Way Down South: Carnatic Music Mixtape

Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

My earliest idea of India was south India. At the time I was born in Madurai, a historic and spiritual city near the tip of the sub-continent, my family lived in a small provincial town in the northern part of Karnataka State. In my first 6 years the family moved between Gadag (Karnataka) and Madras (Chennai). Summer holidays were spent in the Palani Hills town of Kodaikanal where my older siblings attended an American boarding school.

My taste in curries ran toward sambar and rasam. Snacks were dosa and idli. Thick milky sweet coffee was more common than tea. Christmas holidays were spent on the beaches of Karwar or Mahabalipuram or Pondicherry. I learned Kannada along with English.

When I was 7 my father was transferred by his employers to North India. To the equally holy and historic city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Though I was too young to form any opinion about what this meant I do recall considerable anxiety within the family, especially my two older brothers who protested loudly. No one wanted to leave our familiar surroundings in the South and head more than 1500 kms north to what sounded like a completely different country. We’d have to forget Kannada and Tamil and pick up Hindi. The food was different. The mountains were steeper and more dangerous. And we would have to say good bye to all our friends.

As it turned out I loved the north. I learned Hindi (and later Urdu) and fell hard for the popular culture of Hindi films, north Indian sports like gulli danda and kabaddi and spent what seemed like years trekking around the Garhwal Himalayas. I spent my entire primary and secondary school years in Allahabad/Mussoorie and finally moved to the States to attend University in 1975.

Though North India was the part of India I became most familiar with, I never lost my South Indian roots. I always loved the food and visited friends and familiar places as often as I could. In 1977 I spent a year back in Madras with my parents who had been re-transferred back once more. Though I loved many things about the south I have absolutely no memories of south Indian music. To the extent that I had any awareness of Indian music as a lad it was Ravi Shankar and Bhimsen Joshi or Lata and Hemant Kumar.

When I started listening seriously to Indian music as an adult I found my ear was very much tuned to Hindustani (northern) music rather than Carnatic (southern). It has been a slow process to understand and appreciate the quite different sonic world of Carnatic music. And by no means do I fully ‘get’ it yet. Thankfully, I still have a few years left (hopefully) to grown my appreciation but there have been some learnings thus far.

First, I absolutely love the way south Indians play the violin. There are so many incredible violin players (some of which I’ve included in this collection) who can make the instrument sound so soulful and so at home in a variety of settings (jazz, classical, folk). Second, the south Indians are tireless explorers. They collaborate and adopt anything that comes their way. They’ve pioneered the carnaticisation not just of the violin but of the clarinet, saxophone and mandolin as well. In the diaspora south Indians like the pianist Vijay Iyer and saxman Rudresh Mahantappa are at the forefront of contemporary jazz. Third, in their classical singing there is a deep but different (from khyal) beauty. Something altogether unique and original. I don’t have the words yet to describe it.

I’ve put together this collection of several tracks I’ve enjoyed over the years. There is plenty more which may come one day in a second volume but I hope you enjoy this. It has classical flute, violin and singing. It has fusion. It has jazz/rock. It has qawwali (in Tamil). It has sublime depths. It is wonderful music.


Masterwork: Hariprasad Chaurasia

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

A native of Allahabad, where my family lived and where I spent my winter holidays between the ages of 7 and 17, Panditji Hariprasad Chaurasia makes the most beautiful music. Try not to melt or shed tears when you listen to his soulful playing.

Unlike many other great Indian artistes, Pandit Chaurasia does not come from a family of musicians. Rather, music is a path he found for himself and struggled very hard to overcome all the hurdles that came his way to emerge successful with his sheer grit, sincerity, hard work, devotion and dedication. Born on July 1st, 1938 in Allahabad, he began his musical pursuit at the age of 15, learning classical vocal technique from Pandit Rajaram. Within a year, however, he had switched to flute playing, after hearing Pandit Bholanath, a noted flautist from Varanasi. He tutored under Pandit Bholanath for eight years. In 1957, barely out of his teens, he became regular staff artiste of All India Radio, Cuttack in Orissa, where he worked as performer as well as a composer. From hereon began his musical journey that took him all over the globe.

