Lion in Winter: Talat Mahmood

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Talat Mahmood, the gentle, silken voiced ghazal master passed away nearly 20 years ago but remains a much loved voice among South Asian film and music fans.  I wrote a piece on him several years ago which provides some basic biodata of this often overlooked playback singer.

Around the same time that I wrote that article I got my hands on this album but have hesitated to share it.  Though the back cover gives a date of 1966 these tracks were clearly recorded much later. Probably in the mid-late 1980s would be my guess.

Mahmood‘s soft voice with its incredible capacity to emote melody and melancholy is instantly recognisable.  Its a voice from a bygone era. But also gone is the strength and control.  Talat sahib‘s voice wavers frequently and he struggles to hit notes that once came so effortlessly.  From time to time he slips out of key.  And for this reason I kept this record buried deep in my collection.  I didn’t want to do a disservice to the once beautiful voice by sharing a record that was clearly far below the standard he himself set.

But perhaps because I have recently passed a certain chronological milestone myself I now think differently.  We are familiar with the ‘official’ portraits of Queens, Prime Ministers and dictators which show them in that airbrushed eternal moment when they were 40. No matter that they are now twice as old and decrepit, it is this image we are supposed to remember.

I have always found this ridiculous.

Several years before the end of his fabled life Johnny Cash released a couple albums made when he was under real physical and emotional stress. That thunderous trumpet of a voice was now a hesitant near whisper.  And yet if was full of power and conviction. And in its way a necessary part of his life’s work. When I listen to those last tracks I get a complete, honest picture of Cash. If I never moved beyond Folsom Prison Blues not only would I be missing out but I would be cheating Johnny himself.  He was not ashamed of his state and never thought he should censor his voice. Why should I?

And so with Talat. He never made an excuse for not liking the direction—disco, rock n roll, electronic beats–Hindi film took in the 1980s. He settled into semi retirement and seemed content not to partake in the film world again.  But as this record shows, he never gave up on the ghazal. 

This is touching and humane record. A labor of love by Talat and his dear friend and collaborator, the arranger Enoch Daniels. It is a final hurrah of a master who is well aware of his limitations and the dimming of the day.  But it also a triumph of passion. The much weakened but still vital roar of a lion in winter.  And I am pleased at long last to finally share this collection of fine ghazals that should be part of every genuine Talat-lover’s collection.

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Track Listing:

01 Kahin Sher-o-Nagma Ban ke

02 Har Ek Mod se Milta Hai Rasta Koi

03 Ghazal ke Saaz Uthao

04 Dil Hi To Hai Na Aaye Kyon

05 Main Nazar Se Piraha Hun

06 Jo Tu Nahin To

07 Gulshan Mein Leke Chal

08 Mere Saqiya Mere Dilruba

Lion

Crown of the Universe: Taj Mahal, Vishwamohan Bhatt and N. Ravikaran

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My brother introduced me to Taj Mahal, the American blues guitarist, way back about 40 years or more ago. We all got a kick out of the fact that he had taken the name of India’s greatest icon even if we didn’t really ‘get’ the music he was playing.   Having grown up in India with very narrow music tastes, American roots/blues was a foreign country.

But it didn’t take long to understand that here was a great musician and I’ve been a huge fan of Taj’s ever since.  Like his old mate and one time Rising Son, Ry Cooder, Taj is somewhat of a musical explorer.  We may consider him to be essentially a man of the blues but he’s really interested in all the streams of  music that have contributed to the African American experience. Hence, he’s gone off to the Caribbean and explored calypso, slave songs and early American hill songs.

Among his most delightful albums are the ones like today’s share where he’s collaborated with non-American musicians. If you’ve not had a chance to hear his album done in partnership with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar you are missing a rare beauty.  It is stunning.

This album, Mumtaz Mahal, was made several years before CMCZ (and just a couple after Ry Cooder‘s own Grammy-winning collaboration with Vishwamohan Bhatt) and is equally intriguing. And satisfying.

The pace and feel of this collaboration is laid back and informal. Taj is definitely the driving force. He has selected an excellent, varied set of songs from the Jamaican classic, Johnny Too Bad, to the gospel gem, Mary, Don’t You Weep to the blues standard Come On Into My Kitchen and he delivers them beautifully.  You feel as if you have been invited into a small room with just Taj and a couple friends to hear the master sing from his heart.  Each song is unhurried and intimate. Case in point the introduction to the final track. The singer and his accompanists, some of India’s finest, are clearly enjoying exploring the melodies and playing off each other.

