Soul Brothers: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

The friendship between the ‘quiet’ Beatle, George Harrison and India’s greatest cultural ambassador, Pandit Ravi Shankar, was deep, genuine and enduring, if (on the face of it) improbable.

In the early 1970s, The Beatles were simply an ex-rock and roll band. Individually though, each member of the group was riding high as a solo artist, enjoying almost as much success as sole trader as he had as a co director of the most illustrious cultural firm in the world. Paul‘s new band, Wings was churning out huge world wide hits. Ringo, for the first time was garnering fans of his own and praise for a series of bouncy, light-hearted pop hits such as Backoff Boogaloo and You’re Sixteen. John’s Imagine album was already recognised as one for the ages even though people were still sceptical of his wife Yoko Ono.

It was George who really blossomed after the break up of the world’s greatest rock and roll band, though. All Things Must Pass and its super duper smash My Sweet Lord, his hymn to Lord Krishna, pioneered a blatant strain of spiritual-pop and gave him the cash, cache and confidence to step fully into the limelight. He organised the iconic all star benefit shows to support Bengali refugees and released the proceedings as an ambitious triple disc box set, Concert for Bangladesh, something unheard of in the pop world of the time. It was a huge seller.

Harrison seems to have had the best business mind of the Fab Four too. Despite the debacle that was Apple Records, George jumped back into the record business and set up Dark Horse Records which proved to be not only profitable but sustainable. Early this year it signed a global distribution deal with the German behemoth BMG.

In 1974 Harrison got a bunch of his music mates together and hooked up with a smaller but equally stellar group of Indian musicians headed by Ravi Shankar to produce a bemusing hodge podge of an album called Shankar Family and Friends. According to Harrison’s wife, Olivia, “Around 1973, Ravi had composed music for a ballet. With the help of George, he was able to assemble a group of Indian classical musicians to record it at A&M Records in Los Angeles. George provided the Western band, and ‘Shankar Family and Friends’ became one of the first two albums released on George’s newly formed Dark Horse Records label. That was my first exposure to the group of people who would become lifetime friends. None of us knew we would be working together for the next two years. The process was full of youthful enthusiasm and venerable creativity.”

The wider global Beatles brotherhood no doubt has strong views about this album, indeed, every album ever released by any of the four members of the group. I’m not aware or really concerned about what the concensus view of this group is about this record, but I find it to be a curiousity. It is neither fish nor fowl. Neither pop nor art. Neither West nor East. And while that never really bothers me in this case, well…I’m not overly impressed.

To be more precise the first part (Track 1-5) seems not to be connected in any meaningful way with the rest of the album. The ‘pop-bhajan’ I am Missing You is one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard. As my kids would say, totally cringey! And as such, it colours the entire project with a certain hue of scepticism.

The second part, the Ravi Shankar ballet, like many of the maestro’s other works is certainly more substantial and interesting. If I listen to this album more in the future I’ll start at track 6. And probably thoroughly enjoy it.

If you want to read a comprehensive review of the album and get a complete run down of all the great musicians (David Bromberg!!!??) who played a part in producing it, for once Wikipedia is the best source.

Classify this in 1970s kitsch.

Track Listing:

01 I Am Missing You

02 Kahan Gayelava Shyam Saloné

03 Supané Mé Ayé Preetam Sainya

04 I am Missing You (reprise)

05 Jaya Jagadish Haré

06 Dream, Nightmare & Dawn – Overture

07 Part One – Dream – Festivity & Joy

08 Part One – Dream – Love – Dance Ecstasy

09 Part Two – Nightmare – Lust (Raga Chandrakauns)

10 Part Two – Nightmare – Dispute & Violence

11 Part Two – Nightmare – Disillusionment & Frustration

12 Part Two – Nightmare – Despair & Sorrow (Raga Marwa)

13 Part Three – Dawn – Awakening

14 Part Three – Dawn – Peace & Hope (Raga Bhatiyar)

Bromance

Singing the Lilting Song of Love: Savita Devi

Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Khan holding court as ladies and men sing

In the years after the Mughals had ceased to command anything beyond the city limits of Delhi but before the British were to declare full imperial rule over the Indian sub continent, the nawabi state of Awadh with it’s capital and cultural heart the city of Lucknow, for a short time, was one of the great shining jewels in a pretty devastated landscape. Under Wajid Ali Khan the strongly Shia but also culturally confident and inquisitive final leader of Awadh, Lucknow became synonmous with the fine arts. Poetry, dance, architecture not to mention the culinary, sartorial arts as well as sports were all taken to new levels of innovation and excellence. India’s first novel, Umrao Jaan Ada is recognised as being written by a Lucknawi, Mirza Hadi Ruswa.

