Himalayan Pop: Suman Thapa and the Blue Fret

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Jiri, Nepal

My 16 year old son recently returned from 3 weeks in Nepal as part of his school’s World Challenge expedition. They spent their time helping a primary school near Pokhara with some painting and wall-building but also got a chance to trek around the Annapurna region as well as visit the Chitwan National Park. It was for him a life changing experience. An opportunity to see that the rest of the world doesn’t live connected to Spotify, Instagram and Snapchat. And to appreciate what its like to be a visitor in another very strong, old culture.

On one of their first days in Kathmandu one of the boys took the others to visit a family friend, Suman Thapa.  Turns out this man was a musician and before the end of the evening he gave a copy of his group’s latest CD to my son. Which my son gave to me for Christmas.

The group is The Blue Fret. The name of their album is Jiri Blues.  

I’ve been listening to this all day and I have to say my socks have been blown off.  It is NOTHING like I expected it to be.  Nepal is full of garage bands who do (better or not so good) covers of 60s-90s pop and reggae.  There are also a lot of folk bands and outfits that blend Nepali folk/Hindustani classical and jazz.  But nothing quite like this.

Jiri is a small village in the mountains of Nepal. Historically, it used to be the starting point for the early explorers of Mount Everest. Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay started their historic ascent of Mt. Everest from Jiri.

At one time, Jiri used to the hub for all trekkers and mountaineers. With the passing of time, motorable roads went further out from Jiri. That’s when the trekkers and mountaineers moved further on, and that’s when Jiri got the Blues!

The Jiri Blues is an album of songs in the western sytle of music incorporating the sound of Nepali folk instruments, ‘bansuri’ and ‘sarangi.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of the album will support Project Sarangi which was founded by one of the band members, Kiran Nepali. Project Sarangi is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of indigenous Nepali folk music craftsmanship.

All songs were written by Suman Thapa and most of them in Jiri.

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Thapa and his group sing in flawless American accents and write songs that reveal a real intimate knowledge of Western pop.  When was the last time you heard a Nepali song with titles like “Lincoln Town‘ or ‘Melissa on the Rocks‘?  Thapa has a warm, supple voice and plays nice guitar (mostly acoustic but he does have a few tasty licks on the electric as well). The rest of the band support each song with piano/keyboards, bamboo flute (bansuri), bass and drum.  Kiran Nepali, turns in a gorgeous sarangi solo on  Slow Down and leaves you wishing he had been given more space.

The sound is a blend of soft rock, roots with a slight twang, a touch of reggae beats and folk.  Thapa is a solid lyricist who manages to mix local imagery within a western pop-song frame such as the following from Lincoln Town.

Prayer flags and a block of cheese/They are my lifetime guarantees

I’m headed to the home of the bees/Oh won’t you come with me

The Blue Fret is the first real discovery of 2020.  Perfect for a mountain sunset or a rainy day inside with a cuppa tea.

 

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Jiri inside

 

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Track Listing:

01 Lincoln Town

02 Jiri Blues

03 Some Reason Why

04 Shadows of the Night

05 Don’t Say Hello

06 Melissa on the Rocks

07 I won’t Cry for You

08 ‘Konjo’ Taxi Lady

09 Slow Down

10 A Moment in Jiri

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Kabir Mela: Nirgun Singers of Malwa

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With this final instalment of Kabirdas music we return back to where we started: Malwa.  To a collection of bhajans and songs released under the Beats of India series whose many discs I would highly recommend.  The artists here are the group of singers and musicians and folk preacher/philosophers who have been performing these songs for generations.  Foremost among them Prahlad Singh Tipaniya and Kaluram Bamaniya.

I posted this album years ago on my old blog [Washerman’s Dog] and so if you’re interested in hearing this moving folk devotional music follow the link.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and (re) gained an appreciation for the place of Kabir, the humble Banaras weaver, in the folklore, music and devotional culture of India. As well as enjoyed the diversity of musical approaches to interpreting and honouring him.

Kabir Mela: Ustad Shujaat Hussain Khan

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Shujaat Hussain Khan is Indian classical music royalty. It’s hard to imagine a more illustrious lineage than the scion of the Imdadkhani gharana. His father is one of the greatest sitarists India has ever produced Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan and his uncle, Ustad Imrat Khan the surbahar master and innovator. His grandfather, the sitarist, Enayat Khan, was the son of the famous Imdad Khan, founder of the Imdadkhani gharana (also sometimes referred to as Etawah gharana, for the family’s ancestral town in central Uttar Pradesh).

Shujaat has established himself as one of India’s premier personalities in the classical music world and enjoys a keen fan base internationally for his many collaborations with western and other non-Indian musicians.  Most famous for his work with the Iranian  kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor as part of the ‘fusion’ group Ghazal, Khan is Grammy nominated and a regular performer on international festival stages, alone and with others.

images-6This collection is one part of a double CD set issued about 10 years ago by Mystic Music, called Unforgettable Sufis. The first CD (shared below) is dedicated to several songs of Kabir; the second to the works of Amir Khusrau.  Khan’s father, Vilayat Ali Khan, is credited with creating a style of sitar playing known as gayaki ang which seeks to imitate the nuances of the human singing voice. The style developed naturally as part of the maestro’s playing as he felt an urge, similar to many jazz musicians, to vocalise the melody.

