Category Archives: South Asia

Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Brijbushan Kabra – ‘Call of the Valley’

call of the valley

North Indian classical music, or Hindustani music, is one of the great art music traditions of the world. As such it can seem incredibly difficult to get to grips with. Despite the fact that everyone knows what a sitar is and has heard the word ‘raga’, where do you begin to listen to such complex and seemingly daunting music? After all, Hindustani music has the improvisatory nature of jazz, the emotional profundity and historical significance of European classical music, and the cultural weight of any form of sacred music – to say nothing of what it actually sounds like, being largely based around drones, rhythmic cycles unlike anything in ‘Western music’, and a seeming absence of anything like hummable tunes. On top of that performances can easily last over an hour.

Like any sort of art music it can be difficult to know where to begin with Hindustani music, because any version of it which is easy to listen to will necessarily be a watered-down simplified version, as satisfying as eating a few lettuce leaves when you want a three-course meal. By contrast, simply diving into the ‘real thing’ without a real understanding of what you’re listening to can just seem baffling, and probably quite off-putting.

One of the greatest recorded albums of Hindustani music manages to be probably the most easily digestible example of the genre, while not simplifying the music at all. It’s also by far and away the most commonly-cited ‘classic album’ of the genre despite being deeply atypical. Recorded in the late 1960s, just as Ravi Shankar was starting to befuddle teenagers at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock with this weird foreign music, ‘Call of the Valley’ is a collaboration between Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Brijbushan Kabra, consisting of five pieces of semi-improvised music that form a kind of suite.

It is innovative for a number of reasons. Firstly, it features three soloists. Most Hindustani performances will only feature one lead musician, backed by a percussion player (usually playing the tabla) and someone playing the drone instrument known as a tanpura. Duets between lead instruments, a type of performance called jugalbandi, are an uncommon but important part of the tradition too – but this is the only album I know of to feature three lead instruments. As you can hear, on this first track from the album, the instruments work together and complement each other as they sketch out each track’s main themes, as well as taking moments for solo display.

 

The second big innovation of this album is those instruments themselves. Hariprasad Chaurasia plays the bansuri, a type of flute, which has a long history in Indian music; Lord Krishna is often depicted playing it. Given that it has a range equivalent to less than two octaves, it might not seem the most obvious instrument for particularly complex music, but there are several other famous players, from Pannalal Ghosh in the ‘40s and ‘50s to current masters such as Ronu Majumdar.

The other two instruments are more unusual. Shivkumar Sharma plays the santoor, which is a type of zither – imagine a small harp lay down on its side, or the inside of a piano. The santoor, presumably related to the Persian instrument called the santur, has over a hundred strings, played by hitting them with small hammers. It has a beautiful timbre and is capable of producing a great range of sounds in the right hands, but until Sharma played it on this album, it was virtually unknown in the Hindustani tradition and only existed as an instrument used in Kashmiri folk music. Sharma plays a modified version that’s better suited to the intricacies of Hindustani music.

shivkumarsharma_13400

Brijbushan Kabra’s instrument may seem even more foreign to the Indian tradition – the guitar. (Yes, despite what it sounds like in the track above, it is just a guitar!) Unlike Indian stringed instruments like the sitar or sarod, a guitar has only six strings and so is not capable of producing the same rich, multi-layered sounds. Despite this, the guitar (or variations of it) has since become an important instrument in Hindustani music, most notably in the hands of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Debashish Bhattacharya.

So if this is such a weird album, why is it the best place to begin with Hindustani music? For a start, it’s not as daunting as a lot of records. ‘Raga’, the basic concept that most Hindustani performances are based on, can seem difficult to understand. A raga is the framework within which musicians improvise, perhaps similar to a scale in European music, although in some ways it’s far stricter – the notes must be played in a particular order – while also being far more fluid than a scale – different notes are emphasised or changed depending on the exact emotion or effect the player is hoping to evoke.

