79901ebbd20e235d8d18cd4908433468-5Every music critic has moments where he agrees with Laurie Anderson’s remark that “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” One way to avoid this problem is to write about music’s place in the world, rather than the music itself. Every classical album represents a long tradition whose history can be described in great detail. Every fusion album combines different traditions with modern influences, and a writer can always untangle the strands that the musicians have so carefully woven together. But frequently I get albums that I really like but which can only be described in terms I’ve already used elsewhere. Ironically, this is usually the music that deserves the most attention, and which is least likely to get a full-length review. This month’s column attempts to correct this injustice. Sometimes great music is great because it is indescribable; words can point to its greatness but cannot capture it. The following paragraphs are meant to point you towards a few of these precious musical experiences, but to really appreciate them you’d have to hear them yourself.

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Rashid Khan

79901ebbd20e235d8d18cd4908433468-4I recently received some albums by khayal singer Rashid Khan, who will soon be performing in a Bay Area concert. Bhimsen Joshi, one of the staunchest defenders of traditional khayal, once said of Khan, “There is now at least one person in sight who is an assurance for the future of Indian vocal music.” But Khan’s “traditional” sound became that way through a somewhat circuitous route. His guru, Nissar Khan, was famous for an innovative instrumental stroke-based style, which even vocally imitated the tones of various instruments. Rashid Khan supplemented this training by reincorporating a more lyrical style derived from other vocal gharanas. The result is technically impressive and emotionally compelling. Khan is a virtuoso musician with a beautifully modulated voice and a free-ranging imagination. Definitely an artist not to be missed, in concerts or recordings.

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Debashish Bhattacharya

Balancing technique and emotion is always a challenge for a technically gifted artist, and often only comes with maturity. Because Debashish Bhattacharya was able to build on the foundations laid by older Indian slide guitarists Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, he was eventually able to surpass them both technically. But his earlier playing taught me something about the limits of technical excellence, precisely because he was so good. The first time I saw him in concert, I spent the first hour in a testosterone-induced haze, dazzled by his speed and virtuosity. When I was 20, I would have worshiped at his feet. But once I remembered the profound emotional depth of Ali Akbar Khan and Jasraj, Bhattacharya’s music seemed only excellent, not great.

Now that he is over 40, Bhattacharya has something to say with his powerful technique, and makes every note count, both slow and fast. This artistic maturity partly derives from the fact that he is now playing instruments he designed himself. These three instruments were first featured on the delightful fusion album Mahima (see India Currents July 2003), and are patterned after the ukulele, the six-string, and the 12-string guitar. 3: Calcutta Slide Guitar is the first purely classical album recorded with all three instruments, and is a major milestone in the history of Indian music. Bhattacharya keeps in mind the unique sonorities of each instrument as he develops the raga, which deepens the emotional impact of his playing during the alaps and slow ghats. When he concludes by mobilizing the full force of his technique and speed, the emotional impact is even greater.

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79901ebbd20e235d8d18cd4908433468-3Deepak Ram

Deepak Ram is a classically trained bansuri player, whose fusion albums are strongly influenced by African music and jazz. My favorite album of his, however, is the purely classical Prasad. Part of my listening pleasure comes from observing how his interpretations resemble other performances of these same ragas. Sometimes I would hear half a phrase I had learned from Ali Akbar Khan, but altered to fit another tala, and combined with phrases I had heard from G.S. Sachdev or Hariprasad Chaurasia. Tracing these connections made me realize that a raga is neither a scale nor a tune. It is more like a network of melodic possibilities, which both changes and endures as it flows from musician to musician. My wife and I kept this album in our car until it was stolen along with my CD player. Because I thought I wouldn’t review it, I never asked the record company for another copy. I guess now I can ask for it with something resembling a clear conscience.
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79901ebbd20e235d8d18cd4908433468-2Ravi Shankar andAnoushka Shankar in Concert

When sitarist Anoushka Shankar began recording and performing with her father Ravi Shankar, she relied heavily on her ability to learn fixed compositions, acquired from her study of European classical piano. This made many exciting innovations possible, including harmonies and cross-rhythmic counterpoint. When I saw them perform at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, however, they were playing pure classical, with a level of interaction and imagination that reminded me of Alam Khan and Ali Akbar Khan. During the intermission I talked to Srinivas Reddy, a local sitarist with a tasteful, understated style. “Her jhala (strums) and deris (trills) have a lot of power,” he commented, “but she does almost no meend (bends) and her tihais are still all fixed. Raviji’s meend is beautiful, though, so the two of them are complementing each other perfectly.” The next set was described as “Raga Manj Khammaj,” but it was really Ravi Shankar playing whatever raga or tala popped into his head, with Anoushka and tabla player Tanmoy Bose following his lead. The result was a bit ragged in spots, but a good choice for jazz fans. This time I could hear that Reddy’s description was accurate, although their interaction was so seamless that I’m sure most people did not notice who was contributing what. It was an elegant balance of the energy of youth with the experience of age, and showed why the Shankars have managed to keep the respect of purists while reaching out to new audiences.

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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