Among the myriad art forms that thrived in courtly, genteel Lucknow was a light classical musical genre dating back several centuries, the thumri. Like all Indian music –with the exception, arguably, of the most rustic of folk musics– thumri was a raga based form which unlike khyal or dhrupad was sung in a more gentle, delicate mode with a greater emphasis on lyrics that spoke of the passions of and for Lord Krishna.

That thumri was a sung in a softer and more melodic mode did not mean it was an easier art to master. In fact, all the great masters (male and female) of khyal also took great pride in singing thumri and its related genre dadra, often finishing off a concert with one or two. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, arguably one of the top two or three classical singers of his generation, was a master not just of the khyal but of thumri as well, and recorded several albums of these beautiful love songs.

At the center of the thumri is the lyric. It is a love song; unabashedly carnal yet sublimely divine. Many lyrics openly mention Krishna, the flute playing, handsome and virile cow keep who is often depicted surrounded by equally sensuous and voluptuous young women with whom he cavorts, swims and plays sexual games. The songs are full of longing and desire, regret and sadness. The opening track of the album we share today is titled Shyam Mori Gali Aaja (Shyam/Krishna Please Come Visit My Lane). Given that shyam, a name for Krishna, also means, dark and evening, and gali, a narrow lane way, the sexual overtones are hard to overlook and indeed only heighten the emotions.

A good thumri singer is judged by how well she/he is able to play with and draw out meaning and emotion from the words of the couplets. It is that essential play between annunciation and suggestion, the explicit and the implied, the seen and the Invisible that makes the thumri so exciting.

Today I share a collection of thumris, dadras and hori, all related song styles in a light classical mode, by the famous and accomplished singer Savita Devi. A proponent of the Purab ang (Eastern style) of singing popularised in Lucknow and Banaras/Varanasi characterised by an emphasis on “‘Bhav‘ (emotion) contained in the lyrics of the Thumri to evoke subtle shades of matching emotions using different tonal combinations and melodic phrases.” Popularised by such icons as Siddeshwari Devi and Girija Devi, Purab ang is more the dominant style of thumri in India. In Pakistan, the Punjab ang (Punjabi style) championed by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others has a faster metre and is more rhythmic.

Track Listing:

01 Shyam Mori Gali Aaja – Thumri Bhairvi
02 Zulmi Sanvaria Na Jane Kadariya – Bhairavi Dadra
03 Salone Sawan Aayo Re – Kajri
04 Mooratiya Man Men Basi Tori – Thumri Based On Misra Tilang
05 Banke Saiyan Na Jane Man Ki Batiyan Ho Ram – Dadra Based On Pahari
06 Hori Main Kheloongi Shyam Se Dat Ke – Hori Based On Shahana

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Ragas and Riches: Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali Khan

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The music we share today was originally released as a LP in Pakistan in 1974 and then in the 1980s/90s as a cassette. The latter had an expanded playlist which unfortunately I don’t have.  (Anyone?) But EMI Pakistan reissued the original recording with art work from the cassette (a sort of hybrid approach) and that is the version I share today.

Amanat Ali Khan and his brother Fateh Ali Khan were arguably the most lauded sibling singing duo in Hindustani classical music during their lifetimes.  Perhaps Nazakhat Ali and Salamat Ali Khan could lay claim to that particular title but both Amanat Ali’s and Fateh Ali’s work beyond pure classical forms to more popular ‘light classical’ ghazalsearned them a huge popular audience that certainly was larger than the doyens of the Sham Chaurasi gharana.

And that versatility was the angle the marketers embraced when they released this collection, Raag se Ghazal Tak (From Ragas to Ghazals).

What is there to say about this fantastic treaure of Hindustani classical vocalising? They open with a moody rendition of Raga Aeman (aka Yaman) one of the foundational ragas in Indian classical music.  Amanat soars toward the skies as Fateh Ali establishes the composition strongly on terra firma. They exchange passages, playing off the other, using the one to launch higher or dive deeper before coming back come together to sing in unison.

They then offer a thumri set in the same raga, Aaja Aaja Na Ja Pardes (Come, Please Don’t Leave Me). Appropriate to the thumri, a genre of singing that emphasises intimacy, sensuality, physical love and deep emotion, the brothers sing this classic with real feeling and drama. Amanat opens with a several lines that compare love to the burning coal and the intense heat of ashes, begging his beloved to come close and not leave.  Fateh takes the next verse and in a teasing way–listen to the playful tone of his ‘aaja, aaja na ja’–begs the lover to stay by his side.

