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


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




Hymn for Bangladesh: Ali Akbar Khan


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

The Twain Meet: Ravi Shankar and Zubin Mehta

Pandit Ravi Shankar

Pandit Ravi Shankar

I’m off again on an overseas jaunt and not sure what I’ll find in terms of time and internet connectivity, so before I board those silver wings, I’ll share a thirty year old record.


Ravi Shankar, who passed less than a year ago, was not just an Ambassador of Indian music to the rest of the world, he was an artist of never-ending creative curiosity.  He collaborated with jazz and rock musicians as well as a number of western classical icons.


Zubin Mehta, the Indian born conductor extraordinaire, grew up in a musical environment that included his father Mehli, sitting in with many Indian and international jazz musicians in Bombay, when that sit on the Arabian Sea was a global haven for hot jazz. His father also doubled as the conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and it was in that atmosphere that Zubin fell in love with western classical music.  Currently, he heads the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as well as serving as musical director of a number of Music Festivals in Europe.


This 1981 collaboration saw Shankar compose a Concerto in four parts, each of which was based upon the structure of a particular raga.  The result is quite different from his other famous collaboration with violinist Yehudi Menuhin which in essence had the two classical traditions playing side by side, but not as one.  Here, Shankar’s guitar is the soloing instrument within the context of the New York Philharmonic and as such it is a much more integrated piece of music.


Thoroughly enjoyable!

Ravi Zubin front Ravi Zubin back

Track Listing:

  1. Lalit (Presto)
  2. Bairaji (Moderato)
  3. Yaman Kalyan (Largo Moderato)
  4. Mian ka Malhar (Allegro)



Pilgrimage: Vijay Iyer



Tirtha is a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘ford’ or ‘river crossing’. In the Hindu sacred space a tirtha is holy place of pilgrimage, which as it so happens, often are on the banks of rivers, lakes or seas.  One visits a tirtha, a place where you can cross a river or other body of water, so that you can absorb the sacred energy and cross from the human to the spiritual world.  Varanasi, one of the world’s most hoary cities, is the most important tirtha in India but there are countless others: Prayag, Puri, Kedarnath, Tirupathi, Dwarkanath.

Vijay Iyer, is generally regarded as among the very best of a growing horde of very exciting, contemporary jazz musicians working in the USA of South Asian origin.

Born to south Indian immigrant parents Iyer started off with music a passion but with a career as a physicist firmly in his eyes. But as these things go, the heart won out and the world of quantum and string theory was left behind.

Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer

Born in Albany, New York in 1971 and raised in Rochester, New York, Vijay Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the US. He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning at the age of 3. He began playing the piano by ear in his childhood, and is mostly self-taught on that instrument. Vijay was also exposed to some Carnatic classical and religious music in his youth. His high school years saw a growing interest in jazz. After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at Yale University when he was 20, Iyer then went to the University of California, Berkeley initially to pursue a doctorate in physics. Iyer continued to pursue his musical interests, serving as the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage (a club in North Oakland) and playing in ensembles led by drummers E. W. Wainwright and Donald Bailey. In 1994 he started working with Steve Coleman and George E. Lewis and became associated with the musicians’ collective Asian Improv. In 1995 he left the physics department and assembled an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition. His 1998 dissertation, titled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics, applied the dual frameworks of embodied cognition and situated cognition to music.

Now an acclaimed New York-based jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and producer, he performs around the world with his ensembles and collaborations, including his Grammy-nominated trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore; the experimental collective Fieldwork, featuring Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey; the new South Asian chamber trio Tirtha, featuring guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta; his large-scale works with poet-performer Mike Ladd; and Raw Materials, his longstanding duo with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. His trio album Historicity was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and was named #1 album of the year in many publications, including the Downbeat Magazine International Critics Poll, the Village Voice Annual Jazz Critics Poll, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Metro Times, PopMatters, and others. His trio won the 2010 Jazz Echo Award (aka the “German Grammy”) for best international ensemble. Iyer was named the 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. (Read More)

While Iyer has, and continues to perform with a wide range of fellow artists, most of whom have no connection or affinity with his Indian roots, and while he would not want to be typecast as a musician confined by the label ‘South Asian’, some of his most outstanding and interesting work is with fellow Indo-Pakistani-American musicians.

Tirtha (2011) is one such, the focus of tonight’s post. My relationship to music is intuitive rather than technical, historic or analytical.  I respond to a piece or an artist or an album from the heart.  If it speaks to me I listen.  I know jazz lovers who are acute and insightful critics of the music from a mechanistic point of view. They can identify the changes and structures and sub-rhythms and seem to find pleasure in that.  And why not?  But it’s not me.

What intrigues me and draws me to this music, among other things, is the concept of tirtha.  A place to which one travels to cross over to another realm. The titles of the tracks all lend themselves to pilgrim concerns and as such are explorations of the spirit world and the human relationship to it.

Duality.  One of the basic debates in Indian philosophy is that of the nature of reality. Some hold that there does in fact, exist a duality between self and Self, even though the most profound and wide spread view is non-duality: we are all part of the One.   One cannot avoid such debates when on pilgrimage.

A longing for Abundance, whether of wealth, wisdom or love is what drives all pilgrims to tirtha. But equally, the devotee is confronted with Falsehood at the same time. Am I worthy? Are my motives untrue? Indeed, are the gods dealing with me falsely?

As anyone who has been on pilgrimage, or even just observed the faithful, knows, the essence of the journey is about throwing down a Gauntlet before the Divine. If you provide me this, I’ll do that. If you show me your face, I’ll correct my ways.  But back home the urgency is lost as Entropy and Time take their toll.  The pilgrimage becomes but a Remembrance.

Each track on this enchanting album acts like a ‘station’ along the pilgrim’s path. Focusing the attention of the supplicant, causing his mind to reflect and his spirit to take comfort, even if That Which is Sought remains far off, illusive or unclear.

Iyer’s subtle and suggestive piano playing is supported by sinewy guitar picking by another Indian-American, Prasanna and flowing taals from Nitin Mitta, a young north Indian percussionist.



Nitin Mitta

Nitin Mitta

Peace and joy!

Tirtha Tirtha_0001

Track Listing:

01 Duality

02 Tribal Wisdom

03 Tirtha

04 Abundance

05 Falsehood

06 Gauntlet

07 Polytheism

08 Remembrance

09 Entropy And Time


Exclusive Interview with Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi

One of driving purposes of Harmonium Music is the celebration not just of South Asian music but the music made by the South Asian diaspora. In our experience, these two communities—South Asian music fans and the diaspora musicians—have very little contact.  The latter group—diaspora musicians—draw deeply on the roots of their communities, families and countries-of-origin to give their music its true colour. Though they may be infrequent visitors to their ancestral lands, they are compelled to channel the Spirit, the rooh, of the places their fathers and mothers left behind. And though they may make music that has only the most tenuous aural similarities with the music of the sub-continent, they cannot imagine making music that does not pay its respects to those traditions.


Like any diaspora South Asian musicians are adept at, indeed required to, move seamlessly between multiple cultures and inhabit multiple identities at the same time.  The question of identity and of which label to affix to them is urgent only for the outsider. For them they simply are who they are. Born of South Asian parents into a non South Asian society. Their loyalties as well as their muses are not static.


Rez Abbasi is a Pakistani-American jazz guitarist widely acknowledged as being one of the best and brightest of his generation.  Recently ranked #1 Jazz Rising Star guitarist in the prestigious Down Beat Critics Poll, Rez’s guitar playing and compositions have been labelled, ‘pure genius’ by the authoritative on-line jazz magazine All About Jazz.

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