Have you ever wished you could just get on a plane and fly? Turn up just before take off, toss your baggage into the hold and proceed unimpinged by customs officials? If this sounds like a dream come true then come fly with David Sztanke on a voyage of musical enchantment, where Alice in Wonderland meets Darjeeling Limited.
Indeed, Air India is the trip of a lifetime, a symphonic odyssey that’s more an “audio movie” than a regular album. It contains 17 tracks in all, full of variety, virtuosity and spice. Inspired by a trip to the east coast of India to former French outposts like Chennai and Puducherry, it’s a very French take on the South Asian republic. “Some people go to India to find themselves,” says David Sztanke, (pronounced “Stonk” in English), “but I went there and found other people. It was an amazing trip, and I wanted to somehow convey that!” Sztanke and his friend Jerome Echenoz started thinking of concepts on David’s return, and they came up with the idea of a night before a trip to India. “So during this night before, I can't sleep properly because I'm excited and fearful,” he says, “so I take a pill and I have the weirdest dreams imaginable.”
The musician has assembled a wealth of talent for this record, from the guitarist to the sitarist, the double bass player to the mridangam player. Four Paris-based Indian musicians join the mighty cast on Air India, giving the record a percussive kick. On the expansive, musical opener “Rungis Delta”, with its discordant brass and high camp dynamic, there’s a notable breakdown where the sound of alacritous tablas mingle with drum machine handclaps. It’s startling, and yet surprisingly cohesive, considering the disparity of what’s in use. Typically for this record, Sztanke is unafraid to mingle sounds: analogue and digital, physical and virtual, old and new, domestic and autre-monde...
This is not Sztanke’s maiden voyage, in case you’re wondering. Air India is brought to you by the the artist formerly known as Tahiti Boy: “Tahiti Boy was part of my youth and I'm not young anymore!” he says, laughing. He’s collaborated with a number of legendary artists over the years, including Iggy Pop, Jane Birkin and Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes, as well as lauded French director Quentin “Mr Oizo” Dupieux, whose films he regularly soundtracks.
“This is a very personnal record where I really wanted to make the eras and genres meet. I’m influenced by all kinds of music, from Bollywood to Broadway, 70s pop française and Big band Jazz so why wouldn't my music bring all of those influences together?” To be clear, this album is a love letter to India rather than an act of appropriation. “It's more like I went to India and this is how I felt, says David It's really my music with Indian colours, rather than Indian music made by someone who knows how to do it.” Air India is a record that not only brings together flying and dreaming, it also marries traditional instrumentation with modern production values; symphonic film scores with percussion-heavy adventures, and the spectres of classic French arranger Michel Colombier, sitar maverick Anand Shankar and American avant-pop visionary Van Dyke Parks.
Thus, there’s plenty to enjoy on Air India: the glam-tinged percussive stomp of “Rickshaw”, the plaintive piano-led beauty of “La fatigue et la chaleur” (the tiredness and the warmth), and the beautiful vocals of Uma N. Rao on the exquisite “Pondichéry nuit”, which brings together high-octane pop loveliness with a smattering of jazz, to evoke a memorably balmy night in the quartier de ville en Inde. There’s even a song called “Le train” which - you’ve guessed it - is about a train. “There's always been this tradition of composers writing about the train,” says David smiling, “and in all honesty I wanted to have my own train song. I'm a big fan of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local!”
So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for some old school glamour as you travel at supersonic speeds. Where champagne flows freely and the inflight entertainment is unsurpassable. Air India represents the start of a new adventure for David Sztanke. Strap in and enjoy the ride!