MUSIC OF INDIA, PAKISTAN & AFGHANISTAN

RAVI SHANKAR
RAVI SHANKAR'S GHANASHYAM (A BROKEN BRANCH) (East Meets West Music)

Volume V of the Nine Decades project (which is unearthing and restoring lost gems from Ravi Shankar's back catalogue) is a big change from his sitar and tabla pieces, in fact he doesn't play on it. It is the score for a ballet he wrote for the Birmingham Opera in 1989. At the time he felt that people equated Indian music with drug trips (in many movies, starting in the 60s, a swirling sitar and a kaleidoscope of colors was shorthand for dropping acid) and wanted to counteract this. The preoccupation with drugs, he felt, was an "easy escape from the sadhana found in disciplined hard work." Those of us who reveled in drug experiments in our youth know how close you can come to losing it, and the fact that America is in the grip of drugs like Oxycontin, Fentanyl or crack cocaine shows how bored and spiritually empty large swaths of the population are. The prescription drugs are overused to the point of inertness, which of course makes good politics as a docile out-of-it populace is easily manipulated. Shankar wrote this music in the folk-tale tradition. Not only did he have experience in writing full-length scores, he had also spent his teens dancing in his brother's touring troupe. His soundtrack credits begin in the 1940s and in the 1950s he scored some of the great films of Satyajit Ray, including the Apu Trilogy. Then he went on to the 1957 Kabuliwala, Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland (where, yes, his music does suggest altered states) and Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. For Ghanashyam he drew from all Indian traditions, northern Kathak style and southern Kathakali, and also added in Western classical ideas to the Indian orchestra. Ghanashyam is a dancer and his descent into drugs horrifies his wife, Lalit, and his fellow dancers. A bell rings and you think, ah that's to awaken the gods, then it rings again as other instruments enter and soon it is jingling like anklets, and we remember dancing can also be an act of worship. Well-known playback singers Ashit & Hema Desai sing the lead parts. There's Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on guitar. Violin, sarangi, sitar, flute and shenai add color. The result is a lyrical score with a cinematic sweep. And for the first time the full-length (80 minute) work has been restored from the original tapes.

ROCQAWALI
SUFI SPIRIT (Riverboat TUGCD1099)

I must have watched scores, if not hundreds, of Bollywood movies. I have my favorites among directors, actors, actresses and playback singers. The big historic dramas often have moments of spiritual reflection (before or after a battle scene) and quite often secular singers, like Mohammed Rafi or Lata Mangeshkar were called on to plumb the depths of Islamic devotion for the on-screen characters. Muslims too got the chance to sing behind the screen and many films have been boosted by the presence of Nusrat or Rahat, Jagjit Singh (a Sikh who revived the ghazal form) or the Wadali Brothers. You may find it incredulous to expect transcendence from a film soundtrack but that's what happens in ecstatic moments like A. R. Rahman's "Khwaja mere khwaja," the central moment of the 2008 film Jodhaa Akhbar, when the male lead escapes self to find the divine. This new album is described as a blend of rock and qawwali but to me it's pure Filmi. Despite their political and religious differences, exacerbated by the current "strongman" Trump-clone Modi in Delhi, Pakistan and India share a love for the Sufi devotional music, and as a militant atheist, I am also partial to it. The singer is Ejaz Sher Ali whose father Sher Ali and uncle Meher Ali are famed qawwali singers, being trained in the same tradition as Nusrat. The omnipresent but thoughtful guitarists are Danes: one of Iranian extraction, the other Pakistani. The group is completed by bass and drums: there is no bare bones hand-clapping accompaniment, but someone is in the studio with a synth adding some atmosphere. The rock edge is kept below the vocals and helps emphasize the wild abstract vocalizations of the singer Sher Ali who is superb. They don't have a video, which is fine by me, the movie in your head is always the best one.

RAVI SHANKAR
IN HOLLYWOOD 1971 (Northern Spy Records NSPY073/EMW1015)

If you should get up with a clear head and a fresh outlook and think it's time to put on a Morning raga to focus your mind, then this is the album for you. It's a rare private recording that Ravi Shankar made at home on 12 June 1971. There's two hours of music in four movements. At Ravi's Highland Avenue home that morning some celebrities were gathered to hear the master, and Ravi, being Bengali, addressed them about the plight of the people of East Pakistan (as his homeland had become) after Cyclone Bhola had hit it and the much bigger West Pakistan had invaded it. After the cyclone the government response was so weak there were calls for independence, but the duly elected Socialist leader was prevented from taking office by a military coup, in which over a million people perished. Ravi spoke to the gathering and performed for them: his concerns motivated George Harrison to organize the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. That morning, in addition to the Beatles and Peter Sellers, Zubin Mehta and Marlon Brando were hanging out. But there was another legendary musician present, and playing (no, sorry, not Frank Zappa), and that is Ustad Alla Rakha, Ravi's accompanist on tablas for 25 years, who gets little grunts or sighs of approval for his participation, particularly in the incendiary closer "Sindhi Bhairavi." The sound has been remastered from reel-to-reel tape and is clear; as many of the famous big stadium concerts he made at the time were in the evening, Ravi did not record many morning ragas. The four original compositions are by Shankar and the liner notes explain their inspiration (a trip to his birthplace) and musical structure (the life power of each raga is explained in philosophical terms that are most interesting). One ("Hollywood Dhun") is based on a Bengali folk tune and conjures up, as always, the lyrical black and white imagery of Satyajit Ray. You always learn something from Ravi and there is much to enjoy.


RAVI & ANOUSHKA SHANKAR
LIVE IN BANGALORE (East Meets West Music EMWM1014)

Indian classical music, in the form of ragas, took the world by storm in the 60s. It wasn't just that it broke the mold of Western classical forms and the rigid 4/4 of pop music, it suspended time, took another approach to tempo and rhythm. When you added the narcotic effect of incense, it provided an escape to other worlds which were the domain of the imagination, a musical dream time that we all share yet is unique to each of us. Ravi Shankar was not only the ambassador who brought Indian classical music to the rest of the world, he was its greatest exponent. The hallmarks of his career are hard work and shared joy. His final Indian concert is presented here, both in a double CD set and a DVD of the performance. We don't know about the status of women in Indian classical music though Bollywood movies would suggest that only courtesans were trained as entertainers. However Shankar trained his daughter as inheritor of his mantle and she carries the concert and shows how well he invested her with his skill in improvisation. Via the DVD we can see that he is frail and apologetic, and leaning on his daughter throughout the first number. But then he announces one of his favorite compositions, "Tilak Shyam," and starts into it. It's almost like he is teaching her again, he plays a phrase and she repeats it, then he improvises on it and she does too, back and forth. As the tempo builds he starts trading faster, more complex licks with Anoushka and the tabla player, Tanmoy Bose: the years drop away, suddenly he is ripping it out and creating blistering runs and she looks amazed. After 25 minutes we know he is eternally young, he inhabits the music and it tells his fingers where to go. It's a three hour show, performed in the grounds of the Bangalore Palace two months before Shankar's 92nd birthday. As a bonus the DVD includes another full set from Anoushka, the opening from the Palace show. She not only inherited her father's mantle, it fits her to a T.

USTAD DILDAR HUSSAIN KHAN & ABRAR HUSSAIN
SUR SANGEET (Kanaga System Krush KSKCD015)

Thus far Kanaga System Krush has been a publisher, almost exclusively, of music from Mali. For their 15th release they move to Pakistan for a rousing set of traditional Sufi qawwali music. While Nusrat opened our ears to this magical sound it has a centuries-old tradition and is still a vital and growing part of Sufi devotional rituals. In fact, Dildar Hussain was tabla accompanist for Nusrat for over three decades, and has now formed his own Qawwali party with three of his sons. There is a second tabla player, Israr Hussain, in addition to harmonium and handclaps accompanying the singers. The lead singer is Abrar Hussain but the tabla playing is equally to the fore as there is an amazing bass thrum going on thanks to the older "Jori style" of drum which the father plays. Son Israr also gets to solo on tablas on half the tracks. Most of the songs are traditional poems or scripture but some new lyrics have been added; "Ali Moula" who married the daughter of the prophet, was called the Lion of God, so singing his praise invokes strength. Other new material is created when it is composed for a movie soundtrack and becomes a hit (Dildar backed Nusrat on several successful soundtracks, including "Last Temptation of Christ," "Dead Man Walking" and "Bandit Queen."). Now that there is cinematic détente between India and Pakistan, some Bollywood films with hit soundtracks, which have been known in Pakistan for decades are actually getting shown on the big screen for the first time. Dildar Khan comes from a musical family and by 15 had started accompanying the young Nusrat who was already making an impression. He was able to study with Ravi Shankhar's famous accompanist, Alla Rakha, another of the Khan family. Thus he added Indian classic riffs to his Punjabi style. The groove is rock-solid, the singing spiritually uplifting.

DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA
SLIDE GUITAR RAGAS FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (TUG1083)

Bhattacharya plays a homemade guitar with added sympathetic resonating strings. "Homemade" sounds a little ad hoc but it was custom-made by Gibson from his design to have the regular six strings, plus four supporting strings, two drone strings and twelve sympathetic strings. In this suite of ragas he sounds closer to a sitarist then ever before; even the format of the music reminds you forcibly of the conception and execution of Ravi Shankar's work (Bhattacharya cites as an influence another sitar virtuoso, Ustad Vilayat Khan). The set is positioned at night beginning at dusk with "Aarti (the evening ritual)" which sets the scene for a mellow hour even if you don't plan to stay up all night. Bhattacharya attacks his strings with three fingers, a plucking technique adapted from the ancient veena, an ancestor of the sitar. By the third track the attack quickens and a tabla enters the dialogue. Rather than fading out the album builds and Bhattacharya throws in his whole bag of tricks from the Hawaiian slide to some Latin riffs and a notable flamenco influence in his flourishing on the last track "Vasundhara (Mother Earth)."


QURAISHI
MOUNTAIN MELODIES (Evergreene Music)

This is traditional Afghani music and it is a magic carpet ride. Quraishi plays rubab, a lute-like instrument, and the accompaniment is simple hand percussion, tablas or dhol. The melodies are sweet and hearken to an earlier time before Afghanistan became a cultural wasteland. It is increasingly difficult to find live music in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that Quraishi left his native Kabul for New York where this was recorded. Like a Renaissance therbo, the rubab has three strings that are played to articulate the melody then as many as twenty sympathetic strings that are tuned to the ragas and create their own unique timbre. (The therbo has six main strings and a lot of sympathetic ones.) Quraishi grew up in a family of musicians and instrument makers and studied classical Hindustani forms. There is also a strong suggestion of Sufi trance music in the call and response between the rubab and the tablas. The percussionist Chatram Sahni is adept at creating backbeats. He spent his youth in the 1970s accompanying many now-famous singers on Afghan radio. Quraishi is not only a master musician he has a lot of soul in his fingers. He will be demonstrating his virtuosity on a tour to promote the album, arranged through the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. See the website for details.