Transferred by AIR (All India Radio) Cuttack to Mumbai in 1960, he received further guidance from Surbahar player Shrimati Annapurna Devi, daughter of late Ustad Allaudin Khan and sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Under her guidance, his music acquired a new dimension and he left AIR to pursue his performing career. [Read more here]

Years ago I shared a 1980 vinyl LP. Find it here.

Track Listing:

01. Raga Chandrakauns

02 Raga Bhoopali

03 Raga Bhatiyali (dhun)

04 Raga Jog

05 Raga Vachaspati

06 Raga Madhumanti


Folk Music from Western India: Part 11 (FINAL INSTALMENT)

Various Artists – Qaul

‘Qaul’ or Qawwali is a style of music that has evolved over the last 700 years. Part of the Sufi devotional music tradition, Qawwali has become a genre that is widespread across South Asia and can be found in Punjab and the rest of North India. Qaul is an Arabic word that translates to ‘promise’. Qawwali- a spiritual genre is a statement of the promise, devotion and love one feels for the almighty/ beloved/ muse/ Guru- all of which are referred to in a rendition and such is the potency of the metaphor that clear lines can rarely be drawn. Each one sings with their own meaning, the listeners understand in their own ways as well. Qawwalis can range in length from a few minutes to even as long as half an hour. They usually begin with an instrumental introduction that gently opens the piece and creates an ambiance. It is followed by the lead singer performing a few alaps (improvised unmetered melodies) that conform to the raag (traditional scale) of the song. After the alaps the lead singer performs a few verses which do not form part of the main song. He is mirrored by the accompanying singers who may add their own improvisations to the verses as they go along. Lastly, begins the main verses. These are usually sung in a traditional style and no improvisation is made on either the tempo or the lyrics. Throughout this process, there is a gradual increase in energy from the gentle beginnings of the piece to a powerful, uptempo, energetic end. This facilitates a creation of a hypnotic state within the performers and the audience alike and is believed to aid in connecting with the Almighty. This album presents Qawwali and Sufi performances of Punjab by Gurmej Raja, Shaukat Ali, Saida Begum and Akhtar Ali.

Various Artists – Kahe Kabira

`Kahe Kabira` is a unique compilation of compositions that are paradigms of the colloquial flavor of devotion in India. Saint Kabir wrote of philosophical and spiritual thoughts in very simple words and examples taken from day to day reality. He was brought up by a Muslim family who was weavers by profession and driven by an inner passion to decipher the truth of existence, he went on to become a glowing symbol of secular spiritualism and therefore appeals to all religions alike be it Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam. The verses of the saint are set to the sounds of Tandoora (single stringed folk instrument), Khanjeera, Harmonium, Khartal, Chimta, Dholak, and Manjira. The earthiness of the vocals and warmth of a folk rhythm together amount to a highly sonorous experience. Performed by the Manganiar, Meghwal, and Nath Jogi communities, the writings of Kabir are beautifully sung within social gatherings. Each song ends with an avowal: `Kahe Kabira Suno Bhai Sadhu….` which means- Oh Sadhu! Listen to what Kabir has to say… and goes on, to sum up, the moral of the piece in an aptly worded teaching.

Various Artists – Sancha Dev Baba Ramdev Rajasthani Bhajans

Regarded as the incarnation of Lord Krishna, Ramdeoji a folk deity of Rajasthan spent all his life in the uplifting the downtrodden. This prince who lived the life of a saint during the fourteenth century in India is revered as Ramshah Pir who is believed to have possessed miraculous healing powers and believed to have treated innumerable people from far and wide. Advocating the aspect of equality for all, Ramdeoji or Baba Ramdev treated the rich and poor equally. Disciples and believers of Baba Ramdev have put together devotional songs in praise of their Lord in this album.

