Too Much Fun: Sitar Psychedelia


My last post got me thinking about that brief bright moment in the 1960s when Western pop and folk music discovered the sitar.  George Harrison may have one of the more serious students of Indian classical music but he was by means not the only one.


As I was browsing around in my music library I came across one of those obscure off beat collections that make their way on to the music websites of the world.  It’s called Maximum Sitar: Maximum Sitar 18 Classics From Psychedelia’s Golden Age and it’s a doozy.  More dreamy than funky and more folky than rockin’ this collection is actually not just kitsch.  A few tracks such as Water Boy, Dhoop and A Visit With Ashiya are really nice samples of that 1960s folky/flower power era in their own right.


This is just plain fun.


Track Listing:

01 Eight Miles High

02 Free From The City

03 Many Times Jimbo

04 Water Boy

05 A Visit With Ashiya

06 Across Your Life

07 Face In The Clouds

08 Real Life Permanent Dream

09 All Your Ambition

10 I’m Gonna Be Free

11 Love

12 Air

13 Dhoop

14 Spinning Wheel

15 One Grain Of Sand

16 Thoughts

17 Oh Deed I Do

18 Ask For Nothing


A Pair of Icons: Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha


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.’



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.


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.



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.



Track Listing:

01 Khanda Kafi

02 Duet in Dadra

03 Rangeelā

04 Nagma E Raksh

05 Tal Sawari



Four Pioneers: Ronu Majumdar and Friends

bansuri wala

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.


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


Chowki Walan Jazz: Autorickshaw


You could make a good case that ‘fusion jazz’ began when Anglo-Indian composer John Mayer hooked up with Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott in early 60s London to record a couple of pioneering discs in which Harriott played his horn within a raga-defined soundspace.  I have done just that in years past.

Autorickshaw, a Canadian quartet, keeps this cultural exchange/interchange going by mixing Carnatic-influenced scatting, tabla beats, drone, guitar and keyboards to create an intoxicating sound that can be enjoyed at any time of the day.  Autorickshaw is somewhat of a northern secret, widely lauded in their own country but no where near the top of the name recognition stakes.  And I am not arguing that that makes their music any less worthy.  Au contraire, it is something that needs to be corrected.  But we’re up against that Canadian low key ‘aw shucks’ humility that eschews over reach and overt ambition.   Autoricksaw seems happy to put-put around the world to jazz festivals building their audience and garnering accolades the old fashioned way–through hard work, dedication to their art and exploring their

Four Higherthe group’s second release opens with a slightly puja-esque invocation of Saraswati, the divine patron of education, learning, music and art.  Vocalist, and group leader, Suba Sankaran, has a voice that is able to embrace both Indian classical and jazz singing styles and do so completely naturally.  The other players in the band build their work around Sankaran’s vocals in a way that renders her efforts the bright yellow center of a pink lotus flower.

Several more fused interpretations of Caranatic ragams follow (Purvi Tillana, Ganamurthy, Unjalur) before the trio take on the standard A Night in Tunisia which provides an opportunity to honour the other tributary of their musical stream.  For my money, while Tunisia is pleasant they don’t manage to give it sufficient new oomph to make you want more.   That is not true of the Indian based tracks all of which are far more interesting. Sankaran’s vocal meanderings are often set against a minimalist backdrop of bass and tabla giving each player lots of room to run, twist, stop and change direction. In these tracks the real excitement of ‘Indo-jazz/fusion’ explodes and reminds me why I love this genre so much.

For me the ‘statement’ track of the record is Chennai Five-0 a hommage to the 60’s cop show hit Hawaii Five-0.   “Inspired by” more than “interpreted” this track showcases what this band is all about…a multi-cultural fluency that can move seamlessly across all sorts of lines in interesting and exciting ways.  Dylan Bell provides the jerky funky bassline that forms the spine of this track while Sanakaran scatting take a more supporting role.  Sankaran’s dual cultural identity are evoked beautifully with skill, imagination and a cheeky sense of fun.

Getting back to the very beginning of this article and the notion of ‘fusion jazz’.  What does one call the music that Autorickshaw and similar groups make.  When I hear fusion I think of Chick CoreaReturn to Forever or Herbie Hancock‘s 1970s ouput.  The genre (to my mind) is heavily influenced by rock sensibilities and attitudes.  Indo-jazz or desi-jazz doesn’t do it either. Both seem slightly derogatory terms somehow, but maybe that’s just me.

I’ve been playing around with alternative names to this sort of music and haven’t landed on anything I like. Sangam (a coming together of two currents) jazz? A bit too Hindu.   World fusion? A marketer’s label, completely soulless.

