Four Pioneers: Ronu Majumdar and Friends

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This is an album made by four boundary riders. Guys who are not interested in colouring inside the lines but rather always  hunt for new possibilities and new spaces.

 

Lets start with the star, Ronu Majumdar, a Banarsi Bengali who learned the art of flute playing from his father and Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao before catching the ear of Ravi Shankar.  Majumdar played with Shankar’s various orchestras and in addition to refining his technical skills picked up the great late sitarist’s adventurous spirit.  Over the past thirty years Majumdar has collaborated with an amazing range of artists from the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal to ex Beatle, George Harrison and REM frontman, Michael Stipe. To paraphrase that old adage from the American West, Ronu Majumdar ‘has flute. Will travel’.

 

On this particular recording, a fine example of purab/paschim (East West) fusion Shri Majumdar is joined by non other than famed and acclaimed American guitarist Ry Cooder. Among the greatest of American contemporary musicians—a man of vast knowledge, great taste and jaw dropping abilities—Cooder is no stranger to mixing it up with non-Western musicians be they Cuban, West African, Okinawan or Indian.  Here he plays a background role, embellishing the flute and tabla with quiet, reverbing licks but never really stepping out onto center stage.

 

The third man is avant garde trumpeter player Jon Hassell, another American.  Emerging out of the jazz world Hassell is renown for his (surprise!) collaborative spirit but also describes his approach as “Fourth World”. A unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” In layman’s language that means he seeks out musicians like Majumdar and many times channels his trumpet through electronic apparatuses to produce a very unique sound.

 

Holding this whole project together is Kavicharan Alexander, a Sri Lankan by birth, a Californian by residence and a genius by any standard.  His Water Lily Acoustics record label is one of the most respected recording brands in the world, promoted by classical, traditional and popular musicians all across the globe.  Alexander’s basic approach is to avoid hyper modern recording studios for more ‘warm’ and spacious venues like churches and cathedrals and to use a single microphone.  Over many decades he has recorded not just some of the great Indian classical artists (Imrat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan) but Ry Cooder, Jon Hassell, David Hidalgo often in small duos or trios with African or Asian musicians.

 

If you are not aware of Water Lily Acoustics recordings, you are missing out big time.  Even if you don’t have a $40,000 hifi system these recordings are full of humanity and pleasure.

 

So don’t hesitate here with this recording from 2000.  Called Hollow Bamboo (probably the weakest part of the whole enterprise) it brings together, like very few other records, some of the most exciting, pioneering and accomplished musicians to create a work that you will play over and over.  Its beautiful.

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Track Listing:

01 Vaisnava Bhajan

02 Krsna Kantha Kandam

03 African Queen

04 The Charmer of Braj

05 A Day for Trade Winds

06 Bay of Bengal

07 River Song

08 Hollow Bamboo

Hollow Bamboo

 

Dikkat mein Aaram: Music in a time of Coronarvirus

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Analysis and test, experimentation. Sars

Such beautiful specimens. Such disruptive little buggers. Here we go folks, Australia is heading toward lockdown and who knows when I’ll return to the office. Or the kids to their classrooms. Our holidays are cancelled. The local shop’s shelves are empty of the essentials (apparently even Oreos and Spicy Japanese Mayo are essential to human survial). And I’m getting ready for a long bout of cabin fever.

Perhaps you too will be feeling the pain of isolation. Loss of social life. Uncertainty about the health and wellbeing of your loved ones. Maybe you’re already there (in Europe, or China or South Korea) and are ready to punch someone in the face.

In such situations the only solution is not to stay calm and listen to Trump and Macron and Boris and Modi and Imran. They’re as nervous and uncertain as you. Except more. They have whole nations to hold up and hold together.

No, the solution, as is almost always the case, music.

And so dear friends, as you head off into the uncertain future of the next few months (and I pray you and I all come out of it in one piece at the other end) here is a swag of records to keep you compnay. A bit of Pakistani, India, Bangladeshi and diaspora sounds you can use to inspire you when you’re sitting all alone and blue and nervous. And Fed up.

Number 1: Magic Carpet (Magic Carpet)

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Magic Carpet was a pioneering British psychedelic folk band of musicians that first appeared in the early 1970s.

The band members were Clem Alford, sitar; Alisha Sufit, voice and guitar; Jim Moyes, guitar; and Keshav Sathe, Indian tabla percussion. In 1972 the band released an eponymous album, Magic Carpet, on the Mushroom (UK) label that has since become a sought-after item in the international collectors’ vinyl market.

The Magic Carpet album has been described as ‘a jewelled crown in the treasure trove of psyche-tinged folk music’ Magic Carpet being one of the very first bands to truly combine Indian and western instrumentation. After a launch at the 100 Club, London, UK, the Magic Carpet band performed at Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth’s Wavendon, enjoyed airplay on Pete Drummond’s Sounds of the Seventies on BBC Radio, plus made several club and festival appearances. However, this novel collective split up shortly after the first album was released. It was only after a lapse of some fifteen years that recognition followed.

