Truly a musical citizen of the world, Arun Shenoy’s passion for and rich exploration of Spanish Flamenco music on his dynamic 2012 debut recording Rumbadoodle earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album – a breakthrough that catapulted him to international renown and opened a wide range of creative possibilities.
For a follow-up, the easiest approach for the Indian born, Bangalore bred and Singapore based composer, producer and guitarist would have been to delve further into the journey of Flamenco from Spain to the New World. Instead, he set his sights Eastward to unleash his high octane, multi-faceted “Bansuri Funk” sound on a full length collection whose title, A Stagey Bank Affair, is as intriguing as the music is infectious, soulful and exotic. The album’s infectious and jazzy, playfully grooving lead single is “Sugar Free” (feat. guest keyboardist Uziel).
As described in the colorful, clowns and carnival art illustrated packaging, “Bansuri Funk” is sound stylized by the fusion of funk, jazz and rock with a spicy hint of world pleasures, the latter being a reference to the blazing performance on the traditional Bansuri (an Indian woodwind, historically revered as Lord Krishna’s divine instrument ) by acclaimed flautist Ravichandra Kulur. Kulur is a globally renowned master who has performed over 1,000 concerts, including dates with the legendary Ravi Shankar and his daughter, Anoushka Shankar.
The music on A Stagey Bank Affair is largely inspired by the funk influences Shenoy inherited from his longtime friend and collaborator, bassist Duke Purisima, In 2014, Kulur, Purisima and the guitarist introduced the Bansuri Funk sound via “Soul’d,” an eponymous single they recorded as a trio. “This direction with Soul’d was a very interesting decision for me – that is, to project the flute as the lead instrument in a rather atypical setting,” Shenoy says. “There have been many others like Ian Anderson who have taken the instrument to great heights and across styles, but here I was trying to push it further by actually using the traditional world music flute. When I heard Ravi’s electrifying performance against the very groovy funk score, everything just sounded like it was always meant to be. So I decided to take it forward, and on A Stagey Bank Affair, though I am the main artist, the flute of Ravichandra Kulur has top billing as the soloist across the record.”
Kulur and Purisima are two of the prominently featured members of The Groove Project, a new musical ensemble that Shenoy created, which currently includes many of the brilliant artists and dear friends he has been working with over the years, and who have been an integral part of his signature production sound. The band also showcases a few new artists who bring their own unique sound to the project. Technically, Shenoy is not a part of the band. The album is rather a collaboration of him with the group, billed as “Arun Shenoy & The Groove Project.” The line-up for the future could change depending on the production direction for subsequent projects.
Currently, the ensemble also includes Jeff Coffin and Nick Stefanacci on saxophone; Ed Roth, Jonathan Anand Wesley and Dave Gross on piano and keys; Felipe Praino, Owen Gurry and Jim Kimo West on guitar; Ian Cameron on violin; Don Hart on live string and horn orchestration; and Jerry Chua on drums. Chua also mixed and mastered the music on the album, as he has done on most of Shenoy productions in the past. “For a large part, it has been a studio album based effort,” the guitarist says, “and we are now working on how best we can take the music live. That should be interesting.”
To paraphrase the reflective yet whimsical, metaphor rich liner notes – penned by its Art Director, Roshni Mohapatra – the basic premise of the album is about keeping alive the inner child in all of us. These notes begin, “A Stagey Bank Affair is a labour of love; of a wonderland that we have, and representative of the inherent sadness and chaos that we take up every day as adults.” The album title is an historical reference to an agricultural fair circa early 20th Century at Stagshaw Bank in the Northeast of England. Legend has it that over the years, the farming side dwindled and the fair became more associated with gambling and drinking. Renowned for its rowdy and notorious reputation, the fair was eventually closed in the 1920s, and the phrase “Stagey Bank Fair” passed into common parlance as a euphemism for “mess.”
Connecting this cultural background to the album’s 10 tracks and elaborate carnival art packaging, Shenoy says that the music and visuals on the album are meant to represent the wonderland that we all have within us, along with the inherent sadness and chaos that we take up every day as adults. He adds, “A Stagey Bank Affair is a metaphor for a place which used to be a fun fair, and now means a messy affair, kind of like adulthood is. Growing up just means we stop growing and stop having fun. Fairgrounds are where our inner child finds play and a place where we can say ‘whee’ and spin around in circles, become dizzy and life’s worries don’t matter. So yes, there is enough happiness in music, even when we’re sad or are afraid of clowns.”
In addition to the single “Sugar Free,” featuring the brilliant piano improvisations of Boston and Los Angeles based pianist Uziel, highlights on A Stagey Bank Affair include the brass-fired, funk driven title track, featuring the quirky sound of Jeff Coffin’s sax; the high energy “Speedway Rush,” driven by Ravi’s blazing, percussive flute and lush, vibrant string and horn arrangement; the soulful and emotionally intense “Pirate of the Seven Seas (Unplugged),” centered around an intimate duet between Jim Kimo West’s guitar and Jonathan Wesley’s piano and supported by a rock solid groove; another barnburner in “High Striker,” a duet showcase by Nick Stefanacci on sax and Ravi on flute; and the edgy dance jam “Hot Head Balloon,” which is driven by Owen Gurry’s funky guitar riffs.
The artwork, under the direction of Roshni Mohapatra, creates an intrinsic duality in conveying the overall concept of A Stage Bank Affair. Mohapatra, Shenoy’s wife, has done the art direction for most of his productions in the past, including Rumbadoodle and “Bliss,” a single he released that is intended to be part of a future Indian World Fusion album. She worked with the talented team at Actuality Films in NYC, which took her ideas (a combination of detailed concepts and sample drawings) and translated them into the rich visuals that illustrate the project.
“I have to admit there was a lot of pressure for this recording given the success I was fortunate to have with the first album,” Shenoy says. “But I kind of enjoy this pressure, as it inspires me to push the perceived boundaries of my own imagination to take my craft further. I believe this is a very important process of evolution for every artist. Change is the only constant and we need to keep re-inventing ourselves all the time in order to create something fresh and interesting.”