The best I can come up with now is a Punjabified version: Chowki Walan Jazz–the jazz from the chowk (meeting point; crossroads). Too cumbersome I know. It doesn’t so much slip off the tongue as stumble off it. But somehow it embodies the lively spirit of this sort of South Asia infected modern jazz more feelingly than any other label.

Ok, I’ll shut up now and let Autorickshaw do their stuff!


Track Listing:

01 Saraswati

02 Purvi Tillana

03 Ganamurthy

04 Unjalur

05 A Night in Tunisia

06 Ragam

07 Tanam

08 Tisra Tani

09 Chennai Five-0

10 Across the Sands

11 Caravan




Tragedy Songs: Meena Kumari


Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari was the epitome of tragedy. In her short life of less than 40 years she had the adoration of millions but felt little love. She is remembered as an artist who achieved the highest peaks but spent much of her life stuck in a deep emotional pit.  Like Judy Garland, she arrived sensationally on the screen as a young girl and passed away long before her time.


I remember my Hindi teacher, Saroj Kapadia, talking about a movie that was about to be released with excitement.  For weeks she didn’t let a class go by without dropping a mention of it.  She promised that when it finally reached Rialto in Kulri bazaar she would secure permission to take our whole class to see it.  The movie of course was Pakeezah, one of the giant milestones of Hindi cinema.


In addition to mentioning the film’s name Mrs Kapadia kept referring to Meena Kumari and that she had died recently. Just a few weeks after the film’s release in fact.  The circumstances under which the film had been made were difficult. Meena Kumari was married to the film’s director but it was not a happy marriage. And though production on Pakeezah had begun as early as 1956 changes in technology and the couple’s strained relations and eventual divorce brought the project to a premature dead end.


Meena had led a public life since the age of 6 when she appeared in the movie Leatherface as Baby Meena.  Throughout the 50s she became one of the premier actresses of Hindi movies with leads in a number of classics like Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Foot Path. Her performances were always powerful and compelling and recognised by her peers in the form of multiple Filmfare Awards.


Child stars must be some of the loneliest of people. Shoved into an artificial world of performance in which no one has time or need for the ‘real’ person, they become withdrawn, frightened, angry and self destructive. One need look no further than the horrific and sad life of Michael Jackson for a contemporary case in point.  Meena’s family, it is said, saw her star status as economic security and offered up discipline and reprimand rather than love.  Like Garland or Marilyn Monroe, Meena Kumari turned to love affairs and eventually substance abuse to quell her inner demons.


The relationship with Kamal Amrohi was rocky and their grand cinematic dream of Pakeezah came to a halt when they divorced in 1964.  For long periods Meena didn’t socialise preferring to stay in and drink.  Yet when Amrohi negotiated a deal to finish the film—after a 10 year gap—Meena was ill with cirhossis. But she insisted upon finishing the film which was finally released in early February 1972.  Meena Kumari passed away at the end of March, the same year.


Meena Kumari like many stars both loved and hated her day job.  Throughout her life she nurtured her interest in poetry and wrote her own verse quite well.  Her grandfather had been a prominent Urdu poet in his day and perhaps she found the love she didn’t find in her immediate circle by following in his footsteps.

In 1970 Polydor released a recording of her singing some of her poems, with music scored by music director Khayyam.  This is the album I share today.

It is an interesting one. The poetry is deeply felt if dark. At times it tends to self pity (at least to Western ears) but in other places it is compact and full of emotion.  Throughout it paints a picture of a soul scarred with pain and resignation and as such is an authentic portrait of the artist.

The music is wonderfully conceived as accompaniment, surrounding the delicate, often shattered spirit and voice of the poet with warmth and solidity.   Meena’s voice can best be described as rough.  There is not much melody or range here. But that is more than made up for with feeling, feeling, feeling.


Shama hun/phool hun

Ya ret ka qadamon ka Nishan

Aap ko haq hai mujhe jo bhi chahe kahle


I’m the flam and the bloom

The footprints in the sand

Say whatever you desire about me, it is your right


This is sad stuff. But as with many sad and tragic things this record in all its beauty and raw despair cries out to something deep in all of us.

meena kumari front

Meena Kumari back

Track Listing.

01 Akelay Pan

02 Tukray Tukray

03 Poochhtay Ho To Suno

04 Mera Mazi

05 Chand Tanha

06 Shama Hun Phool Hun

07 Aghaaz To Hota Hai

08 Abla Paa

09 Yeh Noor Kaisa Hai

10 Yun Teri Raah