Widely and more positively reviewed, the original Magic Carpet album was reissued on CD and vinyl by the UK Magic Carpet Records label.

Seven of the vocal tracks written by Sufit employ modal tunings in the guitar accompaniment. These ‘open’ guitar tunings, first introduced and popularized by musicians such as Davey Graham and Joni Mitchell, are supremely compatible with the modal tuning of the sitar, allowing a true integration of sounds. Sufit’s vocals feature on nine of the twelve tracks, the remaining three being purely instrumental.

Track Listing:

01 The Magic Carpet

02 The Phoenix

03 Black Cat

04 Alan’s Christmas Card

05 Harvest Song

06 Do You Hear The Worlds

07 Father Time

08 La La

09 Peace Song

10 Take Away Kesh

11 High Street

12 The Dream

13 Raga (Bonus)

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Number 2: Live in Concert: The Famous Qawwal of Lucknow Afsar Hussein Khan (Afsar Hussein Khan)

Some fine Lucknavi qawwali from Afsar sahib. In a space that lies between commercial and art, the work of Afsar Hussein Khan is weightless but not light weight and spiritual but not over spiritual.  Perfect when you feel the only solution to your boredom (asoodgi) and viral news is divine intervention.

download Afsar Husain Khan & Party - back

Ttack Listing:

01. Aaj Racho Hai Basant

02. Bekhud Kiye Dete Hain Andaz-e-Hijabana

03.Ye Hai Maikada Yahan Rind Hain

04. Sukoon-e-Dil Ke Liye Kuchh To Ehtaman Karoon

05.Asoodgi Se Ishq-e-Jawan Ko Bachaiye

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Number 3: Mirza Ghalib: A Portrait of a Genius (Various Artists)

A really fine collection of poems by the one and only Mirza Ghalib of Delhi. Short snippets (way to short by my reckoning) read by the sonorous Gulzar followed by elegant renditions by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Begum Akhtar, Mahendra Kapoor, C.H. Atma and hubby and wife Jagjit and Chitra Singh (separately, not together).  Thanks to long time reader of this blog Swarint for this collection!

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Track Listing:

01 Zikr Us Parivash Ka (Mohammad Rafi)

02 Ye Na Thi Hamari Qismat (Begum Akhtar)

03 Muddat Hui Hui (Mohammad Rafi)

04 Ae Taaza Vaaridan-E-Bisat-E-Huwa-E-Dil (Mohammad Rafi)

05 Qad-O-Gaysoo (Mohammad Rafi)

06 Sab Kahan (Begum Akhtar)

07 Bus Ke Dushwar Hai (Mohammad Rafi)

08 Nukta Chin Hai (Mohammad Rafi)

09 Bazeecha-E-Atfaal Hai (Mohammad Rafi)

10 Hazaron Khwahishen Aesi Ke Har Par Dam Nikle (Lata Mangeshkar)

11 Na Hui Gar Mere Marne Se Tasalli Na Suhi (Mukesh)

12 Kabhi Neke Bhi Uske Jee Mein Gar Aaj Aye Hai Mujse (Asha Bhosle)

13 Hairan Hoon Dil Ko Roun Ke Peeton Jigar Ko Main (C.H. Atma)

14 Main Hoon Mushtaq-E-Jafa Mujh Pe Jafa Aur Sahi (Mahendra Kapoor)

15 Kab Se Hoon Kya Bataoon Jahan-E-Kharab Mein (Chitra Singh)

16 Phir Kuchh Is Dil Ko Beqarri Hai (Jagjit Singh)

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Number 4: Bright Moments (Mehnaz)

Mehnaz. Carving a career \out in the shadow of an international icon is never an enviable task. But this chubby cheeked Karachi girl was not only up the task but in the reckoning of many of her peers, she succeeded so eminently and hers  is a talent second only to the majestic Noor Jehan. Or indeed, her own mother

Mehnaz was the daughter of a superstar, Kajjan Begum a ghazal singer and early pioneer of film music who in her lifetime was beloved all across the Indian sub-continent.  It was inevitable that she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and take up a career as a singer. But that she was able to make her own independent, revered and respected mark as an artist and overcome the comparisons and legacy of two of the greatest singers in Indo-Pak culture is something to pause and reflect upon.

In a time before Spotify, when artists like Mehnaz actually recorded albums, Mehnaz lent her name to a collection of her filmi hits entitled Bright Moments. In South Asian music this sort of record, one that was not tied to a specific film soundtrack, was called a ‘private’ record.  Bright Moments seems to be a semi-private album. Made up of film songs but marketed to a non-filmi audience who simply wanted to listen to Mehnaz’s lovely voice.  The title even suggests it was targetted at an English speaking middle class category of consumer.