RAVI SHANKAR
A NIGHT AT SAINT JOHN THE DIVINE (East Meets West EMWM1013)

Now that Morgan Freeman has replaced Charlton Heston as the voice of God, it's time to assess his abilities against another box-office giant who is regularly called on to voice the divinity: Amitabh Bachchan. But it doesn't take too many snippets to figure out who'd win a divinity throwdown or God-off. When it comes to Vox Dei or Godvoice, Amitabh wins handily. Indeed, he is already a minor deity in the Land of 10,000 Gods and you know no one does deep spirituality like the Hindus. Christianity is bound up in guilt and pettiness. Its main assets are the Jacobean translation of the Bible and its architecture. Now imagine we blend the two religions, and put Hindu spirituality in a reverend, resonant and reverberant Christian space: the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. For volume four of the Nine Decades series, dedicated to issuing the best recordings of Ravi Shankar in an orderly fashion, East Meets West has opted for one night that Ravi spent in church on a bill with a host of other acts from dusk to dawn. The first piece is an afternoon raga. As Ravi says, "we are worshipping the divine sound in the house of God." The musician and the listener become one, he tells us, as eyes closed, we nod in consent. Then, on cue, he explains the metre of the next piece, four-four-one-half-one-half. No one laughs; no one goes, Huhn? Apparently, by then, the sun was rising (Ravi is the Sanskrit word for "sun") and as the light poured through the stained glass windows and the somnolent audience stirred in the pews, Ravi ripped into a sunrise raga, "Vachaspati," with his faithful accompanist Alla Rakha, one of the few musicians who could keep up with the master. There is an odd break-tempo moment about every nine beats in this piece: tapping it out on your knee is futile but you sort of sense it coming. Nevertheless there is a fluidity and grace to this work. It's nice to hear it in the comfort of your home and not in a coccyx-crucifying pew, but perhaps the mortification of the flesh, the long night ending and the holy dust suspended in the stained-glass-filtered light would add something. Who knows? you weren't there. Me neither. But, as Baba Ram Dass might say, you can be there now.


DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA
MADEIRA (Tridev Music PDB-CD-001)

I caught Debashish in concert in Chicago last year. It was a great evening of music and a chance to watch this virtuoso of the Calcutta slide guitar up close (he even rocked out on a tiny ukelele, just to show off his chops). He builds his own instruments which have up to 21 strings. He brought his daughter, Anandi, as vocalist, and she seemed tentative, quite nervous, but now has gone on the mike in a recording studio and is ready to front the group which comprises her dad and her uncle as tabla accompanist. Like her dad she blends many different Indian styles in her approach to the music (she only appears on the last two tracks). It's a new direction and better than the road he was taking which led to a collaboration with "Mahavishnu" John McGlaughlin, called Beyond the Ragasphere, which was just a racket as far as I could hear. This album is back on track, with the sympathetic resonating strings and his brisk attack, it could easily pass for a sitar album. The tunes are approached as ragas and the tabla accompanist, Subhasis Bhattacharjee, is right on the one. He even drives the tempo, giving as good as he gets, and pushes Debashish to insane flights of speed on "Jhoom."


NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN & PARTY
LOVE & DEVOTION (Real World)

Originally released as two CDs on the RealWorld label, these two discs have been remastered and repackaged (in cardboard rather than plastic) to come to our ears once again. Nusrat was on the verge of international stardom in 1985 when he played the WOMAD festival in rural England. The label was the brainchild of Peter Gabriel who decided to invest in a state-of-the-art recording studio near his home in Wiltshire and get some of the visiting artists playing WOMAD to record. The first issue was his own Passion album. This disc and the Passion: Sources sequel (which had the raw material he had used to create his soundtrack) were followed by 200 albums of vast diversity, from Gospel to Sufi, from Ethiopian dub to Mexican ska. This gathering combines two albums released in 1992 by RealWorld: a set of love songs and a set of religious hymns. Frankly I can't tell the difference between ghazals and the Qawwali devotional hymns: they all sound good. From his repertoire Nusrat delivers storming versions of "Allah Hoo Allah Hoo," "Haq Ali Ali Haq," and "Ali Maula Ali Maula Ali Dam Dam." The only odd part is the addition of an acoustic guitar; there is also mandolin on some tracks. I am not a purist but this seems unnecessary, however at the time the producers probably felt Westerners would prefer a familiar instrument added in. On the love songs it lends the sound something more filmi. Nusrat's Mustt Mustt, released on RealWorld in 1990 completely changed British and Asian music. The Massive Attack remix of the title song was indeed massive. A whole generation of British Asian artists were energized, from Nitin Sawhney to Talvin Singh, and producers went wild creating dub remixes of Nusrat's vast output. RealWorld has also reissued Star Rise which is an early remix album of songs recorded by Nusrat and Canadian Michael Brook: nine tracks were given the drum machine and synth treatment by a variety of artists. At the time I thought it stank, and wouldn't give it any credibility. Now that we have heard Gaudi's superb treatment of some Nusrat vocals I thought my opinion might have mellowed. However there are still at least two unlistenable tracks, not because the technology is dated and sounds quaint, but because they are so overwhelming with their discoid insistence. So i say skip this one, but by all means check out the double disc of relatively pure Nusrat, and his love and devotion.


RAVI SHANKAR
THE RAVI SHANKAR COLECTION (EMI)

Ravi, like Nusrat, has now gone to his eternal rest, but left us an incredible legacy of hundreds of recordings to discover and enjoy. I recently got the ten CD set of Ravi that was put out by EMI in 2012. It contains recordings in various combinations and formats from 1967 to 1983. I skipped these in their day because I was dubious about the collaborations. You may like symphonic music but does it work with sitar? The first disc stars with a lovely raga "Raga Khamaj," with everything as expected: Alla Rakha on tablas, but then the same song is repeated with André Previn (or Andrew Preview as Morecambe & Wise called him) and the London Symphony Orchestra. It actually works. Obviously there's less improvisation because the orchestra has the riff written out and Shankar is bouncing off it, without going too far astray, not unlike playing to a pre-recorded playback. The second disc is his famous encounter with the yogi Yehudi Menuhin (who made his debut on violin with the San Francisco Symphony, aged 7): again you ask if Eastern and Western instruments are such a good fit. However it's what they wanted to do and it's not a disaster like say the Plastic Ono Band. This is followed by the second Sitar Concerto, this time it's the London Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. It's very filmistanic, with kettle drums akimbo, and reminds me of Rimsky-Korsakov and other light classical stuff that was fodder for films in the 30s & 40s. It was recorded in 1982 and I am not totally against it. The second concerto works because Zubin Mehta was also Indian and realized it should be an Indian orchestral arrangement with the orchestra coming to meet Ravi, not the other way. So there is no brass. The tones of oboe that Shankar obviously loved are here (along with bamboo flute) as well as a lot of percussion as the orchestra tries to replace the rhythmic bed of the tablas. Mostly it's sprightly and folkloric like Percy Grainger or brings in plangent "full fathom five" harp tones, or rising flutey larks like Benjamin Britten. There are some lovely passages. Not included is the soundtrack for Alice in Wonderland, the Jonathan Miller version (which is arguably the best of the film adaptations of the novel), however the exquisite, brief (7 minute) theme for Pather Panchali is included. Ravi was no purist and so this set showcases many collaborations and even diehard fans will not like all of it. Disc 6 has Japanese musicians, Hindi singers and then a jazz group with Bud Shank on flute, Gary Peacock on bass, Louis Haynes on drums, and Dennis Budimir on guitar. Shank was a regular accompanist and appears often on these discs; Paul Horn made a 1964 Hollywood date as flautist. Of course John Coltrane, who named his son Ravi, studied with Shankar and hoped to collaborate but that never came to pass due to the saxophonist's untimely death. But no matter the setting, Ravi Shankar still shines through. I am still working my way through these, so may rewrite this review. There is a lot to explore in these discs and at this point, everything new from Ravi is welcome.


JAIPUR KAWA BRASS BAND
DANCE OF THE COBRA (Riverboat TUG1073)

Jaipiur is a magical city: I actually saw a blue ox pulling a cart. There's the lovely Hawa Mahal (or Palace of the Winds, glimpsed fleetingly in the Marigold Hotel movie) & a really fine Jantar Mantar, or astrological observatory. The Palace of Amber (or Amer) is another outstanding attraction. If you have the wherewithal you can ride a howdah atop an elephant up to the entrance. But my most memorable time in Jaipur was hanging out with Hameed Khan, tabla player and music impresario, for a couple of days. With his boundless energy, Hameed is keeping several musical scenes alive in Jaipur, from Qawwali to Baraat, and it's this latter, the traditional wedding brass band, we hear on this disc. Rawer than Romany gypsy bands like Fanfare Ciocarlia, more raucous than Bollywood Brass Band, Jaipur Kawa add sitar, jews harp (even bass guitar on one track), and snare drum to the army brass line-up of trumpets, trombones, clarinet and euphonium. The album is called Dance of the Cobra because the band performs with a snake charmer, fakir and dancer -- in fact it's more of a carnival than a musical group. The set opens with an Asha Bhosle classic "Piya tu ab to aaja," written by her hubby RD Burman. (You'll know it when you hear "Monica, oh my darling!"); "Mera Pyar Rahega Tere Sung" from the film Pehchan is next; a classic, "Gore Gore O Banke Chhore" from 1950s Samaadhi (originally sung by Lata), follows; I have been having fun playing the songs back to back with the originals found on YouTube. Fans of Hindi rock n roll will dig Mohammad Rafi's "Laal laal gaal" (from Mr X, 1957) as interpreted by Hameed Khan's band. The Rockabilly aspect of the original becomes a solid bomping waddling 60-year-old trying to do the twist. Maybe you will be inspired to check out the old film with its all-star cast of Ashok Kumar, Nalini, Helen, Pran, and the comic genius Johnny Walker. Another Mohammad Rafi song, "Jiya o jiya kuch bol do," is taken at a leisurely pace. Pakistani singer Noor Jahan's "Soniya dil da mamla" has been subjected to disco remixes and we get a frantic version of it here, complete with sung vocals. We come up to 1993 for the closer, "Yeh Kali Kali Aankhen," which was in the film Baazigar, a vehicle for Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. The music was written by Anu Malik. If you enjoy Bollywood escapism, remixes, or just the frenzy of brass bands going full tilt, this is for you.


