Earthsync’s latest album No Stranger Herehas achieved a potent combination of semantic, music, and vocal expression; all bound together by poet-saint Kabir’s profound simplicity. It pairs Shubha Mudgal’s powerful singing to Ursula Rucker’s performing-style poetry set to the group Business Class Refugees’ folk-electronic music. There is an additional dramatic effect created by the cinemascopic orchestra comprised of musicians playing the violin, viola, cello, bass, contrabass, keyboard, and drums. And yet, instead of drowning out the lyrics, the music lifts them up.
Kabir’s outpourings reach out through the centuries, reminding us that the one true quest is to find oneself in the transcendental connection with devotion and to lose oneself in the divine. In his own words, in track four: “When I was, There was no God, When there is God, I ceased to exist, All darkness was wiped away, When I saw the lamp of knowledge glow within me.”
The title-contrarian track, “A Stranger Here” is the highlight of the CD, with Kabir and Rucker’s lyrics both seeking to find the elusive center of their lives. Rucker’s “Looking for my place, Where is my place” echoes Kabir’s “I am a stranger here, Who can I call out to”? Mudgal is arguably the best voice to bring Kabir into our midst, her pure, gusty rendition emphasizes the simplicity in Kabir’s lyrics. And Mudgal has also prepared herself for it.
In an online interview a few years ago, when asked about her thoughts on spirituality and music, she said, “What I am trying to do in my research is see how bhakti sahitya (devotional literature) can guide one’s music: Is there a way of feeling saguna (a God with more physical properties)? And is there a way of feeling nirguna (a God that is abstract)? What are those differences? Can one at any point sing both in the same fashion?” These contemplative refrains are heard in the khayal style singing she has brought to the album, where every mood, nuance, or word can be a world unto its own.
Rucker’s enunciation of her own poetry also produces a mystical reverie. Story goes, when Business Class Refugees’ Yotam Agam and Patrick Sebag worked with Mudgal’s creative vocals on this album, they realized that the sound needed something more; and in an inspired move, wrote to Rucker to wordsmith along. Rucker is known for her “steel-cut” social and personal commentaries—since her 1994 debut on an open-mic night in Philadelphia, Rucker has brought to her audience tales of love, separation, sexual exploitation, even crack addiction through her spoken-word poetry.
In the title track of her debut album Supa Sista, she says, “Rape, Hate, Blame, Conversion, I call on all Supa Sistas, to emerge from, the muck and the mire, set the brainwashed up masses on fire.” Her third album, Ma’at Mama was named after the Egyptian principle of universal order and balance. So she fit the emotional quotient of the album.
The arrangement worked out. Rucker’s contemporary rebellion contrasts with Kabir’s unpretentious acceptance of life’s truths; both raise questions and share perspectives born of their own experiences.
In track seven, “Something is Still Missing,” Rucker on her own urges you to open your eyes, and widen your view. Mudgal/ Kabir in track eight respond with, “None can unravel your mysteries, Seeking to unravel your mysteries, they turn mad, drunk.” Rucker’s words do sound simplistic and one wishes that the choice of words could match the drama in her voice, but they are not overly discordant.
All of Earthsync’s projects and albums deserve applause, readers will remember their Laya project where Sebag and Agam collaborated to tour the 2004 tsunami ravaged areas and record the haunting melodies of the survivors. These folk, in-the-raw melodies were then set to contemporary music, creating indelible memories and a musical homage to the victims. Their unerring instinct for sound and content has produced a must-listen blend of genres and personalities in No Stranger Here.
Priya Das is an avid follower of world music.