Ali More Angana. Shubha Mudgal, Vocals. Jawahar Wattal, Musical Director and composer. Ravi Pawar, arrangements.
Magnasound, Mumbai, India. Available at most Indian Music Stores, and at www.musicfromindia.com
The expression “ethnic music” has been criticized recently, and with good reason. No one would call Beethoven “German ethnic music,” and it is similarly insulting to refer to the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions as “Indian ethnic music.” Music that communicates profound truths that transcend ethnic boundaries is rightly called “classical music”, whether it is produced by Europeans (such as Beethoven), Indians (such as Vilayat Khan), or African-Americans (such as John Coltrane). Every country, however, arguably has its own ethnic music as well. The polkas and waltzes played by Beethoven’s peasant contemporaries were German ethnic music. And every culture has its equivalent, which is also referred to as folk music. Almost everyone who grows up with it loves it, because it reminds them of home and childhood. Everyone else enjoys it, if at all, mainly for its novelty value.
But although I think most people agree that the distinction between classical and ethnic music exists, almost no one agrees where the boundary lies. Some would say ghazals are ethnic music, others would insist passionately that they deserve to be ranked with the best classical music.
Bhajans certainly sound like ethnic music when sung by “Hari Krishnas” in airports, but when sung by Lakshmi Shankar they are unquestionably classical music. And to make things even more confusing, there is pop music, which takes elements from both, and still remains separate from either.
The worst kind of pop music is written for people who are so infatuated with another culture that they abandon their own. I call this kind of music “cargo cult music.” The cargo cults in Micronesia developed religious reverence for the wreckage and trash that floated onto their shores from sunken American ships during World War II. These people weren’t stupid.
But because they had never seen an automobile tire before, they found it more impressive than a carved ritual mask which was a superb expression of their own culture. And similarly, people in other parts of the world often ignore their own musical culture, and embrace the trashiest American pop music that floats in on the airwaves. When local audiences stop listening to their own traditional music, local musicians copy the songs and stage personas of whatever is on American radio at the time, and add lyrics in the local language. The result is cargo cult music: a cultural weed which chokes and smothers almost every tradition it encounters.
However, if local music combines the exuberance of folk music with the subtlety and discipline of classical music, it can often cross-pollinate with pop music without losing its integrity. Does this actually work in practice? Yes, for Shubha Mudgal, a superb Indian classical singer, has done it. And her success as a pop singer comes from her ability to combine both classical and folk music with the electric elements of pop.
Even as a classical singer, Mudgal has been willing to challenge borders. Her parents were professors of literature, and she did not start studying music until she was in college. She chose her own gurus in a variety of styles, including different kinds of both Khyal and Thumri. But there was a unity underlying her studies which gives her music emotional power and artistic integrity. She can hold a note effortlessly on pitch without vibrato for amazing lengths of time, using either head or chest tone. Her sruti is subtle and expressive, and her fast taans are rhythmically exciting. And even Westerners who had no familiarity with Indian classical music were deeply moved by her haunting vocals in the internationally acclaimed movie “Kama Sutra.”
Mudgal, however, wanted new challenges, and so she decided to create her own style of pop music. The result was her 1996 pop album, Ali More Angana, which was a huge success, and the follow-up in 1999, Ab Ke Sawan, which did even better. Her producer for Ali More Angana, Jawahar Wattal, used many electric pop elements, such as drum machines and synthesizers. But the basic beat on almost all the songs is carried by Punjabi folk drum or tabla, with added flourishes from other folk percussion such as finger cymbals and chimchas. The synthesizer settings are all simulations of Indian Folk and Classical Instruments, especially Santoor and Bansuri. Not perfect simulations, for that would have been a pointless exercise in engineering virtuosity. Instead, Wattal uses heavy overlays of delay and chorus, which gave those instrumental colors the power of electric pop, while still evoking the traditional folk sounds. Add a large chorus of men and women singing in unison (strongly reminiscent of the background vocals used in both bhangra and qawwali), and you’ve got the ultimate cultural oxymoron–and electric traditional folk dance party.
Nor did Mudgal simply transplant her classical voice into this new milieu. Classical singers do not sing very loudly, for the style was first meant to be performed only in the living rooms of the noble families. Mudgal could have keep her voice at this volume, for the studio mixing board can put every instrument at the right volume regardless of how loud the original recording was. But she realized that if she belted out the vocals with all her strength, the emotional impact would be far greater, and it would make more sense when combined with the sound of large chorus. However, this did not stop her from carefully adding a few superb taans to the main melody, which go by so fast that only an experienced classical music listener would notice how technically impressive they are.
When the title song from Ali More Angana was made into a video, the director used clever visual references to all three of the these musical elements. There are none of the usual Bollywood/Channel V outfits, such as black leather, sweaters, torn blue jeans, or platform shoes. Instead Mudgal wears a Sari, and sits around a campfire with people dressed in folk costumes. When she sings, she closes her eyes and makes the hand gestures that classical vocalists often use in concert. But the camera creates an ironic counterpoint to this traditional image. The folk scene dissolves in and out to shots of Mudgal grinning impishly while wearing headphones, and close-ups of the recording console and synthesizers. And finally, there is a shot of an Indian audience in western clothes sitting in the chairs of a concert hall, which dissolves into a montage of Hindi newspaper clippings with Mudgal’s picture in them. It captures perfectly the secret of her success: If you create new possibilities, you can break the old rules.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for 15 years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.