MUSIC OF INDIA, PAKISTAN & AFGHANISTAN

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN & PARTY
LIVE AT WOMAD 1985 (RealWorld CDRW225)

Anniversaries pop up all over, deaths, half-centuries and other commemorations remind us of passing time. Woodstock was 50 years ago. I was coming of age in my own way, hitchhiking from the UK to Istanbul with a five pound note sewn into the lining of my jacket. I slept in barns and abandoned cars. The further East I got the more my long hair excited attention, until the problem was solved by the Bulgarian border guards who cut it for me since they did not want any Anarchists coming into their country. I sold my jeans in Sofia to rent a room and buy food, and depended on the kindness of strangers to get by. I got my share of big festivals with tens of thousands of attendees, like the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park after Brian Jones died, and the debut of Blind Faith in the same spot. WOMAD, the music festival started by Peter Gabriel, is celebrating many things (including 30 years of their RealWorld record label) but notably the first appearance of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before a Western audience in 1985. He shared the bill with New Order, Rochereau, The Fall and many others. It's also 22 years since his passing. But it's hard to believe it was 15 years between Ravi Shankar breaking out in the West and the emergence of Nusrat. But while they both come from the Indian subcontinent they could not be more different. Ravi was a classical musician who showed a generation of rock guitarists what the art of improvisation was really about. Nusrat had a gift from his God, making him arguably the greatest singer of the second half the twentieth century. He too reveled in spontaneous improvisation, using his vocal chords instead of strings. After WOMAD Nusrat was in demand by Western acts who felt they could improve on the simplicity of his music -- basically singing and handclaps with a harmonium for continuo. At the time RealWorld recorded Love & Devotion in the studio, but decided to overdub mandolin and guitar. Soon after that the remixing began, by Michael Brook, Massive Attack, Dhol Foundation, and others, culminating in the posthumous remixes by Gaudi. Essentially there's nothing new here, if you already have some of the scores of great live Nusrat recordings. But if like me you don't mind listening to another live version of "Alla Hoo" or "Haq Ali Ali" then you should indulge yourself in these twenty-minute versions with extensive vocal improvisation and the dramatic ebbing and flowing of religious fervor that is palpable.

SUBHASIS BHATTACHARYA
TABLANANDA (Riverboat TUGCD1110)

This is the second Bhattacharya family spin-off album I have reviewed in as many months. I think they have a secret pact with World Music Network. However, let me say they are all worthy of your attention (and stand by for a different Bhattacharya coming next month!). I get a lot of music over the transom, and the fact I only post a few reviews per month means I listen to it and evaluate it before most of it gets dismissed: some of it after a few bars because it's crap or irrelevant to me, then there are those with a good opening cut that then go nowhere -- but the ones I like take you on a journey where they already know the route but are willing to make detours and have surprise parties on the way to keep you attentive. Subhasis is the understated tabla accompanist on his brother Debashish's many wild recordings on his homemade guitar. For his first solo outing he assembles an impressive cast of sidemen on western instruments such as guitar or trash can, or Indian instruments like dholak, bansuri or sarangi. The album was recorded in Santa Cruz, California and Kolkata. Subhasis rips through it on his skins like a dervish. He plays a dozen other percussion instruments, according to the liner notes, so I am guessing they overdubbed like crazy. But the layers work well and it seems like most of it was improvised on the spot. For example on "Senegalese Impulse" he brings in Ibou Ngom on sabar and djembe and the two just go at it for four and a half minutes. Intense doesn't begin to describe it. There are waterphones, which sound like Harry Partch devices on "Deep water syllables," and while they are otherworldy, Subhasis fits in well to ground it.

ALI AKBAR KHAN
ROUGH GUIDE (RGNET 1373CD)

There's a nice reference in the liner notes for this new compilation to Claude Debussy's opinion that "music is a matter of colours and rhythmical time." Although i cant find the source of this quote on Google it makes sense: Debussy, like Erik Satie, was interested in mood and expression more than structure and strict tempo. Those French guys created cinematic music before the full potential of the cinema was even realized. And like those two Frenchmen, two Indians shared the world stage a half century later with their similar yet distinct compositions as they popularized Indian classical music beyond the subcontinent. By far the more famous is Ravi Shankar, the Hindu sitar player. On the other hand Ali Akbar Khan, a Muslim, was the maestro of the sarod, a shorter metallic instrument -- the yin to the sitar's yang. And this new Rough Guide takes the same approach as the Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar which came out recently. Early in his career when Khan first recorded, the limitations of the 78 shellac meant you could only fit 3 to 4 minutes on a side of a disc, so he had to take what would be a half-hour long raga and distill it to the essence. Just sketch the story. So we have two opening cuts that are from early in Khan's career (complete with a grinding sound in the background from the surface of the disc), and then three longer tracks from his mature years and we end with a coda that again returns to brevity, as a nightcap. (I think they could have dispensed with the closer, having made the point at the outset, as the sound quality is weaker.) The music is very poetic and evocative -- of many things. My first image is always of black and white riverscapes with reeds because of the powerful impression the Apu trilogy made on me, but then my mind wanders, trains, printing presses, trees, smoke, clouds. Then I think about the relation between tabla and tablature: Indian music is improvised so probably not written down but handed on by demonstration. And you cannot notate accurately the muscular inexactitude in the rhythm of four fingers rapped on a drum in quick succession, bringing us back to those Frenchmen who would say, "imbibet (like a drunk)" or "robotic" rather than commit to presto or lento. The three long pieces on this disc are full of grace and loveliness.

