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Slide to Freedom, a popular Indian-Canadian blues and country band, is releasing their third album, called 20,000 Miles, in October 2011. It will appeal to anyone who enjoys blues, folk, alternative, country, world, or Indian classical music. Yes, that is a lot of genres, but that is what you get when the artists involved are so diverse. The artists on this album are India-based Salil Bhatt (son of Grammy winner Pt. Viswa Mohan Bhatt) on the satvik veena, Canada-based Cassius Khan (tabla) and Doug Cox (on dobro and vocals), and the American Campbell Brothers and Betty Soo, on guitar and vocals respectively.
The “Slide” refers to the different slide instruments being used. Bhatt is the creator of the satvik veena, a 19-string instrument made of a 100-year-old oak wood block. The traditional veena has two inverted covered domes on both ends. The satvik veena looks like a guitar on one end, and a veena on the other. It can therefore sound like either, both, or neither, depending on which strings are being used. It is played by placing it on the lap, and sliding a tube of steel along the long end while plucking the strings as on a guitar on the other.
Cox plays the dobro, which is also a kind of guitar, played also with a “steel,” typically favored by blues musicians. The Campbell brothers are known for their gospel music, highlighting the electric steel guitar, and powerful vocals. Khan is well known in many music worlds as the tabla-playing ghazal singer. Soo is the rare Asian-American blues singer from Texas.
The origin of Slide to Freedom was in 2005, when Bhatt and Cox first played together. When it was time to work on an album together, the goal was to find a musical space where the Indian musicians weren’t trying to fit into Western ideas and the others didn’t have to mimic Indian music. They have stayed true to that goal in all their albums, which explains why Slide to Freedom’s work has been able to reach a broad spectrum of music-lovers.
The previous album, Slide To Freedom 2: Make A Better World, won a nomination for the Juno award, Canada’s Grammy, and featured Ramkumar Mishra on the tabla, in addition to Salil Bhatt and Doug Cox. 20,000 Miles has additional musicians, and is being marketed as blues and country music, which makes sense whenever Soo and Cox sing. There are two tracks that are indicative of the group’s synergies: In the first, called “Still Small Voice,” Bhatt starts with a very Indian sounding tune, closely followed by the other instruments. Soo then opens it up with gusto, the string instruments punctuating her rendition with a matching rhythm. In the second, called “Suislide,” Khan enunciates the bols (lyrics) against an electrifying string backdrop. Soo cries out in response, with Bhatt providing alaap (purposeful humming in Indian classical style). The influence of the Campbell brothers is evident in “Revival,” where the strings open up to Soo crooning, “…no husband beating his wife, no child hungry and alone…Hallelujah is this revival …” “Anjuman” is a classical Indian piece. “Angel of Death” has both Cox and Soo with moving lyrics and music. In “Spooky,” the band starts with a smooth riff on the strings, the sharp veena sound complementing the deep tones in Cox’s singing, which is very Bhupen Hazarika-like.
Surprisingly, Slide to Freedom is not the only Indian blues band. Consider this: There was a blues music festival in Mumbai earlier this year; an Indian blues band played at the Memphis festival in the United States; there is a blues club in Delhi; there are a few blues bands in India that play regularly at clubs and music festivals. So yes, there is a desi blues scene.
The conventionally accepted “blues” music, the legacy of the African American slaves is characterized by lyrics and vocals embodying the sound of anguish or long suffering, supported by the flattened notes of a string instrument, typically the guitar. The flattened notes, in music parlance, are called the blue notes. Why does this music appeal to desis? Tipriti Kharbangar, vocalist in the Shillong-based band Soulmate, that represented India in 2007 and 2009 at the International Blues Challenge in the Memphis, TN said in a recent interview, “It’s because it’s simple, powerful, and easy to relate to. I’m a very simple woman with simple thoughts, so this is the best way for me to express what I feel.” To Tips, as Kharbangar is called, blues don’t have to be about pain, there can be happy or sexy blues. Her musical partner Rudy Wallang, is a living legend in Indian guitaring circles. Soulmate has three albums, available online on their myspace page http://www.myspace.com/soulmateshillong.
Another band, Blues Conscience, is Chennai-based and plays blues-influenced music, with a rich, smooth sound. The band comprises Anek Ahuja on bass and vocals, Aum Janakiraman on guitar and vocals, and Neil Smith on the drums. Their work is available on their website www.bluesconscience.com
There are a few other bands, but their work is not easily accessible. The increasing maturity of the desi blues market though, is something one needs to look out for. Interestingly, while Slide to Freedom has introduced Indian instruments into the blues, the only claim to des by the other bands is that they are Indians playing in India, with some lyrics that are India-inspired (such as “Shillong” by Soulmate and “Kamasutra” by Blues Conscience). It will be very interesting to see how the desi blues scene evolves and whether it will make it big in the U.S. or international market. Or perhaps given the growing audiences, India will become a mecca for all music blue!
20,000 MILES by Slide to Freedom. Audio CD. October 2011 $14.78.
Priya Das is an avid follower of world music.