Amanat Ali then sings alone, Meri Dastan-e-hasrat, Saifuddin Saif’s famous ghazal, also in raga Aeman. Many artists have covered this ghazal but this interpretation, which opens with a short spoken recitation, is truly memorable.  Much has been made about the spiritual similarities between jazz and Hindustani classical music, especially the critical role of improvisation, and the intuitive sensitivity of each performer in the ensemble to each other and to the audience. This track is a great example of this. Amanat Ali’s singing is as open and instinctive as any jazz vocalist’s, stringing each of the words like pearls to make a beautiful garland.

The next three songs–a short raga, thumri and ghazal–are built around raga Malkauns a soothing, late night raga generally associated with ‘he who wears snakes like a garland’- Lord Shiva.

The thumri chosen for this raga is a nice complement to the earlier one.  There the singer begs the lover not to leave and go far away.  Here in Kab Aaoge Tum Aaoge (When Will You Return?) the lover longs for the speedy return of the beloved who has gone. The number was a considerable hit and fondly remembered among music connoisseurs now nearly a half century after Amanat’s passing in 1974.

The recital ends with a final ghazal, Kaise Guzar Gai Hai Jawani by Altaf Haidari. There are those who claim that Mehdi Hassan was the greatest male singer of ghazals but if that is the case there can hardly be any argument that Amanat Ali saab was never far behind. His voice’s timbre bore the colour of decades of classical training and practice. It was supple, keening, brittle but piercing all together.  In this lament for the passing of one’s youth Amanat’s voice is full of weariness and sadness. It’s a masterful way to end this fantastic little album.

Highly recommended.

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Track Listing:

01 – Raag Aeman

02 – Aaja Aaja Na Ja Pardes

03 – Meri Dastan-E-Hasrat

04 – Raag Maalkoos

05 – Kab Aaoge Tum Aaoge

06 – Kaise Guzar Gai Hai Jawani

Amanat Fateh

Winter Blues: Ali Akbar Khan

2men and mangoes

Monday morning blues here.  But last night I was lulled to sleep by a bewitching rendition of raga Hemant by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Hemant, I discovered, means winter. Which coincidentally matches the climate in my soul–a bit dark, weak and chilly. According to the quixotic Vijaya Parrikarraga Hemant was “advanced by Baba Allaudin Khan who is quoted as  providing the following explanation for the name “’Hemant (winter) is embedded in Sarangdeva’s shloka on Bhinna Shadaj: “Having Brahma for its presiding deity, it is sung on the occasions of universal festivity in the first quarter of the day in winter [Hemant] to express terror (bhayanaka) and disgust (bibhatsa)’” (Shringy and Sharma, op. cit.)

So, further motivation to post this raga now in the first part of this wintery day.  This is a vehicle to express our terror and disgust at the ugly injustices that can no longer be ignored–be they in Minneapolis (my old home) or India (my original home) or here in Australia (my current home). The murder and torture of our brothers and sisters simply because history has placed certain labels upon them.  And our insecurities, fears and unresolved need for love expresses itself in violence (physical and non physical) against those we percieve as threatening.

May Peace and Wisdom come to us all.

This wonderful double disc was recorded in a Christian church (Christ the King) by Muslim and Hindu musicians (Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chaudhry) by a Sri Lankan “Christian Baul” in the United States.  Now, if that doesn’t say something to you about the horror and senselessness of this ‘moment’ in which we live then I don’t know what will.

Peace.

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Track Listing:

01. Raga Alam Bhairav

02. Raga Hemant

03. Raga Megh Sarang

04. Raga Durga

Hemant

A Pair of Icons: Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha

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An eleven year old boy sits by a river in the mountains of north India gazing into the rippling stream.  He’s torn up inside. He’s been bewitched by music—especially drums—for as long as he can remember but his family of farmers and military men aren’t happy.  They don’t want to hear anymore of his bleating about wanting to study the tabla. His mother has managed to broker a ceasefire and convince the boy’s father to allow him to take some singing lessons from a local teacher.

 

The boy finds solace by staring into the river. And recently he’s been seeing the face of an old man looking back at him from below the watery surface. Sometimes he swears he can hear the man whisper, “Look for me. You must find me.”

 

At last his family agrees to let the boy take some drumming lessons from Ustad Lal Mohammad.  The boy is overjoyed.  But is intrigued by his teacher’s frequent reference to another man, Kader Baksh, as the ‘great master’ of tabla. The boy learns to play tabla as well as pakhawaj, the barrel shaped drum that accompanies dhrupad singing which he is also learning.

