Kavi Alexander and Water Lily Acoustics had a special relationship with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. This is the second volume of the sarodiya’s music that the label released.
Kirwani is a musical scale in Hindustani classical music. It is an Indian raga specially suited for instrumental music. The scale is the same as the harmonic minor in western music. There are shades of Pilu in Kirwani.
This raga is a south Indian raga, assumed to have originated from the Carnatic system of music. It is a sampoorna raga which means the raga has all seven swaras in its scale. Songs in Kirwani raga have a melancholy, heart-rending and sentimental feel. It is a harmonic minor raga with moods of love, devotion and sadness. Ideally it is performed at midnight….a moody, sad time indeed for many of us.
Continuing with this series (sorry for not posting daily for this series; life is full on at the moment) I share a moody, atmospheric recording by Ustad Imrat Khan.
Mention the name Ustad Imrat Khan to any young Indian classical music lover, and chances are the reply will be, “Imrat Khan sahib? Oh yes, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s younger brother, the surbahar player.” But Ustad Imrat Khan was much more than just the younger brother of an iconic musician. He was also one of the finest instrumentalists of his time, an innovator, composer, great teacher, and the inheritor of the surbahar playing tradition of the five-generation-old Imdadkhani gharana.
Largely forgotten by a younger generation of listeners, he is a musician whose impact can be discerned in the instrumentalists of today. For one, the fact that he was as fine a sitar player as surbahar player was deliberately underplayed by his mother, Begum Inayat Khan, who was keen that the legacy of her late husband Ustad Inayat Khan be carried forward equally by both her sons, Vilayat and Imrat. From an early age, Imrat was encouraged to practise only the surbahar, on which he was trained by his uncle Ustad Wahid Khan.
Imrat was only three when his father died, so his gurus were his maternal grandfather, Ustad Bande Hasan Khan, uncle Ustad Wahid Khan, and brother Ustad Vilayat Khan. (Read full article)
Ustadji’s preferred instrument was the surbahar.
Surbahar appeared on the Indian musical scene in the early years of the nineteenth century around 1830. Although its basic structure resembled that of the sitar, it was much bigger in size and also possessed a number of features different from those of the sitar. It is said that the musicians of Seniya lineage were not supposed to teach the been or rabab to any outsider. Thus, the students, who were talented but did not belong to this bloodline, could not learn this style. According to some scholars, beenkar Umrao Khan of Lucknow, who belonged to Tansen’s tradition through his daughter’s lineage, had a large sitar made and named it surbahar, to teach the alap and jodalap of dhrupad anga to his favourite students. Ghulam Muhammed was one of them.
The surbahar had a relatively small span of life. It remained popular from the middle of nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century. (read more)
This is the album that shot Water Lily Acoustics into the mainstream. Or at least closer to the mainstream. Today, nearly 30 years on, it ranks in most people’s estimation as one of the best ‘world music’ albums ever made.
Kavi Alexander is a bit of a rascal. And he likes to bring people together and see what happens when he asks them to play. When he approached Pt. VM Bhatt with the idea he was met with resistance and words to the effect, “Who the hell is Ry Cooder?” Bhatt may have adapted the guitar to his own vision –thereby creating the Mohan veena–but he was fully committed to Hindustani classical music. Rascal though he is, Kavi is a persuasive soul and perhaps prompting from Ali Akbar Khan assured the maestro that Alexander was A-OK.
By this time his reputation was firmly established among that small group of people who dedicate their time and fortunes to extracting the most pristine sound possible from electronic instruments. If you are one of those or just interested in those technical aspects of his approach there are any number of articles/interviews on the web such as this 2 part one. Also here and here. Ry Cooder and he had known of each other but according to Kavi, Mr Cooder, one of the greatest and most respected American slide guitarists, was also a bit unsure about a collaboration with Bhatt sahib.
Nevertheless, it happened. The two men got together with a couple of percussionists (including Cooder’s son Joachim who is now a budding star in his own right) and simply started to play! So what you hear in this phenomenal recording is in essence improvised. No doubt there were a couple of sessions but prior to the men meeting (in a church, if not by a rive) this music did not exist!
Here is what AMG says about the album.