The skill of the musicians involved in ‘Call of the Valley’ is to provide an accurate representation of the five ragas they perform within a fairly short time: the first track, in the video above, is the longest, and it’s around 12 minutes. The musicianship is, of course, exemplary throughout, proving Chaurasia, Sharma and Kabra’s complete mastery of their instruments without it seeming like you have to take a course before you understand what it is they’re actually doing. Listen to the incredible phrase Chaurasia plays near the beginning of this:

 

Traditionally, not just any raga is appropriate for any occasion. There are more ‘serious’ and more playful ragas, ragas for winter and ragas for the rainy season, and ragas for different times of day. This is linked to the particular rasa, or ‘emotion’, that each raga expresses. Although the ‘time theory’ of ragas is not observed so much these days – since concerts are nearly always in the evening, it would be annoying to only be able to play the same ragas – but traditionally, it is very important and should affect not just what raga is played, but how it is played.

This album was the first to hit on the idea of playing several ragas in the order of the time of day they are played. The first track on the album is Raga Ahir Bhairav, an early morning raga, and the last, in the video just above, is Raga Pahadi, traditionally played in the middle of the night. The liner notes to the album go even further and suggest that the music ‘tells a story’ about two lovers meeting in the middle of a Kashmiri valley and then rowing a boat out into a lake… or something.

Regardless of that, the album is brilliant for demonstrating the essence of ragas in fairly small, easily listenable chunks, while still showing some jaw-dropping musicianship. Although it’s a long way from being the most typical Hindustani record, it’s certainly among the best, and the best places to start.

Brijbushan Kabra doesn’t really seem to have done anything of note after this, but Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia can now probably claim to be the greatest and most famous Hindustani musicians there are, particularly after the death last month of the unique Ravi Shankar. They’ve both gone on to record many more excellent albums, though none as immediate or as influential as ‘Call of the Valley’. They’ve also recorded together again several times, including ‘The Valley Recalls’, a sort of sequel to this album – and some kind soul has put the whole album, recorded live, on Youtube. The whole hour-and-a-half performance is of one raga, Bhoopali, so listening to it unfold is pretty different from the much shorter tracks on ‘Call of the Valley’ – but no less beautiful.

Various Artists – ‘Love Bollywood’

When I started this blog, my aim was to discuss as much great music as I could with as much variation as possible. So I sort of feel like I should apologise for another Bollywood post after having made another about ten posts ago. But whatever – I haven’t stopped listening to this compilation since I bought it, so it’s worth sharing.

Unlike innumerable comps which focus on the same singers and the same songs from the 1970s, this is a double CD which focuses on the best filmi sangeet from the last decade or so. The two exceptions are Asha Bhosle’s ‘Dum Maro Dum’ and Kishore Kumar’s ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ – both brilliant songs for sure, but from a very different time period from the other songs here, and anyway, they’re both on pretty much every CD with ‘Bollywood’ written on its cover already.

Not that you should get the impression that the songs on ‘Love Bollywood’ are little-heard obscure gems, because they sure ain’t. The first CD leads off with ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ from the mega-hit film ‘Om Shanti Om’, which features no fewer singers than Udit Narayan, Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan, Rahul Saxena, Shaan and probably a couple more besides. Anyone who accuses Bollywood films of being nothing but a triumph of style-over-substance glitz, daft dancing and utter excess in every conceivable way should watch this, because their eyes would probably pop out of their head:

Rest assured that it doesn’t sound much less ludicrous without the visuals. Special mention has to be given to the last minute: as if it’s not enough already, add a string section! AND THEN A KEY CHANGE!

This pretty much epitomises all the criticisms that can be levelled at modern Bollywood films, and by extension their music. But for me, ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ disproves such naysaying by being as completely ridiculous as you’d think it could be, and totally revelling in it. It’s a hard heart indeed that can’t see any sense of joie de vivre in that above clip.