RAVI SHANKAR
THE LIVING ROOM SESSIONS PART TWO (East Meets West Music, EMWM1009)

This may be the last new recording we get from Ravi Shankar, since he passed away shortly after recording it, at home in Encinitas, California, in 2012. Part One of these sessions won this year's Grammy for best World Music album (beating out his daughter Anoushka's latest), but Anoushka was there at the Grammies with Nora Jones to accept this, and a Lifetime Achievement Award for their late father. They joked about his profligacy and how he had "lost his Grammy" -- literally mislaid it. So they had called the Grammy office and asked if they could get a replacement. For which one? asked the receptionist. Turned out Ravi had won more than once but didn't know it. For fans of his music every album is a winner: he was a master of improvisation and whenever you listen to his music you never hear it the same way twice. Sometimes you might think he is pulling your leg, quoting "De Camptown Races" or another tune, then he flits off like a hummingbird to another musical source of nectar. Tanmoy Bose, longtime accompanist, is on tablas and two of his devoted students, Kenji Ota and Barry Phillips, play the drone parts. Ravi is unusually vocal on here, scat-singing the rhythm, you can almost see him nodding to Bose, like "that's it!" The album seems quite short at 51 minutes, but Shankar is great for putting us into dream space. At the end he exclaims, "Oh, this was fun! Great fun!" Thanks for everything, maestro.


INTRODUCING THE AHMAD SHAM SUFI QAWWALI GROUP (INTRO118DD)

The Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group has been performing traditional Sufi music in their native Afghanistan for over 30 years, notably at Kablui, I mean, Kabuli shrines. However during the Taliban's reign their music was banned. We can only hope that once the Western powers leave, the corrupt government will not implode and return to the barbarism that has ruptured this society for centuries with their hateful misogyny and totalitarian intolerance. Nothing could be more mellow than Sufi music and this selection of 8 tunes is a delight throughout. Rough Guide has this odd way of putting out these excellent INTRO CDs which get forgotten, but then a year later they put out a lame compilation and revive the INTRO or Riverboat disc as a bonus. They do this repeatedly, so if you forget to buy this when it comes out digitally in a few weeks (I guess they have to generate the electricity for the downloads first?), it will almost certainly reappear as the bonus disc on the Rough Guide to Mellow Muslims or something similar in the next year. If you are a fan of Nusrat you will want to check this out. I still listen to Ol Nusrat regularly since his was one of the greatest voices of the last century, but there is certainly room for more Sufi singers. The vocals (and instrumental tracks) are backed by harmonium, flute, tablas, tampura, and tambourine.

RAVI SHANKAR
THE LIVING ROOM SESSIONS PART 1 (East Meet West Music Inc)

Last time we checked in on Ravi (see my review of the CD Nine Decades vol II) he was a relatively young man playing to a crowd of hip and happening people at at a party in LA. It was the '60s and he was zapping his fans with lightning riffs. The 17-beat cycle was so fast he explained that he counted it at half speed, which made "8 and a half -- or Fellini!" Now he is a mellow 92 years old and has moved south to Encinitas, California, nearer the warmth of Mexico. There are four tracks on here. Though they are each called "Raga" none of them notably has the movements which make them like symphonic variations -- Allegro, Largo and so on -- or alap, jor, as he usually explains. Here he is chilling with his old pal Tanmoy Bose on tabla and the mood is tranquil and reflective. Great news for fans of Indian classical music that he is still recording brilliant improvisations.

DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA
LIVE IN CALCUTTA (Riverboat TUGDD1062)

Last year I reviewed the Rough Guide to India, which came with a bonus CD, Debashish Bhattacharya's Live in Calcutta. If you didn't buy that Rough Guide you may still want to grab the download-only bonus disc, as a fine example of Calcutta slide guitar. Guitar? you ask incredulously. What's a guitar doing in Indian music with all those sitars and veenas and other incredible instruments? Well, Debashish built his own and it has more strings (I guess some of them are sympathetic or resonating strings) that make it sound more like a sitar. He has three generations of home-made instruments and here plays two of them, the chaturangui and anandi. I liked his first two albums and while this doesn't break new ground, it's a great set and perfect for easy listening when you are unwinding or working on something but want a musical continuo in the background. The fact that it's live adds to the flow of the music, there's tablas and obviously no overdubs but just a great upwelling of spirited music. It starts calmly, builds to a crescendo then winds down again, before a blazing outtro. (See also my review of him in concert, in the India LIVE section.)


ANOUSHKA SHANKAR
TRAVELLER (Deutsche Grammophon)

Anoushka is only 30 years old and already has 6 award-winning albums under her dupatta. While I enjoy her classical Indian music I don't mind her forays into other genres, like the "buleria" on her last album. Her third album Live at Carnegie Hall is a gem, and was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. Her half-sister Norah Jones also received a nomination the same year. Her newest album, Traveller, tangles with flamenco. There's plenty Indian about it as she takes over every track with her lightning riffs of fire. (I thought of the time I saw the electrifying Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973 and realised Anoushka wasn't even born then!) It's well-known that the gypsies came from Rajasthan and travelled throughout Europe & North Africa before a large contingent settled in Spain, so it seemed natural to make the bridge between Indian and Spanish music. The Spaniards bring guitars, vocal and percussion, while the Indians on the set have shehnai, violin, tanpura and percussion to back up Ms Shankar. She even makes the traditional tortured flamenco vocal style palatable. The lutenous tones of the Spanish guitar have a church-like formality to them, solemn and spiritual, while to me the opening glissando of the sitar always conjurs up altered consciousness. I guess it comes from the use of the sitar in the 60s as a cypher for LSD, but I also remember the wonderfully apt soundtrack to Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland which was performed by Ravi Shankar, improvised to a playback of the film (there's a featurette on the DVD about this). When the Spaniards set up their hypnotic beat, it's a great go-ahead opportunity for Anoushka to jam; on the slow numbers she is lyrical. If the import price puts you off, the disc will come out domestically in the US in Spring 2012. (See also my review of Anoushka in concert, in the India LIVE section.)


SUFIS AT THE CINEMA
50 YEARS OF BOLLYWOOD QAWWALI & SUFI SONG 1958-2007 (Saregama/Times Square in US)

Since Bollywood is all about fantasy it's no surprise their take on Sufi music is a bit romanticized. In 25 tracks drawn from films made between 1958 and 2007, we get a leisurely tour of one of the nicest aspects of the Hindi film experience: Muslim religious songs presented as audio confections (& visual too if you track down the films they are taken from). Since the Sufis often wrote poetry about wine and women it's no problem to associate them with excess. I've known people who got lost looking for enlightenment through alcohol, but Bollywood uses the drunk mystic as a cheap way of indicating the altered state of Sufis while having fun at the expense of their straight-laced uptight neighbours in Pakistan. But in noticeably secular Bollywood the Sufis are happy drunks, improvising poetry and not embarrassed to be surrounded by scantily attired babes. This two-disc set was compiled by Iain Scott & Najma Merchant. The first disc starts off calmly, but track three, Lata Mangeshkar singing "Teri mehfil mein kismat Azmakar" from the 1960 masterpiece Mughal-e-Azam, lifts it up a notch, with her great voice and lush orchestration. That film sums up the whole Sufi in Bollywood mystique: the settings and music are accurate but the content only has a vague relationship to Sufism as two courtesans trade lyrics trying to win the favours of a prince. It's one of my favourite films though I have by no means seen all the films in this compilation, but it gives me things to look forward to. Manna Dey's 7-minute work-out on "Yeh Ishq Ishq" is more like what we imagine Sufi singing to be like: a poor poet trying to win a qawwali contest by putting his heart and soul into the performance in a stirring song about the divine power of love.

Mohammed Rafi dominates the first disc, though often in duets. Disc two is home to the greatest "real" qawwali singer of all: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There's no acting when he launches into "Haq Ali" and within seconds is tearing the celestial fabric from the heavens and brandishing its light blue banner. It's always exciting to hear Nusrat in flight and hard to believe there's only harmonium and handclaps accompanying him. Another Pakistani, Reshma, sings the heavy-hitting "Lambi Judai," a moody song by Pyarelal and Bakshi from the 1983 action film Hero starring Jackie Shroff. The sighing ocean is wonderful. Two selections from the film Pinjar spotlight the Wadali Brothers: lesser-known than the Sabri Brothers or Nusrat, this was their first foray into soundtrack music. The arrangements are lush and foreboding with a hint of ersatz mysticism in them. A perfect mood-setter. There's another fine "Ishq" song from Jagjit Singh, with a tearful shehnai solo, and a lyrical pair by Nusrat's nephew Rahat, showing him to be up to wearing the mantle of his legendary uncle. The sequence is great: the last cut "Moula Mere Moula" by Roop Kumar Rathod from 2007's Anwar, in which a Muslim boy falls for a Hindu girl, is also haunting and stays with you after the disc has ended.


RAVI SHANKAR
NINE DECADES VOL 1 1967-8 (East meets West Music EMWM1000)

Ravi Shankar started his own label for an obvious reason. Since he has been recording for over 60 years many of his old recordings are in the public domain and have been reprocessed, repackaged and remarketed in various ways, mostly without his input. The worst cases sell his music as "generic 'new age' potions"! To try to assert some control & re-establish that what he plays is traditional, classical Indian music, Shankar is issuing a personal series of his favorite recordings. This first disc in the series is devoted to the 48-minute Raga Gangeshwari, recording with one mike on the banks of the Ganges, and featuring Alla Rakha on tablas. This was during the filming of "Raga" and was performed spontaneously in a temple near Allahabad. There are a few drop-outs and the recording is not optimal quality, but the music is fierce and shows the master in fine form. Gangeshwari is the first part of a trilogy of ragas called Raga Parameshwari that Shankar composed in the sixties. This beautiful work is all we really need from the disc. For then there is a pointless 12-minute interview with various westerners at a concert commenting on their impressions of the music, and a coda that is a 4-minute piece of religious singing by the Allahabad temple priests tacked on. It's easy enough to mute these last two, but it's an odd choice for the first disc in a new catalogue that could restore Shankar's greatest works to us in a logical fashion.


ASHA BHOSLE & SHUJAAT KHAN
NAINA LAGAIKE (Saregama/Four Quarters in US)

After the mild disappointment of Asha's concert in Oakland on the first of October 2011 (fun to see live; but not a great performance), I was relieved to see she has not lost her voice when I got her new album, Naina Lagaike. Her performance at the SF Jazz Festival was supposed to promote this new album, but the composer and co-singer Shujaat Khan didn't show and the band didn't know the material, so instead of the evening of classical music promised, it was a retrospective of some of her Bollywood hits. Asha recorded many duets with Mohammed Rafi back in her heyday but unfortunately early Indian music suffers from poor recording. Nowadays, with better recording, you can hear the nuances of the tabla clearly over the string section. That driving tabla beat from Amit Choubey keeps this whole effort afloat and I have been playing this disc daily for a month now, enjoying the instrumentation as much as the singing. Shujaat Khan (the son of classical musician Ustad Vilayat Khan) who wrote the melodies and played the sitar on the recordings has a warm baritone voice which perfectly complements the crystal aetheriality of Asha's flute-like alto soprano. It's 14 years or more since Asha last recorded in the classical mode (when she cut Legacy with Ali Akhbar Khan) and that's a shame because her voice and delivery are perfectly suited to these meditative modes; here the interaction with Shujaat is superb. In fact Asha gets co-writing credits on many of the songs for adding interpretation and improvisation to the final performance. I believe the lyrics contain traditional Urdu poetry (as well as Hindi verses). In addition to the sitar, there's bansuri (flute), acoustic guitar, dholak and a string section. The opening title cut is reprised once as a solo by Asha and finally as a solo by Shujaat. Beautifully sequenced and arranged, this is gorgeous music from start to finish.