A Meeting by the River can best be described as a spontaneous outpouring of music, unhindered by convention or form, brought into being by musicians so supremely capable that the music is never labored, the technique of their craft always subservient to the final product. Cooder and Bhatt are genuine masters of the guitar and mohan vina, respectively. The latter, an instrument created by Bhatt himself, is a sort of hybrid between a guitar and a vichitra vina, and is played with a metal slide. This fact is just one of the many things that connect Bhatt‘s playing to Cooder‘s, who plays nothing but bottleneck guitar here. The musical interplay between Cooder and Bhatt is nothing short of astounding, especially so considering that they met for the first time only a half-hour before the recording of this album. The voices of the two instruments blend marvelously, first alternating melodic statements, then doing so together, each dancing around the other, playing cat and mouse, probing, answering, reflecting. They are ably accompanied by a pair of percussionists: tabla player Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari and Cooder‘s own son, Joachim, on dumbek. A Meeting by the River is one of those few cross-genre albums in which the listener never feels for a second that there is some kind of fusion going on; one does not hear the component parts so much as the integrated whole. However, one can theoretically separate guitar from vina, America from India, the Mississippi from the Ganges. Once this is done, the resulting music makes more sense than ever before, the combination of two traditions of stringed instruments that use slides to produce sound and value improvisation and voice-like phrasing. As good as this sounds on paper, the actual results are even more impressive. The splendor of the music is aided in its transmission by the fact that, like all Water Lily Acoustics releases, this album is masterfully recorded; each instrument is clear, distinct, and three-dimensional sounding. A Meeting by the River is a must-own, a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty, and the strongest record in Cooder‘s extensive catalog. (AMG)
And this one which gives some more details of the encounter.
If you do not enjoy this album…well I’m really sorry!
V.M. Bhatt is the younger brother of sitar virtuoso Shashi Mohan Bhatt, who was one of Ravi Shankar‘s first pupils, and he, his sister, and cousin all went on to study with legendary master. But despite a lifetime steeped in Indian classical music traditions, Bhatt is best known for his fusionary pan-cultural collaborations with Western artists like Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck, and Ry Cooder, with whom he recorded A Meeting By the River, which won the 1993 Grammy for Best World Music Album. Even his instrument of choice is unconventional: Bhatt invented the mohan vina, a guitar modified with the addition of several drone strings and eight sympathetic strings, playing it like a Hawaiian slide guitar to get the sustained, sliding notes common to the vocal style of Indian classical music. Saradamani is actually one of Bhatt‘s more traditional outings, with straightforward production capturing the impressive interplay between the string virtuoso and tabla player Sukhvinder Namdari. These North Indian folk and classical selections don’t reinvent the genre in the way some of Bhatt‘s more experimental efforts have, but it is an incredible performance from one of Indian music’s most distinctive innovators. (AMG)
There is a record label called Water Lily Acoustics. It is a niche, connoisseur’s label created by a person who can only be described as a mad genius. I am in the process of completing a profile of him for an Indian journal which I will share once it is published.
In short, Water Lily Acoustics had a long gestation period…between 15 and 20 years. It was the idea of a restless, spiritually inclined Sri Lankan who landed in Paris in the summer of 1968–peak period of hippies, protests, drugs and what seemed the dawning of the great Aquarian utopia. This man fell in with an artistic circle in France and later in Sweden where in a serendipitous series of events he found himself behind the console in a recording studio capturing the music of one of jazz music’s iconic figures, Art Blakey. The resulting album is now considered a collectors item renown for the pristine quality of its recording.
And so it went. From Blakey to Dizzy Gillespie to Dom Um Romão and many others, this Sri Lankan zealot in the cause of pure and perfect sound finally ended up in California in the 1980s. And with the chutzpah of a Biblical Prophet standing before the Pharoah gathered unto himself some borrowed Nagra recording equipment, a couple of high end mics and convinced Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, sarod master of Maihar to let him be recorded.
You’ll have to wait to read the full profile to see what happens next and fill in the gaps in this briefest of bios of Kavi Alexander but I want to start sharing with you some of his label’s recordings. The Water Lily Acoustics recordings are regarded as some of the best ever done and ideally should be heard on CD or wax and on a decent sound system. The Water Lily Acoustics catalogue–many hours of material remains unreleased–is one of the great collections of ‘world’ music ever made. Alexander’s vision to bring musicians from seemingly unrelated countries and genres together–often sight unseen–to make music together has resulted in some absolutely delightful and stunning performances. I will share some of these in upcoming posts.
But it was Ali Akbar Khan with whom Alexander formed an especially close bond and who collaborated on a number of recordings. The one I share today is from 1990 and presents the sarod master performing Raga Yaman Kalyan and Raga Jog.