Spotlight: Manhattan in Mumbai

It was in 2007 that Mumbai’s erstwhile mill area started swinging to the sounds of bass guitars and jazz drums. The independent music scene in the city got a boost with the arrival of a unique ensemble music project called blueFROG. In just six years, blueFROG, an umbrella model that consists of a club that features international and local live acts, a recording studio and a record label, went on to find itself a place in The Independent music magazine’s list of the world’s top live venues.

This year, Ashutosh Phatak, composer-musician and co-founder of blueFROG, is back with what he calls “a unique idea”. Come September, and a music school that will provide rigorous vocational training programmes in all aspects of contemporary music will liven up Lower Parel’s Sun Mill Compound. Spread over 15,000sq.ft,  the True School of Music (TSM) will offer professional courses in guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, music production, disk jockeying and sound engineering. It promises to offer music education of a new kind as courses will be authored by faculty from reputed international music schools like New York’s Manhattan School of Music (MSM) and London’s Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM).
Funded by private equity firm Zodius, TSM is the brainchild of Phatak and his friend, Mumbai-based sound engineer Nitin Chandy. “When I started out as a singer-composer,” recalls Phatak, “learning on the job was the only way to equip oneself with the techniques of production. And, you would get commissioned only if you are good enough. That was the catch-22 situation musicians of my generation faced.”
Also, talented musicians who are serious about making a career out of their passion would choose to fly abroad to study at institutes like the Berklee College of Music, the Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music or MSM, says Chandy. “However, a whole lot of us simply cannot afford this. So, then what?” he asks rhetorically. “We wanted to make quality music education available to the children of our country at a fraction of the cost it would take them to go abroad. We also wanted to convince them and their parents that following their passion will help them build a real, sound and stable career in the music industry.”
But as the idea of TSM took shape, Chandy and Phatak found that the biggest challenge was to draw up a world-class curriculum for their courses. That was where the man with silver hair and a warm smile came into the picture. While Chandy describes him as “a living legend”, Phatak says, “inspiration! He is what I wanted to become when I grew up”. In New York, where he is the associate dean of MSM, he is known as ‘the musician’s teacher’. But Justin DiCioccio dismisses all these tags with a humble smile. “People are just very generous with their compliments,” says DiCioccio, who flew down to Mumbai for TSM’s press event.

“When I met Ashu [Phatak], I was so excited by his passion and the innovative concept he had in mind. It felt like he was bringing my vision to his country. As Indian students would not be able to afford to learn and be exposed to contemporary music in New York, we decided to bring Manhattan to Mumbai,” says DiCioccio, who is famous for having single-handedly restructured the jazz programme at MSM.
Every three months, six master or doctoral students of MSM will come down to the city and take classes on guitar, bass, drums, vocals and saxophone. The sound engineering and music production classes will be taken care of by ACM faculty, and famous DJs RayG and Yurie will be in-charge of the disk jockeying department. “It is an exchange programme of sorts where Indian students get trained by professionals and those from Manhattan can learn more about Hindustani music,” says DiCioccio.
The founders also hope to provide students pursuing their professional course with hands-on experience by getting them to work with leading music composers, production studios, advertising agencies and at live gigs at venues like blueFROG. “It is a win-win situation for everyone. These clubs and production houses will get free talent, which is certified by us, and these children are getting real world experience,” says Chandy.
Apart from the professional course, which consists of eight to ten modules each of 11-weeks duration and can cost anywhere between Rs 2 to 10 lakh, the school also offers a foundation course and an outreach programme. “The foundation course is more or less like a club membership,” says Chandy. “You pay a nominal fee, say Rs 5,000 or so per month, and you can avail four classes in an instrument of your choice and attend all the workshops, film screenings and master classes that we offer.”
They will also get free access to the cafe area, adds Phatak. “It’s a really important point. When you hang out at the school, you can have conversations with great musicians, jam with them and so on. This is an opportunity you will not receive at any music school in the world. We are aiming to create a culture that appreciates music, not islands of talent with no audience to play for,” he says.
This is how even those who do not wish to pursue music professionally will benefit from the course, says DiCioccio, who has worked as the official White House drummer in his heyday and shared the stage with stalwarts like Frank Sinatra, Phil Woods and Stan Getz. “TSM will help develop an educated audience in the country. So we are creating musicians as well as listeners,” he says.
The foundation course consists of a western module authored by Mumbai-based American composer D. Wood and an Indian music module drawn up by singer Shubha Mudgal and percussionist Aneesh Pradhan. The outreach programme focuses on schoolchildren as young as six and gives them an opportunity to learn an instrument, form a band and be coached by famous musicians.
And for those who cannot afford the fee to be professionally certified at TSM, the school is also planning to offer scholarships and financial aid. “We are giving students an option of doing a work-study programme. They can work as teachers’ assistants or in the marketing department and pay for their education here,” says Suranjan Das, advertising industry veteran and TSM’s chief operating officer.
There is a musician in each one of us, says Phatak. It is just that we haven’t been introduced to music in the right way at the right age. “We want children and parents to know that you need not have to be an ‘Indian Idol’ star to make money out of music. And, also, Bollywood is not the final destination for professional Indian musicians. There are so many more opportunities and so much money in the music industry. TSM wants to act as a conduit between such music ‘hopefuls’ and the industry,” says Chandy.
Chandy and Phatak plan to wrap up work on the school complex, which includes a state-of-the-art auditorium, production studios, music library and accommodation facilities for visiting faculty, by August and start the first batch on September 16.

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