An Interview with Zubin Balaporia
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
In the beginning, there was Indus Creed/Rock Machine, the first Indian rock band to achieve international success. Then there were scores for feature films, from Dev (2004) to The Great Indian Escape (2019), as well as numerous commercials and documentaries. Now there are performances with Indian classical music heavyweights like tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and sitarists Niladri Kumar and Hidayat Khan, not to mention the first of many photography exhibitions to come.
Connect the dots, and you get keyboardist Zubin Balaporia.
I had first met Balaporia in 2016 at his Mumbai studio, Bandwagon, to learn more about synthesizer usage in India – and who better to ask than him? Rock Machine’s 1988 debut kicks off with the instrumental "The Enemy Within", done entirely with (of all things) a Yamaha DX7. Then there’s the blistering neoclassical solo on "Die for Your Country" from 1991’s The Second Coming. And yet, at the residence of composer Vanraj Bhatia, with whom his association goes back to the Gujarati feature film Percy (1989), I heard Balaporia sit down at the piano – which had probably last been tuned before I was born – and play everything from Bach excerpts to an ethereal jazz take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Quite simply, he sounds like no one else in the country.
Needless to say, Balaporia is a busy man, and he graciously took the time to answer some questions with his typically droll sense of humour.
How did it all begin?
I was born into a musical family. Though nobody played professionally, my father was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, my mother played the piano, my aunts received rudimentary training in Indian classical music, and my grandmother played the harmonica and the violin. We had a piano at home and I started doodling around at quite a young age. My parents signed me up for piano lessons but I was more interested in football and cricket! Then, when I was about 18, I joined my first rock band and was totally electrified by the whole experience. A few years later, I started playing sessions in the Bombay studio circuit and then joined Rock Machine (which later became Indus Creed). In time to come, we went on to tour Russia, the UK, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Indus Creed, as it came to be known in the early ‘90s, had a formidable cult following all over India and won MTV’s coveted video award for Best Video in 1993. Four albums later – and despite a 10-year hiatus – the band is still chugging on…
Who are your influences and inspirations?
In the early years, Jon Lord, the organist and keyboard player of Deep Purple. Later on, as I was exposed to jazz, Chick Corea became one of my favourite pianists; also Oscar Peterson, Michel Camilo and Dizzy Gillespie.
How has the general perception of keyboard instruments changed since you started out? How has the music industry been affected by it?
Well, in the beginning, keyboards had a kind of sound of their own. But in later years they began to emulate other instruments. It made the keyboard player king of the industry but not very popular with musicians who played other instruments and subsequently lost work.
The music industry has taken advantage of technology and, sadly, as keyboard players we are constantly asked to "replace" live instruments because of budget crunches.
How have your equipment setup and workflow changed over the years?
It has become a little more compact because of the reliance on computers and VSTs. But I am a bit old-school in some ways. I like the sound of good hardware. Till today, I rarely use a computer on stage. I rely more on my actual keyboard stage setup.
You have covered a lot of musical ground, from rock to visual media to performing with the likes of Zakir Hussain and Hidayat Khan. Considering how unique the Indian music world is, where do you think musicians like yourself fit in?
I think it is a very exciting stage in my career to be asked to perform alongside maestros like Zakir Hussainji and Hidayat Khansaab. Since my training is not in Indian classical music, I like to think that I bring a different colour to their sound. I enjoy it very much and hope to influence a generation of musicians to amalgamate these styles successfully.
You’re now making a name for yourself as a photographer. How did this come about, and how does it relate to your music?
I see a lot of parallels in the worlds of photography and music. My father was an amateur photographer himself, but as a youngster I had no interest in photography. One of my closest friends is a professional filmmaker and photographer and it is thanks to him that I’ve been bitten by this bug for the last six years. It is another tremendously exciting field for me.
Since sound and music have always been "visual", it stands to reason that my photography should resonate with sound, hopefully by transporting the viewer into the moment or place where the photograph was taken. I really see a lot of common ground in composing a photograph and composing a piece of music.
Is there a secret to your success? If so, what is it?
No secret. I consider myself blessed for being given the passion and the liberty to do my own thing by my parents. Having said that, I put in a lot of time and effort in improving my skills and craft. And why shouldn’t anyone? The more you learn, the better it gets.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just happy to be doing what I am doing and want to do!
Bonus question: what’s the story behind [Indus Creed’s] "Yeah Yeah" from [1998 feature film] Bombay Boys?
Can’t remember exactly but I think the director of the movie [Kaizad Gustad] wanted us to come up with a song which was to be played in the movie by a band that was not very accomplished with lyric writing. So the entire song had just one word sung through – "Yeah!"