Kurban Farid Shahi Qawwal – Fariyad

One of the most celebrated Sufi saints, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti lived in Ajmer – India. Born in the year 1141, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is a proponent of a unique Sufi order of the Chishtis and is lovingly called Gareeb Nawaaz – one who cares for, nurtures and blesses the poor. Passionate renditions are sung in his praise and worship by famed Qawwali groups and a unique style of music characterized by spiritual ecstasy has evolved in his honor. He is referred to as the generous hearted, the savior of the down trodden and imagined as a decorated, youthful, prosperous groom in varying compositions dedicated to him. It is believed that unless he wills no one can visit his shrine and millions throng every year to pay their respects and tie threads of hope as they voice their wish to their loving Khwaja. So endearing is the relationship between the believer and the Khwaja that he is called out to as ‘tu’- an address reserved for someone younger to one and with whom one has an informal relationship. He is believed to be a mentor at times and at others spoken of as one’s love and at yet others as the true manifestation of the divine.

Folk Music from Western India: Part 10

Various Artists – Band Baja: Folk Tunes of Brass Bands of Rajasthan

An essential part of carnivals, festivals and marriage celebrations all across the Indian subcontinent, the brass band comprising of an entire ensemble of brass instruments is integrated deeply in the Indian cultural tapestry.  A paradigm of the nation’s colonial heritage it was brought by the British in the 18th century and the immensity of its popularity in the present can be gauged from the fact that at present there are two thousand brass bands in Rajasthan alone.  The Manohar, Shyam and Ramzan brass bands are one of the innumerable groups now playing all across India. They conventionally play folk tunes of the region as they walk with wedding processions or station themselves at the entry point of the venue of the event. The tunes of the folk songs in this collection have never been changed since time immemorial and yet, countless times have their lyrics been improvised and a line added or a word changed or a theme played upon. Thus, it is the tunes that are so deeply intertwined with the experience of being a Rajasthani that a few notes of a rendition bring to the present the memory of innumerable occasions of having swirled to its beat either as a school student, with a group of friends or at a performance. There is palpable a sense of coming back home simultaneous to which is a feel of fun, frolic and abandon as is characteristic of the lighthearted, flirtatious and joyous Marwari folk songs. 

A group of about fifteen musicians dressed in traditional military finery plays the Clarinet, Euphonium, Trumpet, Trombone, Bass Drum, Side Drum, Clarinet, Maracas & Cymbal. All woodwind instruments are played in unison and their harmonization, which is a rare phenomenon in the Indian music tradition, is the defining characteristic of the Brass Band.

Swarn Yamla Jatt – Jatt

An ancient community that exists in large pockets all over South Asia, the Jatts have evolved into an integral component of the culture and society of Northern India, especially the state of Punjab. Not being a homogenous culture group they belong to a number of religious traditions of which Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism are the largest. In this album, Swarn Yamla Jatt, an exponent of the Yamla Jatt Gharana (musical tradition), presents a collection of folk songs from this Sikh musical tradition. These songs vary in mood and include spiritual, episodic and even tragic love stories. Some of these are as much as three hundred years old and handed down from generation to generation. The Tumbi, Dhol, Ghada, Harmonium, Tambourine, and Banjo are played as accompaniments.

Narata Ram – Bandeyan

Ninety-year-old Narata Ram is a traveling Jogi Faqir (Muslim ascetic) who spreads his spiritual message through music. He is both a singer and a Jogia Sarangi (Bowed stringed instrument from Rajasthan) player and has been performing since 1947. Often he is accompanied by the rhythms of the Dholak and Dauru (small hand-held percussion instrument) played by other Jogis who join him on his journeys. As he travels he sings songs that depict a variety of elements that relate to human life and are based on tragic love stories, historical narratives or simple events of daily routine and devotion to God. His renditions are like a philosophical and spiritual story-telling. ‘Bandeya’, is a generic Punjabi term that now is used to refer to any and every person but Etymologically it derives from notions implying a being that is in the service of the Almighty.