ROUGH GUIDE TO ZAKIR HUSSAIN (RGNET1372CD)

Not all music has to hit you upside the head and make you jump up and down. We all need those peaceful moments when we want to hear some soothing melodies and let our minds wander distractedly without being forced to pay attention to a clever solo. On the other hand even low-key music can draw you into the subtleties and make you hear the gaps or notice the interplay between the percussion and the spaces left by the melody. Zakir Hussain is perhaps the greatest living tabla player. He learned from his father Alla Rakha who preceded him in that elevated position. (I accidentally wrote "table" player which is true, as his father taught him by having him drum along with his fingers as a baby.) With two hands and two small drums he can play melodies or trade licks with the best of them. Here are five tracks that demonstrate his skill. On "Kirwani" he plays along with a santoor, a Kashmiri folk instrument which sounds like a dulcimer, sweet and refreshing like a cool shower on a hot day. Hussain's hands move fast, like talking, his fingers reciting tales, fables, finishing the narrative begun by the strings to the point where he is really excited, making his point, and you are suddenly paying full attention. This compilation is more than a best of: it allows us glimpses of different facets of Hussain's art, mostly in duet with a stringed instrument.

ANANDI BHATTACHARYA
JOYS ABOUND (Riverboat Records TUG1116)

I saw Anandi in concert a few years ago. That is to say, I saw her father Debashish perform in Chicago and he prodded the shy young teen onto the mike to do a number. The good news is she has blossomed into a fine singer and on this album is backed by her dad's band. Debashish plays slide guitar and uncle Subhasis plays tabla. There are guests on djembe, mandolin, keyboards, flute, cajon and percussion but all very unobtrusive. Lata Mangeshkar is now 88 and hopefully enjoying retirement but you cannot avoid a comparison to the fine voice who graced so many (thousands) of popular Hindustani songs. But Anandi also cites Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell as influences. The music here sounds traditional, and includes an invocation to Ganesh, folk songs, and even a Rabindranath Tagore poem set to music, but all the compositions are original. Included in the band is Carola Ortiz, a clarinetist and singer from Spain who adds another dimension.

ROUGH GUIDE TO RAVI SHANKAR (RGNET1371CD)

This retrospective look at Ravi Shankar's vast oeuvre has an interesting twist. The compiler, who is also a biographer of the Pandit, has chosen to showcase one raga, "Tilak Shyam," in two versions. The first is an early recording made in the era of 78s which were cut directly to shellac and limited to about 3 minutes (despite what you may think, the sound is fine on this). The second, recorded in 1966 on reel-to-reel tape stretches out to the full 24 minutes of the maestro and his accompanist, Kanai Dutt, in full flight. Starting from Bengali roots, Shankar adapted folk songs (& dance) and rose to the heights of global recognition. His lyrical score for Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) won awards at Cannes and promoted Bengali culture to a Western audience. The film was based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel for Literature in 1913-- he was the first non-European to do so. Ray adapted other tales for his film Teen Kanya and Shankar collaborated retroactively with Tagore on such masterpieces as Kabuliwala, which has been filmed at least four times. Shankar's global fame was hastened by his association with the Beatles, as well as Western classical musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, but either way, the world was ready for his sophisticated theme and variations and the raga became a popular form of entertainment in the 1960s when people were looking for ways to tune in and relax. Listeners instinctively knew you had to enter the raga and experience it in the moment, and that the performer was facing the same challenge: to follow the instant in interpreting the theme. Shankar's sitar offered morning, evening and night ragas, most of which could be enjoyed at any time of day or state of mind, and no two were ever the same. Another short piece, the 6-minute "Megh" references clouds and is a raga for the rainy season. This CD is abridged from A Journey through his Music, a 10-disc box set that came out on the Document label in 2006. The last track comes from a 1991 live show with Zakir Hussain on tabla, first issued by EMI in India. Like Rabindranath Tagore's stories and Satyajit Ray's films, Ravi Shankar's music is ultimately a monument of human culture.

AKSHARA
IN TIME (Blue-Skinned God Records)

Simply a lovely set of traditional Indian Carnatic music. Despite audible appearances, the group is from New York though they ply traditional instruments: the double-headed barrel-shaped mridangam drum, tabla, bansuri flute and hammered dulcimer. Bala Skandan the leader is the drummer who sets the pace with complex rhythms. He also studied violin as a lad, but the drum was his first love as he could always hear it emanating from temples, unamplified. And if there was a wedding going on, you knew from the sound of the drums. Skandan worked for a while in London (one of the tracks is called "Mind the gap"!) where he would put together Indian ensembles for one-off concerts. Now based in New York he has not hesitated to bring cello and viola into the mix because he feels they fit so well. One cello player got married so he brought in another from Brooklyn Raga Massive and now they have two cello players as needed. The album, of traditional ragas from both the Carnatic and Hindu canon, is perfectly sequenced and at 45 minutes leaves you wanting more.