RAVI SHANKAR
NINE DECADES VOL II: REMINISCENCE OF NORTH VISTA (East Meets West EMWM1004)

Imagine for a moment you were the hippest, coolest person in 1968 or 9. Where would you be hanging out? I'd probably be a bobo like Peter Sellers in The Party. Maybe you would be one of the others there: Terence Stamp, Marlon Brando, or a Beatle, chilling in Hollywood with the biggest international pop star on the planet: Ravi Shankar. So it was a week after Woodstock, Ravi Shankar and his accompanist Alla Rakha sat down at home in Hollywood with a few friends (Beatles and actors) hanging out, and played two evening ragas. They are more relaxed and better recorded than the big festival numbers that brought him fame. In fact these may arguably be his best recordings from the late 60s. Fabulous.

VOL III: ORCHESTRAL EXPERIMENTATIONS (East Meets West EMWM1005)

You often read of revolutionary changes in government, when poets become ministers or artists ambassadors. Well, in 1949 when India attained independence from Great Britain, Ravi Shankar was put in charge of All India Radio in Delhi and immediately created a symphony orchestra with musicians and virtuosi from North and South India. His background was in Hindustani classical music but he was also well-versed in Western classical music, having already toured the world as a performer. Though he was unfamiliar with Carnatic music its rhythmic complexity appealed to him. For five years he directed the Vadya Vrind Chamber Orchestra and wrote and arranged music for regular radio broadcast. This sounds really daunting but he is so talented an improviser that Shankar was able to compose and arrange music on the spot, and then quickly teach it to his assembled cast of talents. Chaturlal was a young tabla player who Shankar trained and he accompanied the master for many years. The orchestra comprised sitar, sarod, flute, violin, the haunting, bowed esraj, kasht tarang, nadeswar, swarmndal, dholak and nakara from the North, and from South India, the veena, clarinet, violin, flute, mridangam, and ganjira. The orchestra played live with a few microphones dangling above them, in the studio, so the sound is a bit thin, reminiscent in fact of early black and white Bollywood film soundtracks, but almost all the musicians get to solo at some point so you can hear them work out. Nine selections, taken from air checks, are gathered here. If you need a reference, this is the period right before Shankar performed the soundtracks to Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and the 1957 version of Kabuliwalla, so there is some of that cinematic drama & mystery present.


ROUGH GUIDE TO SUFI (RGNET1262DD)

It was not hard to break Sufi music to bigger audiences in India. Renowned for its secular tolerance (for the most part) the subcontinent readily embraced Sufi singing in Bollywood, its main form of entertainment, from the early days. The Pakistanis were less flexible and frowned on Muslims who "sold out" to the movies; the Taliban is so opposed to the blissed-out Sufis they regularly dynamite important shrines killing many fellow Muslims in their blind rage. But despite the unbending political aspect of extremist Islam, almost everyone else is ready to bask in the glorious music of their ecstatic spiritual fringe. The basic tenet of Sufism is entheogenesis, or that God is within each of is. Although I am not religious in any formal way, I can dig that. I especially like their idea that the best way to proselytize is through poetry set to music. The compiler of this Rough Guide is travel writer & journalist William Dalrymple, who previously cropped up narrating Simon Broughton's excellent documentary SUFI SOUL (2005). Dalrymple has written extensively about India and Pakistan. His Age of Kali is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of the subcontinent, while Nine Lives is a quest for the continuing spiritual traditions of modern India. Dalrymple has lived in Delhi for the past 25 years so has become a true adept. His taste in Sufi music is pretty right on, also. Tucked into the playlist are Gaudi and Nusrat, Cheikh Lo (from the classic album Bambay gueej), and Transglobal Underground to make you feel at home. But the other tracks, while new to my ears, are far from alien. Moudou Gaye, from Senegal, turns in a moody "Sindidi" with simple backing on acoustic bass and guitar. Alif Allah, Jugni, Arif Lohar and Meesha, who record at Coke Studios are represented with their smash hit, "Booty" which you can watch on Youtube (Pardon my abridgment of the title!). A couple of well-known ditties, "Allah Hoo," and "Ali Mullah," are rendered in unusual versions by Sain Zahoor and Transglobal Underground -- the latter a really memorable take featuring Natacha Atlas and Musafir. The first disc ends with Cheb i Sabbah and a praise song from La Kahena, featuring Moroccan women invoking the prophet's mother. While we may associate religious music with monotony or etherealness (such as Gyuto or Benedictine chants) this is lively and interesting with a fair dash of the Bollywood filmi sheen to it. The bonus disc, which has never been released outside India, is by a bunch of fakirs from Bengal. It's more traditional and has none of the polish of the Gaudi, Transglobal, or Cheb i tracks from disc one. Nevertheless it is also lovely, floating by on drums, flutes, a one-string instrument, and vocals.


JAYANTHI KUMARESH
MYSTERIOUS DUALITY (EarthSync ES0038)

This is a set of four roughly ten-minute-long pieces written for the veena, an Indian stringed instrument. There are four strings and three resonating strings, I gather, from looking at pictures of the instrument. What makes this interesting is the complexity wrought by multi-tracking. Dr Kumaresh has recorded seven performances for each track, and overlays bits and pieces to build up a symphonic suite, a bit like Electric Ladyland but more laid back. While she works in the Carnatic tradition I felt there were other influences at work, especially in the song with the running bass strings which I thought meant she had got some ECM jazz bassist to sit in! But no, Dr Kumaresh is a versatile talent and has taken this neglected instrument and brought it to centre stage.


TARUN NAYAR
22° OF BEATITUDE (Chaiwalla's Boombox CWBB02)

Tarun Nayar is a Vancouver-based DJ and now sets forth to do what Cheb i Sabbah and Gaudi have done before him: reinterpret traditional South Asian music for a groove-oriented audience. He is also part of a group called Delhi 2 Dublin which adds Celtic instruments to Indian disco but that is a stretch too far for my brain to grasp. This 22° view, however, is very good and puts the Indian instruments at the forefront with a dash of electronica to give it some boom and make you tap your feet. The album is the soundtrack to a trippy ramble through Asia and flows well from mood to mood. In his travels with a tapedeck, Nayar has also made it to Bhutan and Tokyo so the range is broadened outside the Subcontinent (though I can happily skip the Kyoto singing). One of Nayar's recent projects has been the soundtrack to a documentary about Mumbai's red-light district so he knows how to set a scene musically and when to add some oomph. His samples are all sounds he generated himself so it's a fresh palette and not the usual well-worn snippets of groove we recognize on other DJ efforts. In the middle of the album there's a track called "Innocence" which has a woman "rapping" in English. I suppose it's a Laurie Anderson-type thing but it really is putrid. I have unchecked it in iTunes so I don't have to hear it again: one of the beauties of modern technology. The concept of "Mamaji," which also features talking, is a borrowed from Gaudi's opener but it doesn't diminish the excellence of this effort. 22 Degrees doesn't sustain the intensity of Sabbah's Devotion or Gaudi's Dub Qawwali, but then those are the Himalayas of the genre.


NAGORE SESSIONS (EarthSync)

Another cross-cultural fusion. This time we find three Sufi singers from the Bay of Bengal on the southeast tip of India in full voice. Underneath their vocals we have the bowed fiddle-like sarangi, Tibetan horns and middle-eastern frame drums (not an outlandish grouping). The producers originally worked on the Laya Project then decided to go further with their winning formula. The electric bass and synthesizers add a Western structure that even verges on Led Zep's "Kashmir" in the opening cut "Bagdad Guru." Next up a flute augments the singing (in Tamil and Arabic dialects but still distinctly Indian) on "The Saint." There seem to be several offshoots of the Laya Project coming out all at once, this one is coherent & has really fine singing at the core. Patrick Sebag is the presiding guru on keyboards and programming. He does a fine job blending ancient Sufi singing with a modern framework to make it appeal to a new generation.


ROUGH GUIDE TO BHANGRA (World Music Network RGNET1202)

The new Rough Guide to Bhangra is another remake. I am assuming the 2000 Rough Guide to Bhangra is out of print. Still, there is going to be confusion when people look for this and get that. Plus there is also their "Bhangra Dance" compilation. They call this one the "new edition" & it bodes well: they can revisit all of their compilations and perfect each of them. The old one had Malkit Singh, Nusrat and of course "Mundian to bach ke" by Panjabi MC. He returns (with a "Boliyan"), but Malkit Singh -- and Bally Sagoo -- are as dust, though they were huge a decade ago. Yes, Bhangra is ephemeral music, like all pop, but it does renew itself and become fresh to our ears, unlike Rock & Roll or mainstream pop. The Duchess & I sampled the top ten on iTunes (audio only) and there was not an original ditty among them all. It wasn't all Beatles or Madonna or Michael Jackson imitations but there was nothing distinguished or unique about any of it. Pity the youth of today. I bet Decca or Fontana could reissue the Searchers or the Swinging Blue Jeans (with the appropriate spotty youth lipsynching video) & top all the charts. So we turn to the land of the five rivers which spans Western India, Eastern Pakistan and Bradford, Yorkshire. And I guess the river Clyde is one of the rivers, since the Glaswegian group Tigerstyle is here too. The "typical" Bhangra sound in 8/8 time, with fast drumming and jerky tumbi accompaniment (which we associate with wedding dancers thrusting their arms in the air while pogoing on one leg and generally being idiotic), doesn't turn up until Dalvinder Singh's "Yaar da viah" which was a hit in 2007. Achanak who is another survivor of the purges of time gets a whole second disc to himself. What this release signals is that Bhangra was not a fad a decade ago and it has evolved and continues to produce new and interesting artists.


ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF INDIA (World Music Network RGNET1231)

This is a superb compilation, & definitely one to seek out. The featured disc has a wide range of talents from classical (Ravi of course) to pop with a double dip of Bollywood. The album opens with Asha Bhosle and closes with her sister Lata Mangeshkar. After a jazz outing "O, River" we finally get our toes in the Ganges with "Saravanabhava" by Aruna Sairam on warbly vocals with table and sitar accompaniment. The mood is mellow, but there are individual tracks that don't stand up on their own, like Seeta Doraiswamy's "Vatapi Ganapatim," which is a jolly clashing and bashing of bells (ringing water bowls actually) like a convention of ice cream trucks on a hot day: it's far too bright and brittle and goes on for five minutes, which is four and a half minutes too long (normally those guys never slow down long enough for you to actually get your money and get out there to buy a Mivvi.). But then we dip into the depths of India's soul with the incomparable Ravi Shankar and a raving jam called "Megh (Cloud)," which speaks of monsoons in a tempest of plucked notes that compress hours of thunder and downpour into a brief six minutes. We race to Chennai for the Karnatic sounds of T.H. Subashchandran on jew's harp and thence to the Northern deserts of Rajasthan for Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and his modified guitar, the Mohan veena, on an outstanding turn: a 16th-century Bhajan that combines Islamic praise singing with Hindu folk rhythms. This is a glorious centrepiece for the album. We stick with Sufism when the Wadali brothers show up for some Punjabi qawwals. This is all choice stuff: prime rib of the sacred Sufi cow. Another Punjabi, a snake charmer such as you might meet along the Grand Trunk Road playing for change, pops up next with his bagpipe-like skirl. A Kashmiri folk zither, the santoor, is plucked by Shivkumar Sharma while Zakir Hussain slaps his tablas, on a late night improvised raga. Tamil violinist L. Subramaniam is up next, accompanied by a double-headed drum, the mridangam, from the Karnatic camp. After a slow start the album attains a high peak and keeps hitting you with great selections. It's a whirlwind tour and ends too soon with another filmi sangeet involving more snakes, "Man dole mera tan dole," by Lata and Hemant Kumar. This is not your average Bollywood pick to click, it's an obscure gem from 1954's Nagin and is the first use of an electronic instrument in Bombay film. The clavioline was later popularised by the Tornados' "Telstar."

Rough Guide has started adding bonus discs to their comps: this can make or mar a set, and this outing comes with a Debashish Bhattacharya album that is exceedingly fine. Recorded live at an all-night concert in Calcutta, Bhattacharya plays home-made slide guitars and has sitar-like resonating strings and tabla accompaniment so you get the full-on raga mode. It's wonderful music to nod out to.


JANAKA SELEKTA
PUSHING AIR ( Chaiwalla Boombox)

This album is a sonic trip to India, down paths trodden by Cheb i Sabbah, Gaudi, Adrian Sherwood and others. Taking traditional music performed live, Selekta then adds synthesizer washes and studio dub effects to make the music more palatable to the young clubbers that constitute his audience. Like a real trip, there are high and low points. The first track is instrumental with bansuri (bamboo flute) and sarangi (Punjabi fiddle) dueting. Then we get to a song "Awake," that is very derivative of Massive Attack. It's pleasant and polished but clearly the work of a beginner. Track three "The Escapist," however, with the bansuri and sarangi again, really cuts up the rug. Selekta stays with Indian currents for another four minutes of chilling called "Reborn," then crashes into Kingston with a tribute to King Tubby that has a buried flute, but mostly plays on Channel One & Black Ark tropes. The next cut continues the side trip to Jamaica, with tabla on effects, and the dub is more promising as what sounds like a ney solos on reverb turned past 10. When the harmonium enters Selekta has successfully made the transition back to India, still floating on the reverb loop. Sukhawat Ali Khan, who sang earlier, returns for three more songs that are closer to the Gaudi-meets-Nusrat sound of Dub Qawali. The main difference is Selekta's synthesizer is more heavy-handed & it tends to overwhelm the vocals. The 11th track is a pleasant coda to the album, but then there are 4 bonus cuts. Karsh Kale's remix of "Awake" is very busy; in fact the four bonus tracks seem a bit overdone. But you be the judge, you can always edit them out.


PABAN DAS BAUL
MUSIC OF THE HONEY GATHERERS (Riverboat)

This is almost a novelty: a folkloric album that is just that. Pure, unadorned lovely music from Bengal with nary an overdub, sample or guest slide guitar player in sight! Paban das Baul saw a Sufi fakir musician singing when he was six and immediately wanted to be one. His dad, who earned a living as an itinerant wrestler and singer, indulgently bought him a dubki (tambourine), which he soon mastered. In 1979 a French film director, drawn to Bengal (probably through seeing Satyajit Roy's many exquisite films), documented some Baul musicians, including the then-teenage Paban, and released a film called "Le Chant des Fous." And so the notion arose that these musicians were crazy. I have the soundtrack album, which came out on Chant du Monde -- and so does Cheb i Sabbah, because he sampled it on one of his electronic pieces. The release of the film meant an interest in Baul music in France: Paban went to perform 2o years ago and stayed. He has previously (13 years ago) recorded for Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label, with a funk guitarist. This yielded the hit "Dil ki doya," but the synth wash and drum track have been left off this new session which is sparkling in its clarity. Music of the honey gatherers is meditative music: simple one-stringed instruments (like an ektar), a drone (like a jews-harp), tinkling bells, vocals and percussion. Clean and clear as spring water.


VANDANA VISHWAS
MEERA ... THE LOVER (VandanaVishwas.com VV001)

This is a set of traditional Indian sugam sangeet with woody flute, tablas, dholak, sitar, finger cymbals, and all sortsa cool Indian instruments. Vandana sings well, beautifully in fact, and plays the tanpura, the four-stringed thingie that inaudibly anchors the "one" in Indian music. It's dreamy and reminds me of scores of film soundtracks, especially old black and white ones (except the sound is better) with lost love, statues that come to life, and so on. It's almost as if Vandana was the second coming of Lata (who is still alive, but I guess simultaneous rebirth is possible in a land of a million gods). The advance copy was spoiled by a lame voice over, explaining the lyrics. Now if you are going to have voice-over on an Indian music CD at least hire Amitabh or an Amitubby soundalike to give it a bit of credibility. But I gather the actual release will be free of such interference. Surprisingly, to me, the album was recorded in Toronto. The diaspora strikes again. On one hand people who leave their culture behind are capable of getting profoundly into it and finding aspects that are overlooked at home (look at all the Irish dancers & bagpipe players strewn across Canada!), but on the other hand, leaving home often stops the development and turns it into a historic artifact to be polished over and over. Nevertheless this is a truly great album of traditional love songs.


KAILASH KHER
YATRA (NOMADIC SOULS) (Cumbancha CD14)

I saw this Indian woman singer called Sona Mohapatra on WorldLink TV and went to my local Bollywood emporium to buy her disc and they had never heard of her. They have thousands of CDs and DVDs for sale but it is all related to the filmi culture, either Bolly, Lolly or Tollywood. Now here's another Indian singer who is not primarily a playback artist, though he was picked by A.R. Rahman as a vocalist for the "soul" in his voice. Kailash Kher and his band Kailasa are big stars in South Asia and Cumbancha has done us the immense favour of assembling a sampler from their repertoire to get us thoroughly hooked on this singer. Oh, Kher is also a judge on "Indian Idol" -- I know I don't have to explain that to you, but let's assume they are not as ludicrous as their American counterparts. Kher comes from a folkie background (his dad was a Hindu priest who often sang folk songs), but after moving to Mumbai and singing jingles, Kher teamed up with two brothers who were the heart of a rock band called Bombay Black for a more energetic musical offering. They topped the charts with their first and second albums released in 2006 and 2007. They've remade a couple of their hits for this Cumbancha album and do other songs in unplugged versions, which means you can hear the tablas & harmonium. And in the acoustic numbers Kher's soulful voice is evident, as on the remake of "Teri Deewani" which evokes comparisons with the ne plus ultra, Nusrat. Unlike in the west where you can squeak by with a cute sample or a tricky video, in the Indian market you have to deliver & this disc is packed with brilliance.


PUTUMAYO PRESENTS INDIA (PUT 288-2)

This is a very pleasant set of contemporary Indian music. It's neither filmi not religious though it does include three songs from soundtrack albums and a couple of quasi-religious pieces. It steers a middle course so is mellow, verging on easy listening, but sometimes that's just the ticket. I saw a couple of music videos by Sona Mohapatra and thought she would start showing up on compilations like this but she is not here, however there are some old favourites like Susheela Raman and Deepak Ram, and relative newcomer Kiran Ahluwalia turns up too. Unlike Western pop stars, Indian vocalists are actually good singers, some of them really exceptional, like Swati Natekar, a traditional ghazal singer who graces Niraj Chag's song "Khwaab." Kailash Kher, a fine-voiced playback singer, fronts "Naino Sey," which is by session guitarist Sanjay Divecha. Tunes roll gently by with a dreamlike murmur, like wind or rain when you are half asleep. A.R. Rahman shows up with his hit "Tere Bina" from the film GURU. It's interesting that an outsider, like Cheb i Sabbah, gives a more telling portrait of India with his DEVOTION album than any recent anthology. The music is corny, schmaltzy even, and the devotional stuff gets a little shrill, but this Putumayo sampler weaves a pleasant flower-strewn path through contemporary sounds from the great subcontinent.


RAVI SHANKAR
VINTAGE 78 RPM RECORDS (Saregama)

When I listen to Ravi Shankar I picture Shiva, the many-armed Hindu God, playing. I wonder if this visual effect was created by altered consciousness (drugs or starvation) when the original artist saw the blur of quickly moving arms of a dancer but their brain registered the trail as many arms. The same thought occurred to me on viewing Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" in Philadelphia, which was painted some years after Edweard Muybridge's stop-motion photographs. However the impression on listening to Shankar is of someone with superhuman agility in their fingers and the sense that there is more than one pair of hands at work, not just the sympathetic resonating strings. It seems like a lead, rhythm and bass all going simultaneously on one instrument (Well, there is the tampura but you don't usually hear it). It's mind-altering but not in the corny psychedelic way usually associated with Shankar as father of world music, inspirer of George Harrison and everyone else from Brian Jones to Traffic to the other British bands who tried on pop sitar licks. The open-string strum that introduces many pieces is like a door to a part of your brain that is all endorphin without strenuous exercise or excitement. That part of your body that creates its own pleasurable morphine, somewhere like the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus (I think of the hypothalamus as grunting contentedly in the mud at the bottom of a lake). You might argue that it's the monotony: that the droning quality of the half-hour long ragas induces a sense of stupor, but this disc proves the opposite. Yes, it's great to bask in a long dream-like raga that is attuned to the time of day but here we are confronted with the fact that Shankar's career predates the long-playing record by decades. Saregama has assembled 18 3-minute tracks that were issued as sides of 78 rpm shellac discs between 1948 and 1956. It is phenomenal. Shankar knew that he (& long-time accompanist Pandit Chaturlal on tablas) had to take it to the top, hit it and quit, all the while with an eye on the egg timer. Ali Akbar Khan pops in with his sarod on a couple of numbers. But it doesn't seem strained, forced, truncated, or frantic. In fact it sounds as relaxed as his longer albums that contain only two or three tracks. Here is the genius at work. I argue that this disc is as great as any piece of classical music produced in the twentieth century, even though it is an agglomeration of disparate pieces. It holds together as much as any suite by Debussy, Webern, Ellington or anyone you care to name. The Duchess bought it, seduced by the package, which promises more than it contains. In fact it is just a CD in a huge cardboard box with a fake record grommeted to the front and a lot of air inside. But as Horace has it, there is an air of hidden riches, and it is in the music. Now I am tempted to get the First LP Record also put out in a fancy package by Saregama. If it is anything like this, I will be playing it in heavy rotation for a long time to come.