This era of Indian film music is completely neglected by the ‘world music’ scene, where you will see people complaining that it sounds too ‘Western’, it doesn’t have the same ‘soul’ as older music, the singers can’t sing like the older singers can, etc. etc. But this comp isn’t aimed at the ‘world music’ crowd, unlike the Rough Guide series for example. ‘Love Bollywood’ is a show on BBC Asian Network, presented by DJs Raj and Pablo, who also compiled this, and so the CD is aimed at the people who actually see these films and can understand the lyrics. The difference is marked by the fact that the back of the CD names the films the songs are from, but not the singers – completely the opposite from ‘world music’-style Bollywood comps, which often seem to ignore the fact that the music is from films at all.

To some degree, the ‘it’s not as good as the olden days’ complaints are borne out by some of the tracks here – ‘Twist’ from the film ‘Love Aaj Kaal’ is a thoroughly hateable song which could have been excreted by any number of faceless, wannabe-American ‘R&B’ singers – but for the most part, these two CDs are a thoroughly enjoyable collection of pop songs. The ballads are soppy without being cloying and the rest of the tracks will make you want to dance. If this doesn’t motivate you to get those shoulders moving then you’re probably reading the wrong website, I’m afraid:

The tracklist features hits from most of the biggest films of the last decade or so, and is also pretty much a Who’s Who of current playback singers: Sonu Nigam, Udit Narayan, Sukhwinder Singh, Shreya Ghoshal, Alka Yagnik, Kailash Kher, Sunidhi Chauhan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and even the octogenarian Lata Mangeshkar, duetting with Roop Kumar Rathod, are all well represented, along with plenty more besides. Even Snoop Dogg shows up on the title track of ‘Singh is King’ (“watch me zoom by/Make ya boom-bye/What up to the all the ladies hangin’ out in Moom-bai”). Asides from a few duds (why include the Pussycat Dolls version of ‘Jai Ho’? WHY?), the song choices are great and show you through the highs and lows of the music, ranging from the high-octane ‘Mast Kalandar’ up above to the get-your-hankies out likes of ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’. There’s even the slightly more religiously-minded ‘Shukran Allah’, proving that it’s not all flirtatious dancing and immorality.

The excess and excuberance of these films and songs is not for everyone, but hell, that’s their loss. Of course most of it is slightly silly and over the top – that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? As a guide to what Bollywood actually sounds like nowadays, this pretty much ticks all the boxes.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Where to Start

‘True music fans’ will say things like, “oh I could never pick my favourite singer/band/album, there’s just so many, there’s no way you could force me to pick just one.” Well forget that fence-sitting tosh: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is my favourite singer. Or at least very near the top of the pile. He’s one of the absolute best there’s been.

Whether or not he was a great singer though, it’s kind of amazing that a balding, overweight Pakistani has become a globally famous singer, amongst Muslims, South Asians, both at home and in the diaspora, and amongst the ‘world music’ crowd. It’s more surprising given that the music he performed, qawwali, is not on the face of it very easy to get into.

Qawwali is religious music, with qawwals (the term for an individual song, as well as for the performer of qawwali music) usually praising Allah, Muhammad (pbuh), Ali (Muhammad’s cousin) or individual Sufi saints. Not only do the lyrics contain the same sort of allusions you find in other Sufi music – the Divine being conflated with a lover, for example – but also references to highly localised things specific to the saint the song is praising, where he lived, and his shrine. In addition, qawwals are usually sung in Farsi (Persian) and Braj Bhasha, an old literary form of Hindi, given that these were the primary languages used by qawwali’s inventor, the celebrated poet-saint Amir Khusrau, who also apparently invented the sitar – but increasingly, qawwals are also sung in Panjabi, Urdu or Arabic. This means that languages can switch between songs – but given the improvisatory nature of the music, for example singers inserting verses from different poems or songs into the main text of a qawwal, languages may even change within the same song. All this means that it’s unlikely that even your average Muslim Pakistani audience would understand everything being sung at a qawwali performance.

