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Do Dining and Music mix?

December 19, 2007

In the west dining and music go together, but this concept hasn’t quite caught on here. Ofcourse, a lot of hotels in India have been doing it for a while. Plenty of bands do play at fancy and not-so-fancy restaurants and live music has acquired a kind of snob value. But this doesn’t mean that the Indian audience listens to the music with rapt attention or even appreciates the performance. They can be quite absorbed in having fun.

This is what led to a minor fracas at Mumbai’s newly opened Blue Frog restaurant/club.

The Portuguese band strummed its tune and as the lead singer went from one song to the next, the diners became busy with casual chatter over their meals. This upset the singer, who requested silence. When her request was not met she threatened to walk out…What however rubbed the patrons the wrong way is when one of the partners of the restaurant (gave) a little spiel to the patrons on restaurant etiquette. “He said that he was embarrassed about Mumbai, and that those who cannot keep their voices down should just leave,” charges Praveena. “We say if you are embarrassed about Mumbai, you should leave.” Adman Mahesh Mathai (of Whitelight Films), one of the proprietors of the restaurant, puts it down to “teething problems” before as he says Mumbai can take on this international concept of dining.

International concepts need to adapt before they are absorbed. Nothing is wrong with Mumbai or India. Something is wrong with those who imagine that we should not just ape western concepts but also behave like westerners. It’s not possible, even if desirable.

Music is ingrained in our DNA
Traditionally, we do not mix music with food. For Indians food is a social occasion and where music is concerned, it’s in our very blood. The idea of gulping down dollops of food and downing a peg or two and at the same time listening to a Kishori Amonkar or Zakir Hussain? How disrespectful! Ofcourse one can always say that the comparison is wrong. That serious music and/or great performers are different and would never be heard in a dining place. And that all performers need to be given respect because they are artists and we should just shut up and listen to them.

We are a loud people
Well, Indians aren’t used to it. We love to talk and talk loudly. We are a gregarious, social and warm people and well…noisy. We are used to concerts, yes, but not a mish-mash of dining and serious music. I’m calling it serious because if one has to listen in relative silence I guess it becomes a grave affair! Many sophisticated and westernized Indians have indeed mastered the art, but it still remains a a foreign concept to most.

I am certainly not saying that we should not import this or other western concepts to India. But to expect diners to talk in hushed tones and/or act in a propah manner during a restaurant/club performance isn’t practical.

If restaurants such as Blue Frog want to make a splash they need to go about it with sensitivity and they need to adapt.

Indianisation of the Imported
On another note, there have been many cases where imported concepts if not tuned in to local needs have flopped. Whether it was MTV or Walls Ice-cream, they had to adapt to Indian needs before they saw any kind of success. MTV went Indian after a dismal opening, and Walls Ice-cream started to sell family packs (which they hadn’t earlier) after sales never took off. And Amul (Real Milk, Real Ice-cream is the slogan) showed up Wall’s weakness (Indians prefer dairy products, not frozen desserts) beat them hollow. The oldest example I can think of is detergent powder. Decades ago Indians were used to using bars of soap, not powder, and it took some time for the concept to catch on. Even today bars of soap still sell well. Consumers like to give clothes a good scrub, yes, even before chucking them into the washing machine. Considering our weather and the dust it makes perfect sense.

Indians demand Indianisation. Arjun Swarup has discussed this briefly in his post on the Indian Economy blog where he talks about the power of local consumption. He mentions that while we may import western concepts (talking in relation to brands and the mall culture) we Indianise them as well, perhaps more so than other countries of the world. And as one of the commentators of that post mentioned, food items (Pizza for example) sell well with Indian toppings.

I am quite sure that a Tandoori Chicken topping is more popular than the smoked chicken one! And a Veggie MacDonald’s burger is an Indian concept (it’s actually got masala!) and there is no beef in anything. And a non-veg dosa is only outwardly Indian.

In India jeans are often worn with kurti’s, a hybrid of a kurta and a western style top. So what I am saying is that whether it’s music or food or detergent or clothes, or whether it’s a concept, a product or just a style, if it has to succeed in India on a decent enough scale, really catch on, it needs to morph into something that the locals can tune into.

(The first photo is taken from the musicbanter.com and the second one is by me and both are for representative purposes only.)

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2007 11:57 am

    Hi Nita,
    I work at the Blue Frog, and was there the night of the ‘fracas’. However, we’d just like to put the whole incident behind and move ahead. Why I’m writing is this –

    We have Pink Noise, Skinny Alley and Jalebee Cartel playing in the coming 3 days. Would love to have you around for any of these 3 nights. I’m not much of a blogger, but I find it amazing that your blog has pulled about half a million hits. Would like to meet in person, not to discuss past events but to move better into our future.