Whereas his album with Cooder is orchestral in its conception and elegant beauty, on Mumtaz Mahal, Bhatt plays a more subtle role. He fills in the gaps and nudges each song along.  While Taj lets loose with his voice Bhatt brings in the East reverb that somehow fits perfectly into the atmosphere.

This is a slow burner. It’s not as blood rushingly good as Bhatt’s collaboration with Cooder but it is as nuanced and beautiful filling the listener with joy and wonder and delight.

 

I love it. Hope you do too.

Mumtaz Mahal

Track Listing:

01 Coming of the Mandinka

02 Come On In My Kitchen

03 Rolling On the Sea

04 Mary Don’t You Weep

05 Stand By Me

06 Johnny Too Bad

07 Curry and Quartertones

TAJ

 

 

Ragamala Vol. 7: Yaman/Kalyani

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This volume of variations on raga Yaman opens with a modern jazz-influenced rendition by the Neel Murgai Ensemble.  A New York based ‘chamber’ quartet led by sitarist Murgai, NME creates intricate, finely spiced musical atmospheres that draw on Indian classical, jazz, and gypsy music.

Also included is bansuri master Pannalal Ghosh‘s beloved Yaman, a couple of film songs from Umrao Jan Ada (1981) and Junglee (1961), Farida Khanum’s spectacular romantic ghazal Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah as well as interpretations in a Western classical and contemporary jazz setting.

Yaman, also known as Kalyani, is by Indian classical music standards a relatively un-ancient raga. It first emerged in the 16th century with some claiming it was a composition of Mian Tansen and that he based it upon a Persian structure known as ‘Ei Man’. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the raga is often referred to as Eeman (in many varied spellings) and I have concluded this collection with a wonderful Afghan take on the raga  by Ustad Mohammad Omar, the famous rubab player.

Yaman emerged from the parent musical style of Kalyan, itself a style of classical Carnatic musical tradition called thaat. Considered to be one of the most fundamental ragas in the Hindustani Classical tradition, it is thus often one of the first ragas taught to students. In the context of traditional standards of performance, Yaman ragas are considered suitable to play at any time of the day, but they are traditionally performed in the evening. (Wikipedia).

Given its close relationship to Carnatic music the centerpiece of this collection is a stunning live recital by South Indian/Sri Lankan violinist L. Subramaniam and shenai nawaz Ustad Bismillah Khan. Listen carefully to this piece and to the playfulness, mastery and virtuosity of both musicians as they play off each other. It delights and enshivers!

Rudresh Mahantappa‘s group Dakshina Ensemble which features South Indian saxophone innovator Kadri Gopalnath and Pakistani American guitar whiz Rez Abbasi also explores the Carnatic original in their massive track Kalyani.

I hope you enjoy this collection as much I do!

Yaman

Track Listing:

01 Evening In A_ Raga Yaman [Neel Murgai Ensemble]

02 Raga Yaman [Pannalal Ghosh]

03 Zindagi Jab Bhi [Talat Aziz]

04 Raga Yaman [L Subramaniam and Bismillah Khan]

05 Yaman Kalyan (Largo moderato)[ Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar]

06 Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujhpar [Mohmmad Rafi]

07 Raga Emen Kalyan [Pt. Pratap Narayan and Kankana Banerjee]

08 Kalyani [Rudresh Mahantappa and Dakshina Ensemble]

09 Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah [Farida Khanum]

10 Shakal and naghma in the melodic mode of Emen (Yaman) [Ustad Mohammad Omar]

YAMAN

Ragamala Vol. 6: Bhimpalasi

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Way back in 2013 I began this Ragamala series.  I wanted to collect a variety of tracks from diverse genres that were based upon or direct interpretations of particular ragas.  I have to confess that despite many years of listening to South Asian classical music my ear is still as wooden as when I began to seriously pay attention to khyaldhrupad and other forms of classical music.  I think I can identify Malkauns but that’s about it.

I feel terrible about this. Surely, I should be more competent and clever. But each time I try to read anything about the structure of ragas the better to tune my ear, my eyes glaze over and my mind closes up shop.  There is simply too much new vocabulary to learn and I’m not sure how much such knowledge would increase my listening pleasure.