Thankfully, another defining feature of qawwali is its incredible catchiness. Melodies are repeated again and again, and the strong rhythmic component of the music has lead to qawwali being prime material for dance remixers (of which more shortly!). There’s not much specialist knowledge necessary to enjoy this at a musical level:


Performed, I believe, in Birmingham in the late 80s – just look at those smiles! The video includes translation too. Listen to the tabla break!

Nusrat did a lot to popularise qawwali and make it more accessible, from doing things like incorporating phrases from TV advert music into his songs when he performed in Japan, to creating fusion music which was more suited to the clubs of Ibiza than to a mahfil. While such a popularising – and occasionally populist – approach might seem odd given how intensely spiritual qawwali is, it makes sense that Nusrat would see it as perfectly acceptable, or even a duty, to reach as many people as possible, via whatever means possible, to spread the Sufi message. Who knows, maybe you can reach people via a Coke advert (yes, ‘Mustt Mustt’ was used in a Coca-Cola advert shown during the cricket World Cup).

Given this web of complexity surrounding the music, Nusrat’s stature, and the sheer volume of his recorded output, it can be a little tricky to know where to begin. Connoisseurs might point to one of his live albums, such as the justifiably famous ‘En Concert à Paris’ series or the ‘Live in London’ series on Navras records. Great as these CDs may be as a document of Nusrat singing live at the peak of his powers, they’re pretty daunting for a newcomer: many of the qawwals in these live performances easily reach the half-hour mark.

For my money, it’s difficult to go wrong with any of his more traditional albums on Real World. While these do make some concessions to accessibility, such as songs being slightly faster and shorter than on the live performances, they give a pretty good ‘authentic’ taste of qawwali. But it’s still true that sixteen minutes of harmonium might be a bit much for some people at first.

And so we come to ‘Mustt Mustt’, probably Nusrat’s most famous studio album and certainly the most ‘accessible’. It’s a fusion album which Nusrat made in collaboration with the Canadian guitarist/producer Michael Brook. The title track, a version of the qawwal ‘Dam Mast Qalandar’ (once again praising Lal Shabaaz Qallandar), was a big clubland hit after a Massive Attack remix, and once again following that Coke advert.


The Massive Attack remix of ‘Mustt Mustt’

Personally I’ve never been a huge fan of this album, but then it depends on what you’re looking for. Rest assured that, despite the credentials of the title track, it’s not a qawwali album: all but two of the tracks feature Nusrat simply singing tarana syllables (the South Asian equivalent of ‘do-re-mi’) over washes of synths and guitars. It’s an interesting album and certainly worth hearing, but I would hesitate to recommend it as a first Nusrat album just because it’s so unrepresentative. Although of course, the argument could be made that it is representative, just of another side of Nusrat’s music: he worked with Brook again on an album called ‘Night Song’, and has become a sort of godfather figure to the British bhangra scene due to plenty of remixes. Without even mentioning his work on Bollywood soundtracks, it’s quite clear that there was more to Nusrat than traditional qawwali.


One of the more representative tracks from ‘Mustt Mustt’

The albums I would recommend to a Nusrat novice as a great starting point would actually be another pair of ‘fusion’ albums, though of a slightly different tack from the electronica route described above. ‘Love Songs’ and ‘Devotional Songs’ are two of the albums that Nusrat made for Real World, but with the main instrument being a mandolin rather than a harmonium. Perhaps this makes the music sound a bit more familiar to a European listener who’s used to stringed instruments; either way, it certainly sounds nice. The songs on this pair of albums are between six and eight minutes long, and include versions of many of the most famous songs in Nusrat’s repertoire, such as ‘Haq Ali Ali Haq’ and his signature tune ‘Allah-Hoo Allah-Hoo’.