THE GYUTO MONKS TANTRIC CHOIR
TIBETAN CHANTS FOR WORLD PEACE (White Swan WS0086)

There is some music that is satisfying but you only need to hear it once, or every decade or so. It stays in your mind so you can "hear" it without putting on the disc. The gravelly throaty sound of the Tibetan monks is one of those (& is akin to didjeridoo or Tuvan throat singing). In fact this disc sounds a lot like the Tibetan chant album that came out on Folkways (I think) in the 60s, but still I enjoyed it and have listened to it a few times. Let me explain. There is also music you put on to send people home when the party's over but they are too inebriated to get the hint. Or when the neighbours are making a din. The Duchess has obnoxious neighbours who listen to crappy music. I don't know what it is, maybe white rap music, but all you can hear is the rhythm track which sounds like the boom-chaka button on an Electrovox or Hohner organ from the 60s. So call in the monks & crank it up, dude. Indeed this is not relaxing music that your masseuse would put on to lull you, it's Looking into the pit of Hell stuff. Zen is mentally engaging, so I like Buddhism, though I think all religion is superstition, & as Emile Zola said "Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest." Tibetan Buddhism is the Catholicism of Eastern religion, full of ritual and ceremony, though the Dali Lama is a lot hipper than that stiff in the Vatican. And you have to sympathize with their situation. I don't know how this is going to effect world peace but anything is worth a shot. The monks on here were multi-tracked by Mickey Hart to fatten the sound. They play bells and there's a drum or two and some really dull cymbals which they seem to keep dropping and which roll about in a big empty hall. Every now and then the monks stop their chants and you hear the cymbal wallah picking up the dozens of scattered cymbals, dropping them as he does (because he is bowing and walking backwards), and leaving the room (that's what I picture). It's also cold up there in Dharamsala so I imagine you can see their breath. The music paints a great picture, so let it take you on a little trip.


DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA
CALCUTTA CHRONICLES: INDIAN SLIDE GUITAR ODYSSEY (Riverboat TUGCD1049)

This is the second Riverboat release for Bhattacharya, a Bengali slide guitar player who has earned the sobriquet "Pandit". His 2007 album won a BBC Radio Three Award for World Music. While this doesn't progress beyond the first one musically, it is a great mood setter. It's just slide guitar and tablas, performing a set of ragas which you soon forget are guitar-driven. Not that is sounds like a sitar, but Bhattacharya added sympathetic resonating strings to his three home-made guitars and it enhances the sound considerably. It's nothing like Hawaiian slack-key from which it sprang: the mood he creates is very much the out-of-mind trance-inducing flow which I find helps me work. Bhattacharya has taken some old tunes from a wide range of sources, including Rajasthani gypsy and Sufi repertoires and a variety of string instruments and trips out. His brother, it looks like, is the accomplished tabla player. There are nine cuts about 7 minutes long each and they flow together into a great musical tide to lift your spirits.


CHEB I SABBAH
DEVOTION (Six Degrees bar code 657036 1142-2)

When I got back from India I was craving two things: a steak and a glass of California red wine. Afterwards I didn't feel so good: my stomach was not up to the sudden influx of rich fatty food and while I believe we should eat cows, not worship them, I know I would be healthier if I abstained. I also did not want to hear any more Indian music for a while, but there was an advance copy of Cheb i Sabbah's new disc DEVOTION waiting for me and I immediately put it on. Of course the first thought is to compare it to Gaudi's recent DUB QAWWALI remix of Nusrat, but that is unfair. Nusrat is unparalleled in the history of recorded music and Gaudi created a traditional dub album to accompany his Sufi devotional singing. Chebiji does include Sufi music on here but the main sound is Hindi. The sexagenarian Algerian Sabbah made recordings in India of Hindu religious singing and added layers of sound in his urbane way. This is his seventh album and Cheb i really has become the master mixologist & orchestrator. As a result, DEVOTION is stunning.

Cheb i Sabbah used to be a concert promoter (he booked Nusrat's first American tour, brought Khaled, Cheba Zahouania, a wild sold-out show of Khaled & Hakim, etc) and deejay (KPFA radio & Nikki's BBQ, a club on Haight Street in SF), though he was a cut above and would often synch a North African drumming track with a West African song to give it more oomph, so it was inevitable he would start making his own albums from scratch. I got to know him when we worked together at Round World Music in the 90s but I may have encountered him in the 60s, because he was part of the legendary Living Theater company of Julian Beck. I remember in 1968 they staged Frankenstein at the Roundhouse in London and I was terrified when they started dragging people out of the audience to be included in some weird experiment that was happening on stage. Theatre is in his blood but Cheb i Sabbah has successfully found a niche combining electronica with folk music that appeals to a wide spectrum of listeners. The top song in India this year (according to a Desi poll) was "Dhoom machaday dhoom," an awful piece of filmi pap, sung in English. I think the Indians are ready for an Algerian to re-educate them about what's good about their music.

Like its predecessors, SHRI DURGA and MAHA MAYA, DEVOTION sets a mood and with trancelike insistence takes you on a little musical journey for an hour. Yes, he hits the tourist spots of Goa and Mumbai, but Chebiji also plunges into the madness of the Kumbh Mela in Allahbad with 70 million other devotees, disguised as a naked sadhu. Nusrat appears, in spirit, on "Kinna sonna," sung by Master Saleem and "Qalanderi" sung by Pakistani Riffat Sultana, which goes out with a hint of "Chole ki peeche." Crumbling dub of the first order comes riding in on monster bass on "Haun vaari haun varaney." At ten minutes long it seems incessant, and with loads of reverb and mystery it has what can only be described as an opiated aura. There's a fake-out ending and "slight return." The album builds in strength till the spiritual transcendence of "Aaye Bhairav Bholsanath," and its mantra-like lyrics sung by Anoop Jalota. After this we drop down to Varanasi for a little ritual cleansing: some temple bells, ambient sounds and a bit of decompression from our aural trip to Mother India. Not something you would relax to and probably only endure if you were in a Hindu temple with the incense & accompanying visual stimulation, but in the context of DEVOTION it is the perfect coda.


BISMILLAH KHAN
THE SHENNAI'S HUMBLE MASTER (Saregama CDNFC150712-3)

Prepare yourself for a musical odyssey. This double-CD set is part of a new venture from Saregama, called "Introducing the Masters." On this outing they introduce the greatest performer on the Indian oboe, the shennai, a plaintive moody reed instrument that alternates between an angry mosquito and a lover's wail. At that fateful midnight hour in 1947 when the British flag was lowered for the last time & Gandhi-ji's spinning wheel flag was raised over the Red Fort in Delhi, it was Khan's musical voice that declared independence. He had brought the humble instruments from the folk realm of weddings and temples to Indian classical music. Fittingly, he performs ragas on the first disc with tabla accompaniment. But neophytes should start with disc two, the songs from films that he played. They are entirely entrancing, each song twenty to thirty minutes long, but accompanied by violin or the susurration of insects in the night air.


JNAN PRAKASH GHOSH
DRUMS OF INDIA (Saregama CDNFD150708-9)

This reissue pairs two drum albums from 1968 and 1979. 1968, you will recall was a big year for stereo sound and so record labels were eager to show off the separation of two musical channels so listeners could get "inside" the music. The engineers were more concerned with the success of the sound so the musicians actually had free rein to play anything they liked. The result is a really great set of drumming. The second disc is more of the same and that's it. I thought perhaps they were aiming at a modern clientele who would want to sample the tracks for reuse in experimental music, but actually the discs work well, though mainly as background music. The kind of thing you put on when you want to read or create art and don't want to be distracted by blinding guitar solos and singing. Not to say the music is not worth listening to as an aural experience. It explains many different styles of Indian music, and on that account is useful as an educational tool. Best of all it will not damage your monaural equipment.


GAUDI + NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN
DUB QAWWALI (Six Degrees 657036 1137-2)

Posthumous collaborations are generally weird. Remember the attempts to make Bob Marley sound like a dancehall artist by adding syndrums to his final demo tapes? Or how about Natalie Cole singing along with the great Nat? Lisa Marie Presley and her very dead dad? Spare us. But Nusrat is different. First of all he embraced the young musicians who wanted to sample his voice &, other than embarrassment at Eddie Vedder's use of his vocals in "Dead man walking," he was generally cool with the concept. Bally Sagoo did a whole album of Nusrat remixes called MAGIC TOUCH that was pretty worthless. It had elements of jazz, vaudeville, tv theme music, but no semblance of anything familiar to Nusrat, like instruments from the Indian subcontinent. A breakthrough moment came with Massive Attack's remix of "Musst Musst" on the RealWorld album of that name which became a club favourite. Now a London-based, Italian mix-artist called Gaudi has done a whole album of Nusrat and done him proud. Nusrat has a phonemenal voice, certainly up there with Enrico Caruso and John McCormack as one of the greatest tenors of the era of recorded music. You can count on him to always be in tune; no matter how far out he goes, he has the key in his pocket. That's a plus. Gaudi has added a reggae feel to most of the ten tracks and plays the bass himself, in a fine rootical Flabba-Holt style.

The secret ingredient here is the other genius on the set, this time a living one: Style Scott, drummer for the Roots Radics, Creation Rebel, and founder of Dub Syndicate. He worked with Adrian Sherwood at On-U Sound in London when he came on tour with Prince Far I in the 70s.

Now on the tenth anniversary of Nusrat's death, Gaudi has taken on the master of Sufi spiritualism, which is not too far from the "peace, love & unity" message of reggae. There is such solidity and consistency to this set you would swear the tunes had been written with Nusrat actively collaborating, but the answer is Gaudi's method: he was approached by Nusrat's label, Rehmat Gramophone, and asked if he might like to remix a cut for an album they were planning for the tenth anniversary of Nusrat's death. The label was so pleased with the result they offered Gaudi unreleased tapes from the 70s. He spent a year listening to them, understanding the melodic structures and presumably thinking of where he could drop in some thundering dub in counterpoint to a slow passage, or coast out on a Stepper rhythm. Then he carefully removed most of the harmonium and handclaps from the original and started laying in synth, bass and drums. Style Scott was recorded at Channel One in Jamaica. There's a real string section and, as an added bonus, there are a few Asian instruments -- tabla, sarang, bamboo flute -- added to keep it rooted in the Sufi camp. "Dil da rog muka ja mahi" has a weird little synth riff from Kraftwerk, but it works, maybe because it too dates from the 70s when Nusrat was still unknown outside Pakistan. Indeed the overall warm sound of this album can be traced back forty years, because Gaudi used Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, Fender Rhodes, and analog equipment including tape-loop reverb & echo units, tube amps, etc, that recall the sound of King Tubby, Lee Perry and other dub pioneers. This is Gaudi's twelfth album and Nusrat's 151st. It's stellar.