    I’m 9833020332.

    Mel

  2. December 19, 2007 3:39 pm

    You hit on the nail, from chicken tikka to chinese food to Mc Donald’s aloo Tikki burger, it is the Indianisation that has succeeded.

    Most of us meet up at restaurants to chat and catch up on old times. It is difficult to have a quiet audience there.

  3. December 19, 2007 4:07 pm

    Nita:

    Bluefrog make it sound like they are pioneers of some kind.

    I am sorry to rain on their parade but dining with live music being performed in the background has been a common fixture in many restaurants located in 5-star hotels in Delhi for many years.

    And if that is not a good comparison, then I would recommend eating in the bistro in Hauz Khas village where Rajasthani performers come to the table and sing. Some years ago, there was even a kid in their troupe who would come and make eyes at the diners. It was cute and you could ignore it easily.

    Just as there is no need for diners to get all hot and bothered, I daresay that lounge artists cannot really expect any more attention than this, so the band’s reaction was a bit over the top too. Zakir Hussain and Kishori Amonkar would not perform in such an environment!

    (A story for you: Some 6-7 years ago, in the sports bar in Oberoi’s in Bombay, I saw a Portuguese band playing. There were 5 or 6 people sitting in the bar including 2 colleagues and me. When the band stopped, a man from the other table got up and started jamming with them. He was Remo Fernandes. A great concert we had – all for the cost of tonic water and OJ! We headed back to catch our flight to London with great satisfaction.)

    I should also add that mixing dining with live music, except instrumental, is definitely not a “western” thing. I have now had much experience of eating ghaat-ghaat-ka-khana in a range of countries and cultures and I have not come across this anywhere. Piped music is a different ballgame. The pianoman/ pianowoman in the lounge of Waldorf Astoria playing while people sip their Long Island Teas in the bar is also not comparable.

    In the rest – about Indianisation – I have much vested interest.🙂 My MBA project in IIM Ahmedabad was on standardisation versus adaptation in marketing mix elements. The project subsequently became the basis of a new course offering in international marketing too. My co-author was brand manager of Fanta and many other brands in the Coke stable in India for a long, long time.

    So with my MBA hat on, I would say that nearly all your examples are food-related. Food is a cultural construct and does not adapt well. In other product categories, products are selling as-is although how they sell them i.e. advertise them is also culturally driven. So Fair and Lovely which is a sunscreen sells as a fairness cream in India and probably will be sold similarly in Africa where people use all manner of hydroquinone based products to make their skin fairer. In sun-aware cultures, if it sells, it will not sell with the same brand name and will be talking of its sun protection benefits rather than fairness benefits.

    Good post. Some messages you get are very interesting too!

  4. December 19, 2007 4:09 pm

    Nita: I should say food constructs do not travel well and food has to be adapted to local cultures. Apologies.

  5. December 19, 2007 4:09 pm

    Nita:
    All international food chains adapt to local flavors, so it is not as if Indians are more fond of their own flavors.
    The restaurant’s rights have been questioned by many. I read about it in Mumbai yesterday. However, there is no question at all that the restaurant owners can draw the lines of etiquette. If they want people to be quiet, they will necessarily have to be so. Or choose not to go to the restaurant. This place costs an arm and a leg, I believe…. so if you go, open your mouth only for food!🙂
    BTW, shouldn’t it be Do dining and eating mix? Both verbs, so it sounds better, especially if you use the plural, I think.

  6. Jackie permalink
    December 19, 2007 5:05 pm

    I’m of two minds on this one, Nita. One the one hand, I very much dislike Muzak or just background noise (especially if played too loudly) for most dining experiences. But there is a place for music when one is at a restaurant, fully anticipating a band, etc. I know you are speaking from an India perspective, but our irritations are universal. In travels, I have been jarred almost out of my seat by loudspeakers announcing the latest propodanda, as well as the ?American habit of having their waitstaff sing happy birthday to a customer.

  7. December 19, 2007 5:12 pm

    Mel, thank you very much for the invite and maybe one of these days I must might visit.🙂 However, I am sure Blue Frog has a great future because I know Mahesh Mathai and he is a very very smart guy! I interviewed him once for the magazine A&M and well, he’s a brain. He will I am sure make this restaurant get over it’s ‘teething problems.’🙂

    Poonam,
    thanks. Yes Indians find it difficult to be quiet!

    Shefaly,
    thanks. Lucky you, to enjoy that concert with Remo!🙂
    And yes live bands have been playing for a long time in India (as I had mentioned too) but what about listening to it all respectfully? Isn’t that a western concept?

    Rdoc,
    a restaurant can have any rule it wants yes, but it also wants to make money! So I think you are saying they will have to adapt…but that that aspect about Do or Does, I am confused. Let’s ask Shefaly. Shefaly…can you please…?