In spite of the pictures, this is the version from the album ‘Devotional Songs’

The melodies are lovely, Nusrat is in as fine voice as ever, and the backing voices and handclaps that add to the raucous, celebratory atmosphere of qawwali are still there, though in a slightly more subdued form than in some of the other Real World albums. One of my personal favourites is from ‘Love Songs’, the track called ‘Who Hata Rahe Hain Pardah’.

I’m glad I can imbed videos, because a large amount of Nusrat videos on Youtube have huge comment sections filled with vicious Pakistan vs India and/or Muslim vs Hindu slanging matches. Such fighting is not part of the Sufi vision, where it is perfectly possible to sing about Ali and Krishna in the same performance. At any rate, I’m puzzled as to how you can listen to Nusrat’s voice and get riled up. There’s very few singers whose voices have an instant, profound effect on you – but for my money, Nusrat is right at the top. Hopefully this post has given you plenty to investigate; I’m sure there will be plenty more Nusrat posts to come…

Rough Guide to Bollywood (2010 Edition)

This compilation would be much more accurately titled ‘The Rough Guide to RD Burman’. There’s 13 tracks here and 9 of them were composed by Rahul Dev. As a ‘rough guide ‘ – which presumably means an overview, taking in various different aspects of a scene or genre – the record falls down too. As great and important as Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar are, it seems bizarre that they warrant three tracks each on a 13-track compilation – particularly when the legendary Mohammed Rafi’s only appearance is a cameo on a song with three other singers, and Mukesh doesn’t appear at all. If you’re expecting an overview of Bollywood in its various stages and guises, you’re far better off going for the earlier edition compiled by DJ Ritu which features a variety of songs from both the ‘golden era’ and slightly more modern stars like Udit Narayan. A further criticism of this edition is that, while compiler Ken Hunt obviously has an encylopaedic knowledge of Indian music (he wrote all 7 chapters on India in the Rough Guide to World Music), he apparently wrote the liner notes to this compilation while drunk – there’s a distinct lack of factual background or information on the singers or films, replaced by pseudo-poetic witterings.

All that being said, it’s hard to muck up a compilation comprised almost entirely of RD Burman songs because, hey, he was brilliant. The three Lata songs are not among her greatest ever, but they’re catchy enough. It’s her little sister Asha who really steals the show, with the fantastically catchy duet with Kishore Kumar, ‘Aaya Hoon Main Tujhko Le Jaoonga’, an eight-minute stormer with flamenco guitar, clattering percussion and both singers at the absolute peak of their powers. A further Asha gem comes in the form of the extended version of the much-anthologised ‘Dum Maro Dum Mit Jaye Gham’, which features even more drug-haze guitars and even more vocal acrobatics from Ashaji. Hare Krishna Hare Ram indeed.

The representation of male singers is interesting, with Kumar Sanu (with the divine ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha’) and Manna Dey being given solo songs instead of the more usual suspects of Mohd Rafi and Kishore Kumar. The real delight of the comp is Geeta Dutt singing the utterly charming ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu’ – if you can make it through the slide-guitar madness, and Geeta singing “Mera naam Chin Chin Chu, Hello Mister how do you do?” without smiling then you have a hard heart indeed. It’s Phil Spector-style faux-innocence in a Hawaiian/Indian/English pop song and it’s the sound of joy. The one concession to modernity on the record is Sonu Niigam with ‘Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte’, which does have the sheen that can make modern filmi sangeet a bit distasteful, but the song’s knowing nods to older songs (a sample of ‘Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera’ for example) ensure it will bring a smile to anyone who knows their Bollywood history.

The bonus DVD is an odd one – purportedly a behind-the-scenes look at Bollywood, it’s more about Rajasthani puppet shows, and how they can compete – or not – with film’s unstoppable dominance in Indian cultural life. Interesting, if a bit of an odd choice for this compilation.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t live up to its title at all, this is still a marvellous compilation with a crop of uniformly great songs.