The Rough Guide to the Music of India . Available at www.worldmusic.net

This is the age of coalition capitalism, in which no one business ever seems to produce something by itself. Today’s movies usually start with a series of animated logos by the contributing production companies—staring tigers, stampeding horses, small boys fishing from the moon—which sometimes seem to take as long as the movie itself. But movies are not the only art form that relies on coalitions.The Rough Guide to the Music of India CD has four logos on the back, symbolizing companies whose relationship is described thusly: “Produced by World Music Network, in association with Rough Guides, 11.11.11, and New Internationalist.” So what did each of these organizations contribute to this CD? There’s no answer to that question in the liner notes, and a Web search gives too many answers to put in a single article.

b437e524abc004c592f9aea2f6be069b-1None of these organizations are stereotypically capitalist; one senses that their executives wear jeans and sandals rather than suits and power ties. New Internationalist magazine features articles on Islamic feminism and the ethical implications of corporate globalization. The Belgian organization 11.11.11 gets its name from a yearly ceremony they hold on November 11 at 11:00 to remind people of the inequitable distribution of wealth between the northern and southern hemispheres. And Rough Guides provides all kinds of information for travelers of every sort: where to find good hotels and restaurants, deals on travel insurance and airline tickets, even guides for travelers through cyberspace. They rightly concluded that it was in their best interest to get people interested in as many different kinds of international music as possible, and World Music Network realized that those who came to the rough guides Web site would probably be as interested in hearing international music as traveling to different countries. And so the two companies joined forces to produce over 80 Rough Guide CDs, several of which feature Indian music. There is one CD entirely devoted to Bhangra, another to Bollywood music, and one with nothing but Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And for those who have trouble choosing, there is this CD, which offers a little bit of everything.

The thing that makes this CD compilation interesting is that it makes none of the obvious choices. There is no Ravi Shankar, no Ali Akbar Khan, and no attempt to focus on what is “pure” or “genuine.” On the contrary, the primary focus seems to be on the ways in which Indians have appropriated and transformed Western elements for their own aesthetic purposes. The inside panel has an image that expresses this perfectly: three Indian boys playing cricket on a dock near the Ganges river, using a bat and wicket that they obviously had made and beautifully decorated themselves. Cricket is, of course, now as Indian as samosas, and most of the music on this CD is every bit as Indian as cricket.

There are four filmi songs, each of which captures the spirit of a very different stage in the history of Indian popular music. The first song on the album, Asha Bhosle’s “Aaj Ki Raat” is clearly designed to be played through tiny crystal radios strapped to the front of buses—the sound is thin and squawky, like 78rpm vinyl. It also has orchestrations that are straight out of a James Bond Movie—twangy electric guitars, trumpet blasts, echo effects that make Bhosle’s voice reiterate like this-this-this-this, and whatever other Western pop music tricks were in vogue at the time. The song, however, is considered to be a classic. It is been rerecorded by many people, including San Francisco’s Avant-Garde Kronos String Quartette, and Bhosle’s version, for all its eccentricities, has an undeniable charm. There is one moment I especially like, which sounds at first like a girlish squeal, but actually contains subtle shifts in sruti that are genuinely musical.

One benefit of starting with an old recording is that it makes the rest of the recordings on this CD sound like masterpieces of modern engineering. A.R. Rahman’s “Thee Thee” from the movie Thiruda, Thiruda was recorded 20 years later, but shows a thorough understanding of both audio recording and Western popular music. Rahman’s music does not just borrow bits and pieces from the West, he takes the music to new places and discovers affinities with Indian music that make authentic sense. There is a similar high recording quality to be found on the many classical selections, with a strong emphasis on recently introduced or rarely heard instruments.

Mohan Bhatt plays Hindustani slide guitar, and Ravikiran plays the chitra vina, which is the traditional Karnatik equivalent of the slide guitar. Kadri Gopalnath plays a 19th century Karnatik melody by Thyagaraja on the saxophone. Kamalesh Maitra plays melodies on the array of tuned tablas known as tabla tarang, which was originally invented at the request of Uday Shankar to accompany his dance troupe. Even the relatively straightforward classical selections strive for something out of the ordinary. Sultan Khan is not only featured in a jugalbandi with sitarist Rais Khan, but also in a vocal performance of the Rajasthani folk song “Soja Re” sung as a memorial tribute to the recently deceased Allah Rakha, and accompanied by his son Zakir Hussain.

And all of this is described and explained in meticulous detail in producer Ken Hunt’s liner notes. His omnivorous affection for all aspects of Indian music was clearly the unifying factor behind this diverse album. I would quibble with his statement that the CD’s recording of the New Bharat Brass Band may sound out of tune “to Western ears.”

This is undeniably true, but anyone who has ever studied Indian music would know that it would sound even more out of tune to Indian ears. It’s just that the Indians wouldn’t care, because they would know that a wedding is not the time to worry about such things. But overall, Hunt’s notes are eloquent, perceptive, and well-informed, and make him the perfect tour guide for this colorful journey through the many varieties of Indian music.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.

 

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