MAHWASH
GHAZALS AFGHANS (Accords Croisés AC118)

Subtitled "Secular and sacred poems of love," this is a delightful collection of classical music from Afghanistan. Of course the recent tragic history of that country is well-known to everyone. The Taliban are like moles: the more you whack 'em the quicker they pop up elsewhere. Mahwash, who rose to fame with the Radio Kabul Ensemble in the 1960s, quit her homeland for California. She was awarded the title of Ustad (Master) in 1997. The ghazal is a sung Sufi love poem: the sublime expression of Indo-Muslim culture, where Persian poetry meets the music of South Asia. The vocabulary is highly symbolic and relates either to Divine love (Haqiqi) or Human love (Majazi). But it is also ambiguous, there is no gender specified as the terms slip from sacred to profane and back again, and the lover could be either god or a human in many of the songs, which are delivered in metaphors of the "moth and the flame" variety. Musically you hear the oriental Maqam structure as it merges with the Raga form. As Afghanistan is bordered by Iran on the one hand (and uses Persian rather than Urdu lyrics) and Pakistan on the other (from where it borrows musical instruments), it is the perfect meeting place for the two cultures. Like her previous album RADIO KABOUL, this CD comes in a handsome case-bound package with a full-colour bilingual booklet bound in. The musicians include Ghalil Gudaz who plays sitar, harmonium, lute, sarod and rubab, and does the arrangements, and two Franco-Indians: Edouard Prabhu on tablas, and Henri Tournier on deep bansuri flute.


FAIZ ALI FAIZ
L'AMOUR DE TOI ME FAIT DANSER ( Accords Croises AC106)

I was at a party in Berkeley recently -- some genteel folks sitting around talking poetry and art while eating and drinking. As there was a piano I started playing (just bachground stuff: Satie, Chopin, Yellen-Ager, fake Debussy). When I took a break to eat, the host, to encourage me, put on "Music Minus One" an old jazz album arranged by Herbie Nichols that had all the parts except the piano. I wasn't tempted, or drunk enough, to jump in. You can create a framework for great music and allow it to happen but there has to be more spirit than competence for sparks to fly. When an artist dies their music rarely goes on without them. Witness the staggering stumbling fall of bands like the Stones or the Who who persisted, blundering on into inanity, despite losing key members. Franco had a 30-piece band and when you see videos of TPOK Jazz in concert a lot happens without him doing much, but when he died the sound expired with him. When Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died his anointed successor had already been primed to step into the oversize slippers. The Qawwali sound rolls on with the chosen one, Faiz Ali Faiz, who faces his toughest challenge: a whole set of songs associated with Nusrat. The result is amazing. The music has not changed but Faiz assumes control with real authority. Most songs come from the traditional repertoire of Sufi poetry where a phrase or even one word is repeated over and over as intoxication takes over. Some songs last all night. The longest cut on here is the sing-along "Ali Mullah" which lasts for 25 minutes of blissed trance. The title is actually "Haq Ali" which means "Ali's truth" and refers to the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad who was assassinated for his radical beliefs. Nusrat's great cross-over hit "Musst musst qalander" also used this text. Faiz A. Faiz (another BBC Radio 3 World Music nominee this year) doesn't try the falsetto shriek with which Nusrat could shatter glass, but he does get out there in the stratosphere. It's captured live, which adds to the immediacy.

When I worked at Round World Music in San Francisco in the early 90s, people would ask, "What's a good Nusrat album?" And I would tell them: "Live in Islamabad, volume 103." They thought I was kidding, especially when I told them we didn't stock it, because you could go round the corner to an Indian grocery store and buy it on cassette for $4. Any live Nusrat is good, if the selection includes "Allah Hoo," it's great. There are of course other Sufi singers, other Qawwali bands, but this offering from Faiz Ali Faiz goes straight to the heart.


KOHINOOR LANGA GROUP
MUSIC FROM THE DESERT NOMADS (World Network 58.396)

You know how music can get under your skin. Well for the last two years, since we got back from Rajasthan, the Duchess has been playing this CD ritually every Saturday morning. Though it's music from the Thar desert, there's a shot of Lake Pichola on the cover and the view of the hotel across the water we could see from our hotel room in Udaipur. That hotel was lit up every night by bright flood lights (& reflected in the lake under the full moon) and one day we went over there to discover they were filming a Bollywood musical. We asked if we could look around and they said sure, so we walked about among the cameras and cables and hoped that someone would ask us to be in a scene. We haven't seen the film yet, if it was released. It's called BEVERDAS and is a parody of our favourite film DEVDAS. But this is not Bollywood music. It's tribal music with glittery singing from a young lad and some great playing on scratchy fiddles and bleating reeds. The group's name -- Kohinoor -- of course recalls the famous diamond, now in the Tower of London, but once the property of some Maharajah. There are thousands of musical families in Rajasthan. Many of them migrated across the desert from (what is now) Pakistan centuries ago and along the way changed their religion from Hindu to Muslim (about the 17th century during the reign of Aurangzeb). Like Mali where you also have musical castes, the Rajasthani & Pakistani musicians belong to one family and usually have the surname Khan. They play for wealthy people but of course will always show up at a wedding or party to entertain and partake in the festivities. And the shortage of wealthy patrons means they have a hard life between galas. Their music can be located between the classical tradition of Northern India and folk music but doesn't adhere to any strict raga formats. The instruments are small and portable. The leader Kohinoor Khan sings and plays khartal -- musical woods, which he clacks like castanets. Safi Mohamed plays jaws harp and the 28-stringed sindhi sarangi. Mohamed Rafik sings and plays harmonium. Lukman Khan plays the dholak (double headed drum). 12-year-old Sikhander Khan is the "silver-voiced" singer, while the youngest brother 9-year-old Salim Khan plays castanets and dances. The youthful singer is needed because the songs are mainly written from a woman's point of view (Don't ask me why they wont allow women to be part of the band, ask the mullahs). In July 1994 the Kohinoor Langa group were invited to Germany for a folk festival. They recorded in the state-of-the-art studios of Radio Cologne and then were captured in concert a few days later to augment the album. It's sublime.


INDE -- RAJASTHAN
MUSICIENS PROFESSIONNELS POPULAIRES (OCORA C 580044)

You can't enough of a good thing, and this OCORA album is a great supplement to World Network's MUSIC FROM THE DESERT NOMADS. It has the usual detailed OCORA package booklet with photos and song lyrics in translation. The Langas are on here and so are five other musical families: the Manghaniyar, the Jogi, the Dholi, the Nagarshi, and the Bhopa. There's a wide array of traditional Rajasthani music with flutes, clarinets, lutes, oboes, sitars, viols, etc. The recordings were made in 1972, 1978, and 1993 and they were previously released on LP (OCR81) but the CD adds an additional 24 minutes. The Langas get the lion's share (or tiger's share, since this is India), opening the disc with a haunting double murali (clarinet) solo. (The liner notes tell us the instrument resembles a pungi but to my ears it sounds like a bagpipe.) It is accompanied by sarangi (fiddle). The Mangyanihar come from the region around Jaisalmer and are not as socially well-placed as the Langas. They don't have noble patrons so play for just about anyone, thus their standing in the community is more ambiguous and they are less esteemed. Outstanding is the excerpt from the epic ballad "Amar Singh" (about a devoted wife's suttee) played on the sarangi fiddle and sung by two Jogi. If you liked "Native son" by Velvet Underground, this is for you! (I am beginning to think John Cale actually knew what he was doing after all.) The bhapang or gut-bucket solo by Jahur Khan is also a must-hear. It's a one-stringed instrument with a gourd resonator under the musician's armpit; he squeezes it while plucking to get glissandi. It sounds like a cross between a berimbau and a talking drum. Another instrument, the satara (double flute) reminds me of gasba, the North African woodwind, and there are doubtless connections here. This is a great album for armchair explorers.


DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA
CALCUTTA SLIDE GUITAR (Riverboat UK: TUG CD1036)

Debashish Battacharya was trained as a vocalist but early on was attracted to the slide guitar. The Indians play lap-steel or Hawaiian guitar and of course use different tuning from Western guitar. The Hawaiian style arrived in Calcutta in 1929 when Tau Moe, a celebrated slack key player from Honolulu performed. I heard some sad slack key guitar in Udaipur and it's good to know there's someone out there doing something creative with this instrument. Debashish goes into raga mode and echoes the classical Indian instruments like the veena, sarod and the sitar in the way he bends notes and creates runs on his multi-stringed instruments. He has actually built three guitars, of different sizes, with more than six strings apiece (one has 22 strings) for performing, and uses all of them on this CD. He added resonating or drone strings to the neck to add sympathetic vibrations, like on a sitar. He has been playing since he was 4, and performing since he was 6. Now in his 40s he is joined by his siblings on tabla and tanpura and the trio create a mellow journey that is very reminiscent of classical Indian raga, but with the more familiar tones of the slide guitar instead of sitar. One criticism might be that it occasionally sounds like endless tuning up, but if you go with the flow it arrives at some transcendental passages as Debashish swoops up and down the neck. Good for meditation or a respite from the Reggaeton!


KIRAN AHLUWALIA (Triloka TRI-CD 82055)

Here is a collection of contemporary ghazals that transcends boundaries. Kiran Ahluwalia is an Indian vocalist who grew up in Canada, but like many expatriates has guarded her musical heritage closely in her heart. She has assembled a great group of classical musicians and written melodies to accompany some lovely poetry. She also sprinkles her set with Punjabi folk songs. There is the suggestion of a synthesizer drone behind the opening track which gives it an unwelcome New Age flavour: the harmonium would have been enough. Kiran plays tanpura to back her singing, and it's really great to hear someone singing Indian love songs with a fine voice who is not Lata or Asha! But still you start seeing movies in your head when you hear this, it's unavoidable and she even quotes a few famous filmi riffs in her melodies (I cant name it, but I've seen the movie with the "Jhanjra" melody in it). The Beatles were famous for borrowing Indian sounds for their music, so here's a tit-for-tat: the guitarist quotes (perhaps unconsciously) "Something in the way she moves" in "Yeh Nahin"!