Sharif Idu – Beyond: A voice from a Bygone Era

The music of Dhadhi was traditionally meant to induce valor and instigate one to act. The tone is also one which conveys a strong belief, attempts to bring one face to face with truths and thereby tug at the soul. It is no wonder then that Sufi poetry could be sung to these typical Dhadhi rhythms with such gusto that was hitherto unknown in the Kalam and Qawwali renditions of the Sufi genre. The Dhadhi musical tradition of India has evolved over the last four hundred years. It originated at the time of the great Sikh Guru- Guru Hargobind who used to invite exponent musicians to perform in his court in order to inspire courage and valor within the growing Sikh community and both Muslim and Sikh Dhadhi musicians used to perform in the Guru’s courts. Traditional Dhadhi compositions are accentuated with abrupt yet extremely controlled breaks in a melodic structure that compounds with the accidental notes played on Sarangi.

Folk Music from Western India: Part 9

Various Artists – Sufi Kalam

According to Classical Sufi scholars, Sufism is “a science whose objective is the reparation of the soul and turning it away from all else but God.” Sufi music is identified by the writings of poet philosophers of the Sufi tradition which are sung to the tune of various kinds of musical instruments. The Qawwali and the Kalam are two most common genres of Sufi singing where the former is distinguished from the rest by a successive augmenting of tempo to accentuate the notion of losing oneself into the spiritual realm by way of music. A Sufi Kalam is more recognizable by way of the poetry and less by a distinct style of music. The performer, in this genre, not only sings out a composition that is rehearsed and perfected but is always a philosophically inclined being and in simultaneous surrender to the vocation and the almighty conducts the rendition in reverence.

Raza Khan – Call of the Soul

Raza Khan is Sufi singer, musician, and composer who lives a simple life despite his musical genius. He was born in Batala (Punjab) and started learning music at the age of 7 under Ustad Shafqat Ali Khan, who belongs to Sham Chourasi Gharana, a five hundred-year-old musical tradition from Hoshiarpur, Punjab (a state in northern India). Raza Khan is also an exponent of the Mausiki Gharana tradition. His ancestors were related to Tansen, one of the greatest exponents of Hindustani classical music. Raza Khan displays an extraordinary vocal range that parallels the accompaniment of the harmonium regardless of the upper or lower range it may exceed to. He makes the transition from modular vocals to falsetto with ease and his vocal style is characterized by long sustains in the upper register. It is this style that distinguishes him from other mainstream Sufi artists.

In this album, “Call of the Soul”, Raza Khan creates an ambiance of devotion through three unique Sufi Kalams (Songs). Each Kalam differs from the other but ultimately all connect the listener with the supreme power. His music makes use of instruments such as the Harmonium and Tabla while rhythmic claps are used as embellishments. The compositions in this album are semi-classical in nature and have been improvised upon and performed by Raza Khan himself. Raza’s objective is to create his own variation of traditional art and continues to work towards this endeavor.

Various Artists – Sounds of Kutch

Located on the western most tip of India, in the state of Gujarat, Kutch is an isolated island which showcases its cultural diversity. Tribes from Sindh, Pakistan, Persia, Africa, Central Asia and Europe brought their music to Kutch – music that has over the years given a unique identity to the region.

Instruments like Surando, JodiaPava, Morchang, Santaar, Ramsagar, Shehnai, Nagada, Dakla, Ghado-Ghamelo, Manjeera, Jhanj, are used here. The majority of the artists who have played the instruments on this album are engaged in occupations like cattle herding, farming, black smithy, truck driving, daily wage labor, and manufacturing of handicrafts.

Various Artists – Bavri Meera

Born a princess in fifteenth century India, Mirabai went on to become a Hindu mystic after she felt an extreme instinctive devotion to Lord Krishna, in the praise and persistent worship of whom she spent her life. Breaking away from prevalent social conventions and the bindings of her family and not bothering in the least about the infamy her devotion got her, Mirabai was a revolutionary in the true sense. Following her incessant innate drive which earned her the epithet ‘bavri’- implying someone who is mad, she created and put to tune more than 200 devotional songs- Bhajans, which are now sung all across the country. The songs in this album are those that are attributed to her though it is not entirely impossible that they were penned by others and later became a part of her legacy. As is typical of Bhajan music there is a simple repetitive rhythm pattern accompanied by soulful vocals and simple instruments like Dholak and Manjeera. Some compositions tend to gain tempo toward the end to heighten the feeling of reaching out to the divine.