 

He is pleased with what his mother has managed to accomplish but his insides still burn.  Without notice the boy makes the decision to leave home in Jammu and go to the bright lights and big city of Lahore, a day’s journey down the mountains.  Once he arrives he goes to hear a dhrupad singer perform and manages to convince the show’s organiser that he can sit in for the pakhawaj player who has failed to show up.  The show must go on, and though sceptical of the precocious 12 year old, the singer and organiser agree.

 

In the following days word spreads through Lahore’s large community of musicians about the little kid that accompanied the singer so expertly. His taals were impeccable.  And he never lost or messed up the tempo. It’s as if he’s been playing for 20 years not just a few.

These whispers reach the ears of an old Ustad who arranges for the kid to be brought to his baithak to see for himself who everyone is talking about.  ‘I’m Kader Baksh,’ the old man says. The boy instantly recognises him as the face of the man in the river.  When Baksh asks the boy who he studies with, the boy replies immediately, ‘You.’

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The boy in this true story is A.R. Qureshi aka Alla Rakha. After several years of ustad/shagird with Kader Baksh, Alla Rakha found employment with All India Radio in Delhi and then Bombay where he tried to establish himself as a music director (with some limited success). But performing was his true passion and through the early 1950s he performed and made recordings with the likes of Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan and an up-and-coming sarod player named Ali Akbar Khan, whom he accompanied on his radio debut.

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Alla Rakha

In 1958 he joined Ravi Shankar on a tour of Japan which proved to be Fateful for both men. In each other they discovered a kindred spirit: someone open to new musical ideas and unafraid to take chances.  Over the next 25 years or so Alla Rakha accompanied the sitarist on all his international tours and recordings and thanks to their performing in several major American music festivals (Monterey Jazz, Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh in New York) he became the most famous tabla player in the world.

Not only was Ravi Shankar an adventurous musical soul he was a star who didn’t mind sharing the limelight. On stage he insisted that Alla Rakha sit next to him (rather than sightly behind him, where accompanists usually positioned themselves) and regularly gave him space to solo and showcase his dazzling finger skills.   Indeed, the pair became one of the most famous performing duos in music.  Not only were both men supreme maestros of their instruments but they enjoyed a deep connection and understanding that made their music appear completely unitary.

 

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Buddy Rich

In 1968 as young America’s interest in Indian classical music was surging to its peak Alla Rakha made a landmark record with the big band jazz drummer Buddy Rich. Rich, like Alla Rakha, is an icon, often ranked very near the top of any list of ‘greatest drummers’ regardless of genre.  Rich was an exuberant, hot tempered man who frequently alienated friends and peers but, at the same time, “was one of the most technically gifted drummers to ever walk our planet. He had incredible speed and control, power and touch.”

 

Ravi Shankar composed several compositions for both men to play together and brought in smooth jazz flautist Paul Horn (who studied meditation in Rishikesh at the same time as The Beatles in 1968) as well as sitarist Shamim Ahmed to create a musical space within which the two geniuses could experiment.  The album Rich ala Rakha, which we share today, is a milestone in the ‘jazz meets Indian classical music’ story.

 

Of the three studio tracks with Buddy Rich, two feature Rich on the drumkit, while one is a duet between Rich on dholak and Rakha on tabla. The opening track, Khanda Kafi is set to a five-beat cycle, known as khanda, with the flute and sitar playing a melody in the kafi scale, hence the combined title.   Buddy Rich takes a drumkit solo in the 5/4 rhythm cycle, followed by Alla Rakha’s solo. The second track, Duet in Dadra, captures a spontaneous jam between the two drummers in the six-beat cycle of dadra.

But the most satisfying part of the record is the third and final collaboration…the only piece where they enter into a genuine dialogue on their respective instruments. Rangeela begins as a calypso-flavored composition by Shankar, played by Paul Horn on flute and Shamim Ahmed on sitar. Eventually, Rich and Rakha engage in a jawab-sawal dialogue in which they goal each other with a series of phrases traded back and forth. As the tempo increases and the phrases get shorter they join together and play a steadily building crescenco on the tabla and snare drum, increasing in volume and culminating in a dramatic tihai that complete an exhilarating performance.” (The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli, pg. 106)

 

This record is sometimes sniffed at by jazz snobs but it is in fact one of real significance. It is hard to imagine that any of Zakir Hussain‘s (Alla Rakha’s son) many collaborations would have been able to happen without this record.  Indeed, many jazz and rock drummers, including Mickey Hart of  The Grateful Dead, have cited the album and Allah Rakha generally as a huge inspiration.

 

In my opinion this is a fantastic album. I hope you think so to.

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Track Listing:

01 Khanda Kafi

02 Duet in Dadra

03 Rangeelā

04 Nagma E Raksh

05 Tal Sawari

RichalaRakha