Northern Ragas: Bansal Trio

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Bansal Trio

I can’t get enough of this one. Its been on Plex pretty much non stop all weekend. And I’ve got it downloaded for my upcoming road trip (10 days each in Papua New Guinea and Vietnam) so it will calm me and settle me in what are always stress filled occasions.

The last post featured violin played by one of the undisputed masters of the instrument (East or West), Dr. L. Subramaniam. As many of you would know the violin has mainly featured in south Indian classical (Carnatic) music.  This recording of the Bansal Trio of Norway is the first use of the instrument in a Hindustani classical (khyal) setting that I’ve come across. And it is stunning.

Harpreet Bansal is a Norwegian violinst of Indian Sikh origin and the leader of a number of musical outfits that explore the shared territory of jazz and western and Indian classical music.  One hesitates to use such a controversial word as ‘fusion’ but there is no doubt that Bansal has found a wonderful way to blend (perhaps a more palatable word) the several traditions.

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Harpreet Bansal

 

Here is what her record company, Jazzland, has to say about this recording.

Bansal herself has had an outstanding career to date, working with many outstanding performers in both eastern (Ustad Sharif Khan, Tariq Khan, Sukhvinder Singh Namdari, Shabaz Hossein, and Rafaqat Ali Khan) and western (Unni Løvlid, Poing, The Source, Per Oddvar Johansen, Stian Carstensen, Nils Olav Johansen, Ingebjørg Bratland, Steinar Ofsdal, and Morten Halle) musical traditions. Her expressive, technically elegant style joyfully traverses boundaries of genre and historical tradition with graceful ease. Vojtěch Procházka also has a fine pedigree as one of the foremost young Czech pianists, and a CV that includes Ivar Grydeland, Per Oddvar Johansen, Kari Rønnekleiv, Espen Reinertsen, Ingar Zach and Kim Myhr. Andreas Bratlie is a drummer and percussionist who has quietly forged his career, and has worked with many artists, notably Andreas Ljones, Bertine Zetlitz, Mira Craig, and Noora Noor. On this recording, he also brings elements of voice alongside his superb table and percussion work. 

The music exposes varied moods of light and shade, serenity through to agitation, and a degree of hinted spirituality amid urban humdrum automatism. The extended piece, Bhairavi,- a traditional piece arranged and interpreted by the group, stands as a monolithic centrepiece, both in scale and variation, while the rest of the album features various meditations upon traditional pieces, as well as three original compositions.

What I love about Chandra (moon or lunar, in Sanskrit) is how well the Indian and the Western work together. Her pianist Vojtech Prochazka takes the basic scales of each raga but plays them with a flow and cohesion that is entirely western.  And Bansal is able to make her violin keep pace, by turns supporting and leading the mesmerising dance.  Andreas Bratlie on tabla provides solid, tasteful meter. If one was looking for nits to pick one could argue that with the exception of Track 4 (Puria Dhanshri) the compositions are rather laid back and don’t truly explore new combinations and possibilities of sound.  But I don’t think that is the point. It is not so much about breaking new ground but the flow of communication between the trio that makes this music stand out from the crowd.

And as much as the interplay between the three is spectacular, Bansal’s solos simply shimmer like quicksilver. I’m immediately reminded of the singing of Kishori Amonkar for the way in which the sound seems to sit on the ear so lightly and delightfully.

In any case, this is really top notch music. Label it anyway you like, but I bet you’ll not come away unmoved.

 

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Track Listing:

01 Charukeshi

02 Malkauns

03 Bhairavi

04 Puria Dhnasri

05 Kripavati

06 Mora Saiyan

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Hemavati: Dr. L. Subramaniam

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Dr. L. Subramaniam

I claim almost nil knowledge of south Indian (Carnatic) classical music.  And though I was born in the deep south of the sub-continent by the time I grew into my music ears  the only Indian music I can recall is the sitar and film music.

I can say however, that I did almost literally bump into Dr. L. Subramaniam one time. It was at Greens Hotel in Chennai. I was there on business and was waiting to be picked up by colleagues, so was sprawled eagle-legged out in the lobby.  This was before the horrible iPhone era, so I was probably reading The Hindu or India Today.

There was a sudden burst of activity to my right which I ignored but it just got louder and seemingly more crowded. People were moving in and out of the group that was growing next to me.  As usual there was a mix of Tamil and English going on but I didn’t pay much attention.

Eventually I got up to stretch when I pulled back. Another man was just a few inches away. I apologised, as did he. I took a double take and looked again. The man was short, hardly it seemed up to my shoulders. He wore a white lungi and there was a violin case sitting amongst the many pieces of luggage his group had put into a pile.  It was, I knew, none other than the honourable Dr. L!

I didn’t dare ask for his autograph or try to engage him in conversation. I quickly pulled back, mmbled my apology again and left the hotel.

The chance encounters of life!

I’ve enjoyed the way south Indians play the violin over the years and so after a long while share some of that Carnatic sound with this LP.  If you don’t know Dr. Subramaniam then I suggest this nice profile is the place to start. And after that, enjoy this recording.

Raga Hemavati

Track Listing:

01. Ragam Hemavathi

Carnaticism

The Sound: Jagjit and Chitra Singh

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Chitra and Jagjit Singh

Some artists sing songs that become classics  and live on for eternity. Others are loved for the special charisma they bring to their live performances. Some artists sell millions of records (or CDs or downloads) and grow rich. But few truly change the course of popular music or establish a sound that is instantly identifiable with them.

Jagjit Singh and his wife and singing partner Chitraare in that rarest of rare categories that can claim to have accomplished all of the above.