Kiran's parents were pretty upset when she quit her stock-trading job in Toronto and went back to India to study music! She studied with Vital Rao, a 70-year-old performer who entered the household of the King of Hyderabad as a lad! Rao taught her the thousand-year-old tradition of Persian ghazals (which came to Indian with the Mughals in the 14th century) and she has mastered many of the forms and gone on to compose her own versions. To bring the ancient tradition to young audiences she explains that the ghazal is "just a highly literate pick-up line." She has been fortunate in finding expatriate Punjabi poets in Toronto who are also immersed in their folk traditions and have been writing poetry in this form, which she now sets to music and sings beautifully. Because Punjabi folk music also produced Bhangra we cannot expect Kiran to put us to sleep, and she does kick out the jams for "Meri gori gori," a rousing song about yellow bangles.


CAFE BOMBAY
Chai, Chappattis, Richshaws & Gurus (Metro CD101)

Okay, make yourself a cup of chai and get ready to start your musical day. This CAFE BOMBAY CD has really got under my skin and I have played it a lot in the last two months. The sequence and selection was done by a Scotsman formerly associated with Triple Earth Records, Iain Scott, and he has done a superb job, making this CD a joy to play over and over. It starts quietly and contemplatively and then gradually builds to a crescendo in the middle and then falls away again, like a busy day in Bombay (I imagine).

CAFE BOMBAY is simply the best Indian sampler to come along yet. It's set up as a day in the life of a dreamer who works in a café in Bombay. He hears various things from traditional flute and sitar to the film music of A.R. Rahman to grinding dance tracks, and the whole thing has a pleasant day-dream quality to it. The collection only has a couple of familiar tracks and basically charts new territory, unlike the scads of second-rate Bhangra compilations which all start to sound the same after a while. The packaging is very handsome and makes me keen to check out the other discs in the Cafe series. Though the cover says it contains "track by track commentary," these notes are like prose poems, discussing the comings-and-goings in the imaginary cafe. The selections might send you off looking for the original albums they came from, but then again sometimes the best track is all you need, and in this regard this is a collection of first rate tunes culled from a wide variety of sources. "Yaro Yarodi," sung by three singers and written by Rahman, is very familiar, it may just be I am starting to recognise Rahman riffs, or I could have seen the film and forgotten the title since I don't speak Hindi. One good filmi tune begets another so we hear Lata Mangeshkar next: she's the old doll with the incredibly high voice that you either love or hate. There's a great rhythm that sustains this piece but it is followed by the Mother of all Grooves, Sukhwinder Singh's "Ghar Aaja", six minutes of head-banging bliss. Turn it up till the bass makes your crockery fall off the shelf! The song was from his 2000 album NASHI HAI NASHI HI. Tablas on reverb, tons of echo on the wailing vocals. I don't think it was in a film, but the movie in your head is often enough.


INDIA
THE GREATEST SONGS EVER (Time-Life/Petrol 060)

I thought this really had to be truly preposterous: a CD of 11 tracks, less than an hour long, claiming to be the "Greatest Songs Ever" from India. The playlist starts in the UK with a jamming bhangra cut from Saqi called "Sir Duke Da," and follows up with Pakistani great Nusrat doing his thing with remix by Partners in Rhyme (uncredited, but well-known from the "Bend it like Beckham" soundtrack), followed by the achingly beautiful "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha" by R.D. Burman sung by Kumar Sanu from the Hindi film "1942 Love Story." By track five, when we arrive at the first of two songs from Lata Mangeshkar, I no longer think it's such a pretentious claim. Not quite at the level of CAFE BOMBAY this CD is nevertheless a worthwhile and listenable set of contemporary Indian pop with a couple of Bhangra gems. Lata Mangeshkar's shrill tones may be hard for some listeners to take for extended periods, so her two appearances on here are interspersed with instrumentals. Table Beat Science is hardly Indian. I like Zakir Hussain's playing, while Karsh Kale does little for me, but it works in the flow and leads into a mellow groove from Lucky Ali. The dance flows on with Mantra Mix by Makyo, unfamiliar to me, but reminiscent of the early work of Cheb i Sabbah. Then the mood stops dead as we get another shot of Lata from an early soundtrack: shrill and low-fi, but not bad if you are into her work. It's not credited but a web search shows the source as the 1967 film "Jewel Thief," and more likely another Lata compilation called "The Greatest Film Songs." This is followed by Trilok Gurtu, sounding at first like Mahavishnu Orchestra (remember them?). The album goes out quietly with a moody Santoor peice by Shivkumar Sharma accompanied by Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute. There are recipes instead of liner notes: maybe that's what you need while listening to this album, though it does suggest ambient cafe listening rather than something for serious Indian music fans.


RADIO INDIA
THE ETERNAL DREAM OF SOUND (Sublime Frequencies SF014)

This is a huge disappointment: a double album culled from random tapes of Indian radio made a decade apart by two brothers from Seattle. The lack of track identification is aggravating and the randomness becomes irritating. There's a striving for effect that is tiresome: the sounds of a radio being tuned, high frequency whistles, static and endless audio distortion which may be cute for a few seconds but not for the length of a whole cut. I have several hours of African radio recorded 20 years ago which make an interesting mosaic, complete with ads for Singer sewing machines ("Bring her to Sing-her!"), insect repellant (DOOM for dudus!) and ASPRO, but I wouldn't consider trying to profit by exploiting them commercially. The jump cuts are annoying, the static becomes unlistenable, but the most troublesome thing about RADIO INDIA is the lack of licensing: you simply cannot take chunks of Lata Mangeshkar and other identifiable artists and recycle them hoping that Universal music and its lawyers will not care. Never mind. This one will be withdrawn as soon as someone notices. It's amateur in the worst sense.


DEEPAK RAM
SEARCHING FOR SATYAM (MELT2000)

For something completely different, check out SEARCHING FOR SATYAM by Deepak Ram. He's a flute player from India and this is a mellow jazz album. Now don't get me wrong: I wouldn't steer you towards "easy listening" or "dinner jazz." This is one of those quietly meditative albums you need to clear the air late at night. Actually Ram is from South Africa and first visited India when he was 17 and studied with a master flautist. He also inherited a collection of flutes from a famous Indian flute maker. The accompaniment is tabla, guitar, drums and double bass. It surprised me because I expected it to be New Age but it's better than that, in fact for jazz buffs as well as fans of South Asian music this is a keeper.


MUSAFIR
DHOLA MARU (Sounds True M114D 1999)

Cold rainy weather always makes me start dreaming of warm climates, so lately I've been thinking about Rajasthan. Short of a plane ticket, buying some Rajasthani music is a quick trip to the heat and mystery of the ancient kingdom situated in the Thar desert in Northwest India where thousands flock at this time of year for the camel markets and races.

Musafir has a new CD called DHOLA MARU on the Sounds True label. Unusual among Rajasthani groups, Musafir's members come from different ethnic backgrounds, from Muslim and gypsy castes, and bring their diverse heritages to the fusion. The album starts with "Rangi Rang" a long qawwali invocation in the tradition of Sufi mystics like the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (Several of Musafir's members have the surname Khan: a Muslim name that musicians adopted centuries ago, even if they weren't Muslims.) Most of the tracks are long meditative pieces with harmonium or flute and percussion and vocals.

"Dhola Maru," based on the famous poem "Lela Majnoun" (the "Romeo and Juliet" of the Arab world) is one of Rajasthan's greatest love songs and is presented in a Manghaniyar style, with warbly vocals to match the squirrely quality of the harmonium. The tabla also goes nuts on this track which builds to a fantastic soaring pitch. You only wish you could see the whirling dancers that usually perform with such music.

The album closes with another rocker, "Roomal (The Hanky)," definitely one for the San Francisco club scene. It's a fast knee-dance piece performed by a man, with what sounds like Breton bagpipes. The story concerns a maharajah who has been stood up at the altar on his wedding day, so one of his friends dresses as a woman and the wedding goes on!

"Musafir" means travel or pilgrimage and this album transports you with a mystical magic tour of trance and dance, improvisation, tempo shifts and virtuoso soloists.


NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN
ECSTASY (Music Club 50156)

After listening to the ROUGH GUIDE TO SUFI MUSIC I was ready for more Sufi music and put on a recent Nusrat compilation drawn from three of his many releases: ECSTASY. I knew ECSTASY would be good because it opens with "Allah hu, Allah hu, Allah hu." Like Thelonious Monk, Nusrat had some favored compositions in his repertoire that he would play at nearly every gig. "Allah Hu" is his "Epistrophy." That track is drawn from "Live at Washington University volume 37" -- so it must have been an extremely long night! The music is structured like an Indian raga; as it progresses, Nusrat gets further and further out into his scat singing.

The purpose of qawwali is to reduce the distance between the Creator and created, enabling man to realize the meaning of his life on earth. The repetition makes the music accessible to Western ears and helps bring you along on the journey into the mystical trance state.

The liner notes and sequencing are top-class: they're the work of Jameela Siddiqi, host of "Songs of the Sufi Mystics" on the BBC and author of The Feast of Nine Virgins, a thriller based on Indian classical music. She includes a rare recording of an eighteenth-century song by Baba Bulhe Shah, whose work she says is particularly close to Nusrat as it was first popularized by his musical ancestors. The song is about leaving earthly distractions behind and following an ascetic into the wilderness -- becoming a Yogi bare I guess.

Traditionally qawwali concerts ended with a "Rang" -- a song celebrating a pupil's acceptance by his master -- but, says Siddiqi, a more upbeat ending is often provided by Punjabi folk music. Thus the set concludes with a love song about being reunited with your lover, a metaphor apparently for the disciple finally meeting the master. This is blessed music indeed.


NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN & PARTY
DUST TO GOLD (RealWorld)
MUSST MUSST (RealWorld 7862212 1990)

The Sufi poet, Rumi, whose poems were often the basis for Nusrat's improvisation, wrote "Music is no longer an aim, but a vehicle. Song is no longer an end, but a transportation, a path to the divine." Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born the day after Pakistan attained Independence from Britain in 1947 and died fifty years later, in 1997. A Sufi, his devotional singing could affect non-believers with its power. By 1990 he was well-recognised in the West as one of the twentieth century's greatest voices. He also lent his talents when Peter Gabriel asked to sample him for the PASSION soundtrack, or when young Bhangra artists in Britain used his vocals as loops in their popular hits. His "party" were relatives who sang backup and accompanied him with handclaps and a harmonium as he improvised verses in the mode known as Qawwali. He was the supreme exponent of the form and transported audiences with his divine gift. I was fortunate to hear him in person twice. He made some unusual career choices that led to odd hybrids, but the smash hit "Musst Musst," produced by Massive Attack, broadened his fan base to include hip youth. Occasionally, though, his pop producers buried his vocals in a wall of wahwah. Now RealWorld has released four tracks in the traditional acapella mode, recorded back home in Lahore. "Dust to Gold" is a wonderful memento of this great musical legacy. Each track builds slowly with the harmonium and then vocal exercises, like scales, as the chorus warms and soon Nusrat's voice soars, taking us on a trip into the realms of the spirit.