Of more interest to me is the mood each raga attempts to induce in the listener. I like to see if it works on me, and I’m happy to report that Bhimpalasi does.

Bhimpalasi is an afternoon to early evening raga. A time of day that for most modern families is stressful. Kids back home from school. Commotion all over the place and pots and plates banging in the kitchen.

They say this raga speaks to the melancholy, sad aspects of the human soul. And in so doing, is effective for the release of stress and anxiety. Some recommend Bhimpalasi as part of the treatment for depression.

I began this weekend listening to Ali Akbar Khan‘s interpretation from his Bangla Desh album (1972).  I’ve since listened to it a couple more times and this afternoon let Saskia Rao’s doleful cello sink slowly beneath the skin.   And I am proud (and surprised) to report I feel absolutely peaceful, light and relaxed.

There are some very nice interpretations here.  Lata sings two film songs (one composed by SD Burman, the other by Madan Mohan) including one of my all-time favorites, Khilte Hain Gul Yahan. An enigmatic early fusion/jazz group from the UK give us Bhimpalazi (1969) and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan contribute two straight-ahead versions on sitar and sarod, respectively. The Dutch cellist Saskia Rao shows how beautifully that instrument fits into the Indian soundscape and finally, Mehdi Hassan gives us a filmi ghazal from Azmat (1973).

PEACE. SUKOON. SHANTI.

Bhimpalasi

Track Listing:

01 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ali Akbar Khan]

02 Nainon Mein Badra Chaaya [Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar]

03 Bhimpalazi (Looking Eastward to the Blues) [Indo-Jazz Ensemble]

04 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ravi Shankar]

05 Khilte Hain Gul Yahan [SD Burman and Lata Mangeshkar]

06 Bhimpalasi Alap Jod Jhala [Saskia Rao]

07 Zindagi Main To Sabhi Pyar Kiya Karte Hai [Mehdi Hassan]

++^^%

Hymn for Bangladesh: Ali Akbar Khan

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A short and very sweet recording issued originally in 1972 in the wake of the Bangladesh freedom movement.

Assigning countries and labels to musicians is a waste of time in South Asia.  The land that stretches from Peshawar in the western part of Pakistan to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh was for many centuries part of an imagined cultural space which was once called Hindustan.  Yes, Pathans were different from Punjabis who were different from Biharis and Bengalis but uniting these many language groups was an ethos and a sophisticated cultural mode of expression.

It could be detected in certain rules of living and ruling. As well as in a language that if not spoken fluently or even frequently was familiar to people all across this region. And though there existed (and still do) countless styles of folk music in northern India the classical tradition was at home as much in muggy Dhaka as it was in arid Peshawar.

So to call Ali Akbar Khan an Indian musician is really just silly.  He was born into one of the most illustrious classical music households in Hindustan but in what is now called Bangladesh.  He lived and taught in the US for decades and has been awarded high honors by the Indian government.  His followers and fans are legion in Pakistan and he has made some of the most enduring ‘jazz/fusion’ recordings.

Ali Akbar Khan is a great maestro of the sarod, a son of Hindustan and a citizen of the world.

But in 1971 things were hot on the subcontinent. Bazaar garam tha, as they say. And it is not surprising that in times of intense conflict and suffering people remember their roots and pray for loved ones.  This album is Khan sahib’s prayer.

The first raga, Bhimpalasi, is an afternoon raga and is full of the artist’s longing for home. Bhimpalasi expresses the ‘Suppressed longing of a lover, but [is] serene, with dignity, and yet throbbing with deep emotion. Sung or played from late afternoon to sunset, Bhimpalasi is poignant and passionate, filled with yearning.’

The second selection is raga Sivaranjani a piece that glimmers with sadness.  In the words of one commentator “Sivaranjini is a hauntingly melancholic raga usually sung from late evening to midnight (9 PM to 12 AM). The meaning of the raga name is interpreted as Shiva-the Lord + Ranjini-to please. [Thus, this is] the raga sung to please the fearsome Lord Shiva.

Longing and melancholy in a hymn to a shattered homeland.

[CS 2042] front Track Listing:

  1. Bhimpalasi
  2. Sivaranjani

Ali Akbar Khan