Shujaat has  not only followed his father’s innovation but turned it into a distinctive feature of his artistry. Many of his albums and performances feature his unique whispery, moaning singing voice which adds another level of complexity to his already sophisticated music. Though at times it is hard to make out exactly what he is singing, the overall effect is mesmerising; perfectly suited to the spiritual tenor of the material.  “I don’t consider myself a singer but this urge to sing was natural and instinctive. My effort now is to reach a wider audience,” he said in a recent interview. Certainly, once you hear him you’ll never fail to recognise his voice

For this selection he has chosen a refreshing mix of Kabir vani some of which are not so frequently performed.  The centerpiece of the set is the twenty five minute Patta Bola Vriksh Se (The Leaf Spoke to the Tree).

A leaf says to a tree: ‘Listen O tree of the forest, when your leaves wither away you will be done in and forgotten.’ The tree says to the leaf: ‘heed my words, dear brother o’ mine, It is forever the way of this world – one comes while another goes. In every breath remember the Divine Name, lest any breath escape wasted, who knows whether another breath will arrive or not! Always say such words,
 that will sanctify your heart, tranquil your entire being and emanate peace and joy to others.

But my favorite and the one that resonates most with my own battered philosophy is Moko Kahan Dhundhe re Bande (Where Will You Search for Me, Oh Follower)

Moko Kahan Dhundhere Bande
Mein To Tere Paas Mein
Na Teerath Mein, Na Moorat Mein
Na Ekant Niwas Mein
Na Mandir Mein, Na Masjid Mein
Na Kabe Kailas Mein
Main To Tere Paas Mein

Oh Follower, Where do you search me?
I am always with you
Not in pilgrimage, nor in statues
Neither in solitude
Not in temples, nor in the mosque
Neither in the Kabha nor in Kailash
I am with you, oh follower

This collection has zoomed to the top of my personal favorites for its choice of material, elegant, contemporary (but never inappropriate) production and arrangements and of course the great man’s elegaic singing.

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Track Listing:

01 Humka Udhave

02 Man Laago

03 Chunri Mein Pad Gayo

04 Moko Kahan Dhunde Re Bande

05 Patta Bole Vriksh Se

06 Rehna Nahi Is Desh Mein

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Kabir Mela: Various Artists

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Hope everyone had a good rest over Christmas Day.  Even those who don’t consider themselves Christian, for Christmas these days in a universal day of rest in most countries of the world.  And signals the winding down of 12 months of what inevitably is always a mix of busyness, surprises, achievements, let downs, joy and stress.

So first of all Peace to everyone.

We are nearing the end of this series of Kabir bhajans. And here today is another collection performed by some of India’s elite voices:  M.S. Subbalakshmi, Pandit Kumar Gandharava and Lata Mangeshkar.

Again, the context here is a classical musicians singing songs of praise and wisdom. The singing (especially Kumar Gandharava and Lata’s haunting rendition of Jheene Jheene Beeni Chadariya) is stellar and I ‘m sure will be a good companion for the rest of this year and far into the future.

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Track Listing:

01 Bhajo Re Bhaiya (M.S. Subbalakhsmi)

02 Darshan De Tarh Darbaar (Haimanti Shukla)

03 Avdhoota Yugan Yugan Ham Yogi (Pt. Kumar Gandharava and Vasundhara Komkali)

04 Kaun Thagva Nagariya Loot Layo (Pt. Kumar Gandharava and Vasundhara Komkali)

05 Jheene Jheene Beeni Chadariya (Lata Mangeshkar)

06 Nirbay Nirgun Re Gaoonga (Pt. Kumar Gandharava and Vasundhara Komkali)

07 Tohi Mohi Lagan Lagaye Re (Lata Mangeshkar)

08 Arre Dil Mere Mann (Lata Mangeshkar)

09 Avdhoot Ganga Ghata (Pt. Kumar Gandharava)

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Kabir Mela: Pandit Chhannulal Mishra

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When Kabir died, so the legend goes, the Hindus and Muslims of Kashi (Varanasi/ Banaras) fought over the right to dispose of his body.  In the scuffle the white shroud (kafan) covering Kabir’s body fell away and to the surprise of all in attendance exposed not a lifeless body but a small garden of brighly coloured flowers.

Today’s post features the voice of a native of Banaras/Varanasi, Pandit Chhannulal MishraIf you have had the pleasure of spending some time in this great world city you will have heard the sort of music you will hear on this disc. Perhaps you’ll have stumbled across a small tent (shamiana) erected across one of thousands of narrow lanes (gali) that map out the oldest part of the city, down by the banks of the River Ganga. A small group of devotees sit around an ever smaller group of musicians–harmonium, tabla, tanpura–who sing devotional bhajans (hymns) throughout the day.

Or you have heard such songs wafting out of windows high above the street where a singer is practicing for a concert later tonight.  Maybe it is a music school and the guru is showing his students how its done.

These songs can be heard all over the city, in so many locations and situations. They are as much a part of the fabric of Hinduism’s greatest city as are the temples, the river Ganges and the thousands of sadhus (holy men) who flock to the city throughout the year.

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Mishraji was a local celebrity for the first 50 years of his life but unknown much beyond the Varanasi-Allahabad area of eastern UP.  But with the help of some big name movie stars–Amitabh Bacchhan, most famously–Mishra has become a much admired and loved performer across India and internationally.

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Track Listing:

01 Kaise Sajan Ghar Jaibay Ho Rama

02 Man Pachataiyhay Avsar Beetay

03 Bhajo Ray Bhiya Ram Govind Hari

04 Bhai Ray So Guru Satya Kahavay

05 Ray Ma n Murakh Janam Gavayo

06 Avadhu Bhajan Bhed Nayara

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