Anyway, strip away the packaging, and what awaits you are several solid popular film songs by one of Pakistan’s most beloved voices.

Mehnaz Bright Moments

Track Listing:

01 Ik Gunah Aur Sahi

02 La De Re La De Re

03 Payalya Nighori Sataye

04 Pyar Karen Ge Pal Pal

05 Renan Jagaye

06 Sonay Do Raat Ke Ho Gaye Ponay Do

07 Wadah Hai Dil Tujh Ko Doon Gi

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Number 5.  Bangladesh – Chants de Lalon Shah (Farida Parveen)

Mrs. Farida Parveen, one of the top singers in Bangladesh, has given new life to traditional Bengali religious music, ‘Baul songs’. She has performed on numerous occasions on TV and in films, and has been very active on the international stage.

Mrs. Farida was born in Natore in the western part of present Bangladesh in 1954, and was brought up in Kushtia. She learned the Sargam (Indian musical scale) in her early childhood. At the age of 6, she became a pupil of a famous music master, the great Ustad Ibrahim, to learn classical music. When she became 13, she started to sing for Rajshahi radio station. In the Bengal region, mystic teachings about union between humanity and divinity have had a powerful influence on local daily life for centuries, and ‘Bauls’ ? mystic devotees who present these teachings in song as wandering minstrels – have played an important role. Among them, Fakir Lalon Shah was regarded as the most outstanding baul of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Rabindranath Tagore was strongly influenced by him. In Kushtia, where Lalon was mainly based, a festival dedicated to him has been held annually. Mrs. Farida’s encounter with Lalon’s songs there led her to collect and classify a great many songs of his at the same time she started her singing career.

When she was at Rajshahi University reading Bangla literature, she established the foundation of her career by becoming a nationally popular singer with patriotic songs and songs of the Liberation War as well as Lalon’s songs. She produced LP records, and sang for TV programs and films. In 1987, she received the Ekushey Padak (one of the highest civilian awards in Bangladesh), and in 1993, was given the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer. The high reputation that she has won has established her as one of the most prestigious singers in Bangladesh. She has performed in many different countries, including France, the U.S., and Japan (2002), to introduce Baul songs to the world.

With a solid foundation in Indian classical music, Mrs. Farida has rendered remarkable services to raise the artistic standing of traditional Bangladeshi religious music, Baul song, and to have this listed as one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Her contribution to raising the status of Baul song and to its international promotion has been immense, and therefore, she is truly worthy of the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Prize

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Track Listing:

01 Pare loye jao amay

02 Khanchar bhitor ochin pakhi

03 Teen pagole holo mela

04 Rup kather ei nauka khani

05 Barir kache arshi-nagar

06 Lalon koy jaatir kee roop

07 Ekta bod hawa

08 O shey bajay bansi

09 Milon hobe koto dine

10 Shomoy gele shadhon hobe na

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Spiritual Love: Tragic Love Songs of Punjab

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Sohni crossing the river to Mahiwal

At  the center of Punjabi cultural identity lay the tradition of what are often called ‘tragic love stories‘. These stories of star-crossed (not to mention caste and creed segregated and gender discriminated) lovers are embedded in the psyche, the art, the faiths and the languages of Punjab in a way that very few other stories or traditions in other parts of the subcontinent or indeed, world are.

It is difficult to really separate Punjabi identity from the characters-and all the things they have made to represent-of these stories. This is cultural DNA stuff, the stream from which so much else takes life.

There are many wonderful books and rich articles by the likes of Prof. Christopher Shackle (SOAS)and Farina Mir, just to name two scholars with whose work I’m somewhat familiar, that trace the origins and histories of these stories. Or in the case of Ms. Mir, how Heer Ranjha, perhaps the most popular of the tragic love stories, was used in multiple ways to promote diverse agendas in later 19th century/early 20th century Punjab.   Like all good tales these stories are open to many different readings: political, social, religious, spiritual, feminist, conservative and radical.

And of course all of them have rich musical traditions as well.  People have been singing about these great lovers and their travails for centuries.  And today we share a fantastic collection of songs curated by the good folks of DeKulture (Jaipur) that references several of these folk tales.

The album covers a number of musical styles from dhadhi, qawwali and kafi and spotlights the artistry of a handful of lesser known (by amazing) Indian singers and musicians.

Roohani Ishq

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Track Listing:

01. Dhola Maru (Vishan Das and Group)

02. Sohni Mahiwal (Sharif Idu)

03. Sohni da Ghadha (Shaukat Ali Matoie)

04. Kyon Hoon Dad Vatdayen (Gurmej Raja)

05. Tera Pyar Menu (Saida Begum)

06.  Laila Majnu (Shaadi Ram)*

07. Heer Jogi (Narata Ram)

08. Mera Ranjha (Akhtar Ali)

Roohani Ishq

*slight distortion at beginning

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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