about the changing tide in the country’s music fraternity and why reality shows may not be the tickets to success they once were.

Collateral damage


A still from the song from Raees (2016)

She may have sung for a Pakistani film before, but hasn’t had an experience of the studio environment there, considering she recorded through Skype, lending her voice to Mahira for Balle Balle from Bin Roye (2015). Talking about the difference in the characters of the two fraternities, she points out a blatant difference in the barter of talent, saying, “Artists from there have come here and made a huge name for themselves, but the flow back from us to Pakistan isn’t balanced. That does, however, even out if you look at the popularity of our content and performers there.” Meanwhile, she also throws light on how times have changed for performers across the spectrum. “Today, people look at the comfort of singers a lot more than they used to before. For instance, earlier, the track was prepared and we had to go and sing over it. Now our individual pitches and scales are also considered, as are our timings,” she points out, referring to how Arijit Singh and she recorded their parts for Zaalima separately.


Quantity over quality
Winning two reality shows left her with the title ‘Sufi ka Sultana’ and a string of chartbusters that cemented her position in the mainstream. However, she insists that the glorious days of reality show successes are nearing the end. “We have five to six shows going on at the same time. Usually, we had one show that we would dedicate all our time to. Now that’s not possible. So that affects recall value. The number confuses the audience,” says the Heer singer. Busy with her concert schedules for the next few months, Harshdeep will be seen crooning for a number in the Naseeruddin Shah-starrer Irada. She also hints at a few independent singles this year.

Published link: http://indulge.newindianexpress.com/the-lone-sultana/section/66259