  8. December 19, 2007 5:16 pm

    @ Nita:

    I am afraid in my experience, nobody really cares for lounge musicians playing while people drink and dine. Musicians do not get upset in general. When people pay to get in on a special day, of course they pay attention.

    The bottom-line is that if people do not pay for something, they do not care for it… Humans are endlessly weird and fascinating, aren’t they?

    @ Nita and @ Rambodoc:

    Alas, Rambodoc is right. ‘Dining’ and ‘Music’ are two nouns. So the interrogative verb should agree accordingly. It should be ‘Do Dining and Music Mix’.

    The best way to test is to try and answer the question in its current form: ‘Does dining and music mix?’. The answer would be ‘No, dining and music does not mix’ and we know right away that this is not the correct usage…

    Sorry, Nita.

  9. December 19, 2007 5:16 pm

    @Jackie:

    Actually I am in two minds too.🙂 I get irritated by noise as well…specially if I am enjoying the music but there have been times when I have been in extra good spirits in a large group and neglected the singer. It always made me feel guilty as once the singer looked at me reproachfully. I can laugh a bit loudly!
    And as for those birthday sing songs, they are common in Pizza Hut and they irritate me too!

  10. December 19, 2007 5:19 pm

    @Shefaly:

    Thanks for that Do and Does thing. the title has been changed. Thanks to you and Rambodoc!

  11. Vipul permalink
    December 19, 2007 9:32 pm

    Nita, dining and eating are not at all common in the west. Yes there are plenty of establishments that have both, but then there is a very clear focus on one over the other. That is what the place is known for and the patrons act accordingly. So for eg. one does not go to a Lido show or to Ronnie Scotts (well known jazz place in ldn) for the food. Yes, one can eat a meal there but being talkative is a strict no no. On the other hand, there are plenty of piano bars or the guy singing ghazals in the corner restaurants, where the bar / food is the focus. Having a good time at such places is acceptable behavior. There are yet other establishments that divide up the evening – dining places till midnight and a nightclub after. This can be tricky but the better managed ones do it wonderfully. The problem come around when you try and do both, and end up doing neither.

    A simple rule that customers could follow is that if there is a ticket / big cover fee to get into the place then the ‘show’ is of importance, while if you got in cheap but get stung by the menu, you could atleast knock yourself out talking!

  12. December 19, 2007 9:39 pm

    @Vipul:

    Thanks. Yes I get what you are saying but this isn’t common in India, the distinctions you make. I would say that generally the kind of places that you refer to – known for the music and talking a no-no – that’s the concept which is not at all common here. Clearly it is an international concept. But thanks for defining it so well. Clears it for me completely.
    Blue frog for example is very very expensive – but that’s what I am saying. In India this is a relatively new concept and clearly in the west it’s not.

  13. December 19, 2007 11:58 pm

    Music with anything makes it awesome🙂.. well I might sound a little too general…
    I used to love cafe’s in the US which had life music, and ofcourse the bars.. for someone who does not like loud music, I was surprised that I even liked heavy rock along with nice food..
    I really miss those weekends, spending hours listening to same songs over and over every weekend with a mug of beer in my hand..
    I am just hoping when Bangalore will have a place like that in the neighborhood

  14. December 20, 2007 2:18 am

    Thinking about this from a purely customer service point of view, shouldn’t the restaurant be catering to the customers? So if the customers want to socialize and talk at dinner, shouldn’t the restaurant accommodate that? It’d be one thing if some customers complained about others being too loud. But if the artists are offended, so what? The artists, in this type of atmosphere should be catering to the customers.

    Now if the artists were at a concert where the customers were attending for the music, that would be another matter.

  15. December 20, 2007 4:59 pm

    Rambler, I thought Bangalore of all places would have a place like that! A casual cafe with live music. Or maybe a pub. I know Goa has a place like that but somehow I thought Bangalore too had.

    Ordinary Girl, hi. You hit the nail on the head!🙂

  16. December 25, 2007 2:51 pm

    My bands, Pink Noise and Skinny Alley, played two gigs at the Blue Frog last week. I have been singing for 30 years, but it was the first time, ever, EVER, that I’ve heard the master of ceremonies announcing the band and then going on to ask the audience to “please respect the artistes”. I know the debates range fast and furious, but for someone on this side of the fence, this is an incredible gift. We take our music seriously and to actually have a venue in India which does not relegate the musician to the same old tired role of jaded lounge singer peforming to jaded businessmen, is totally exciting.

    I dont know about being expensive and other such stuff – living in Kolkata as I do, everything about Mumbai is prohibitively expensive – but Indian musicians needed a place like the Blue Frog, and I for one, along with my band mates, wish the club every success.

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