It is Sunday morning here in Melbourne, the first day of spring. The skies are overcast and a brisk breeze is gusting off Port Philip Bay. As I start the day I’m overcome with a strong desire to hear some ghazals by this wonderful duo, and so I turn to Black Magic an album that seems to date from the mid-late 1980s.

At once I am touched.  The warmth of Jagjit’s unhurried and honeyed voice calms the many mini storms inside of me. I’m drawn completely into a world of spiritual doubt and unrequited love the territory Jagjit and Chitra have claimed as their own since they burst onto the scene nearly 40 years ago.  Jagjit’s voice is iconic in the same way as Johnny Cash‘s: strong, manly, deep and assured.  A creative energy that is able to make you stop, sit up and pay attention.  But where Cash made you tremble, Jagjit makes you glow.

For her part Chitra embodies the reticient but passionate beloved. Her voice is delicate, nearly brittle at times but always full of melody and spirit. Like Jagjit her style is deliberate and precise like she is telling a story to a dear friend.

Black Magic is a wonderful example of the Jagjit and Chitra sound. Essentially acoustic, it relied on simple combination of flute, guitar, tabla (always in the background, never driving), santoor and violin. They rarely sang anything other ballads and this aural environment is distinctively theirs. You hear an intro and you know whose voices will soon come in.

This could become boring and tiresome but it doesn’t. At least not for me, yet. And I’ve been listening for 35 years. You don’t look to Jagjit and Chitra for experimentation. You go to them because you can rest assured you’ll always be welcomed into their gentle and elegant embrace

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Track List:

01 Patthar Ke Khuda Patthar Ke Sanam

02 Jab Bhi Tanhai Se Ghabra Ke

03 Jawani Ke Heelay Haya Ke Bahne

04 Yeh Kaya Jane Mein Jana Hai

05 Mai Pilkar Aap Ka Kaya Jayega

06 Hai Ikhtiar Mein Tere

07 Yeh Bhi Kya Ehsaan Kum Hai

08 Agar Hum Kahen Aur Woh Muskraden

Black Magic

A Rare Pairing: Jnan Prakash Ghosh and V.G. Jog

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The obiquitous harmonium or, hand pump organ, has a rather chequered reputation. Introduced via Europeans (missionaries, no less!) it has struggled to gain legitimacy in the ears and hands of purist classical musicians. But over the decades it has become an indispensable tool for Indian musicians, especially singers.

Whereas about 150 years ago, before the current version of the harmonium was reinvented for Indian conditions by Dwarkanath Ghose, it was the sarangi that vocalists chose to accompany them.  But over the years as musical tastes, technologies and consumption patterns changed the harmonium has succeeded in almost totally pushing the sarangi to one side.

Now every singer of ghazals, geets, bhajans, qawwali, nat and kirtans either plays the harmonium her/himself as she/he sings or has someone sitting close to her/him who keys out the melody line.  Though purists continue to look down their noses at the instrument–its foreign, its ugly, its cheap–and for nearly 25 years it was forbidden (!) to be played on All India Radio, its place in the concert hall is as secure as that of the tabla or sitar.

Though it is often a scorned instrument, there are many absolutely fantastic, nay, virtuoistic harmonium players from all rungs of professional and informal music worlds.  In the villages it is played with a rough raw abandon that is a wonder to behold. On classical and semi classical stages it is more demure–often simply peppering the vocal lines by way of emphasis.  The number of qawwalis that open with extended harmonium solos are far too many to count.   But despite its amazing versatility across genres and styles the harmonium has rarely ever been given center stage. As an instrument worthy in its own right  to be heard, to sing, to fly as a voice as serious as Ravi Shankar’s sitar or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod.

But all that is about to change today!

While digging around in my collection I came upon this fantastic and rare (in concept, if not in availability) recording.  A jugalbandi (musical conversation) between the violin, played by the legendary Prof. V.G. Jog and the harmonium played by percussionist and all round musican Jnan Prakash Ghosh.

I’ve been listening to this over and over, thrilling to the idea and sound of one of my favorite instruments, finally getting the recognition it deserves.  To make its case and assert that it is not content to just sit on the sidelines ‘servicing’ the stars of the show but that it too is worthy of being fully in the limelight.

This particular record was issued in 1985 but there is an earlier recording of the two gentlemen made in 1967.  I’m not sure whether they are one and same and this one is a reiusse of the original or if there are multiple such jugalbandis out there. But I’m on the case, and I’ll be sure to let you know what I find out.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this tremendous and unusual recital.

 

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Track Listing:

  1. Shyam Kalyan
  2. Jhinjhoti and Misra Kalengra with Dhun Kaharwa

Jugalbandi Ho!

Early Sound: Shiv Kumar Sharma

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The Kashmiri Samrat of the santoor, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, has been playing his magical instrument for nigh on to 65 years now. And it never fails to thrill me to hear the mezrab (mallets) gently knock against one of the one hundred strings of the instrument.

 

The flute, the jaltarang, the tabla and of course, the sitar, all evoke India from the very first notes they sound. And so too, does the santoor, possibly the most electric of all of India’s musical instruments.

 

And sadly for all other players of the instrument, they are destined to live and work in the deep shadows of Pandit Shiv Kumar ji who has so dominated the santoor that he has become synonymous with the instrument.

 

Here is an early (the earliest, some say) recording of the master. Recorded either in 1960 or 1967 and available with a couple different covers (both of which I share) this album pulses with the tingling sounds of the santoor.  Panditji was to develop a more complex, fuller sound in the years to come and as such this recording is certainly not his best. But it is still excellent and I’m pleased to share it with you today.

Track Listing:

  1. Raga Lalit (Gat in Jhaptal &Teental)
  2. Dhun in Bhairavi (Keherwa)
  3. Raga Kalawati (Gat in Teental)
  4. Dhun in Pahadi

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