Classical Hindustani Slide Guitar? The idea must have seemed strange at first. When Brij Bhusan Kabra first conceived of the idea, his father made him promise that he play only pure classical music on the instrument. He kept his promise, more or less. Call of the Valley, his most popular album, stretched the form considerably by featuring the first triple jugalbandi, with bansurist Hariprasad Chaurasia and santoorist Shivkumar Sharma. Kabra’s student Debashish Bhattacharya, however, has recorded some of the best Indian fusion music I’ve ever heard. His 2003 album Mahima remains one of my favorites, and I would say his newest release Beyond The Ragasphere is even better, if it were possible to compare the two.
Mahima was shaped by the visionary sociomusical techniques of Bob Brozman, who always immersed himself in all aspects of a culture before he tried to interact with its musicians. The result was an album that combined Brozman’s love of every kind of world folk music with Bhattacharya’s technical virtuosity. The songs were distinct and richly textured little vignettes, each with its own distinct mood: toe-tappingly rhythmic, or sweetly lyrical, or even playfully silly. My favorite was “Digi Digi Dom Dom,” which was originally inspired by nonsense syllables playfully uttered by Bhattacharya’s three-year-old daughter Sukanya. Now, over a decade later Sukanya goes by the name Anandi, and is the featured vocalist on Beyond the Ragasphere. It was not clear to me at first that Sukanya and Anandi were the same person, but fortunately she dispelled my confusion in an email. “Father was performing at the Rogue Folk Club in Vancouver when I was born, and got the good news when he reached California the next day.” She said, “He intended to name me Anandi, but by the time he knew I was born I was already named Sukanya by my grandmother. I perform by the name of Anandi, though legally my name is Sukanya. I hope that clears the soup.”
Although still a teenager, Anandi is now a mature and accomplished musician, who can hold her own with the many virtuosos that Bhattacharya has recruited for this album, such as bluegrass dobro player Jerry Douglas, drummer Jeff Sipe, flamenco guitarist Adam del Monte, electric bassist Mainak “Bumpy” Chowdhury, and legendary Indo-jazz-rock guitarist John MacLaughlin. Even though he plays (brilliantly) on only one song, McLaughlin is arguably the godfather of this album. In many ways, it combines the musical visions of McLaughlin’s two greatest albums of the 1970s, Shakti and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Shakti was an all-acoustic ensemble with tabla, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra was an electric band with rock and roll drum kit.
Thanks to amplification technology that was not available in the 70s, Bhattacharya’s album combines tabla and drum kit on several songs, and enables the numerous acoustic instruments to be as loud as McLaughlin’s electric guitar—when necessary. It also enables Bhattacharya to explore the full spectrum of dynamic range, combining many other instruments with radically different acoustic volumes. Bhattacharya is not the first person to utilize amplification technology to facilitate east-west musical combinations. The artful interactions between Steve Smith’s drums and Zakir Hussain’s tabla certainly come to mind.
But Bhattacharya creates combinations that work especially well, enlisting his team to create a variety of rich musical moods.
Each song starts with a raga and then searches for affinities between that raga and some other form of music. The first song opens with loud fast unison lines in raga Kirwani, starting with the strings, tabla and drums, then breaking down to a gentle interplay between tabla, slide guitar, and bansuri. The volume repeatedly rises and falls as each instrument solos, then finishes with a climactic tihai in full unison. “JD2 Pillusion” has blue grass dobro and Indian slide guitar playing in Raga Pilu, which subtly transitions into a bossa nova beat. Two great slide players on the same song sounds like it would be too much of a good thing, but it isn’t. Hearing them together underscores the noticeable differences in these two very similar musicians, as Douglas’s dobro provides a rich chordal foundation for Bhattacharya’s supple melodies.
“Indospaniola” and “Reflections Remain” combine Raga Bhairavi with the Phrygian musical mode of flamenco guitar music, accompanied by both tablas and flamenco handclaps. Theoretically, the notes of Phrygian and Bhairavi are identical. In practice, each tradition has worn its own melodic grooves into the scale, and even when they “copy” each other, the two guitarists add their own colors to the melodies they copy. Bhattacharya and del Monte sound like two speakers using different dialects of the same language as they trade solos, and the result is a fresh and thought provoking musical conversation. The stylistic contrasts between the two players is further underscored by the fact that Bhattacharya is playing his Gandharvi guitar, his largest instrument modeled after the metal strung twelve-string guitar, while del Monte’s delicate but fiery flamenco guitar relies on its six nylon strings.
“Ode to Love” features the slide ukulele Bhattacharya calls the Anandi, accompanied by Nishad Pandey on classical guitar. To make things a bit more confusing, Anandi the singer is not featured on this cut, but Bhattacharya plays a beautifully lyrical melody on Anandi the instrument. This melody was written while Bhattacharya was touring Ireland, but it sounds somewhat Brazilian, largely because of its use of the minor 7 flat 5 chord. The most traditional song on the album is “Khamaj Tarana,” which is, unsurprisingly, a tarana (vocal composition using instrumental syllables) in raga Khamaj. Even this song has its surprises, however. Instead of the traditional accompaniment of harmonium or sarangi, Bhattacharya accompanies his daughter’s vocals with his Chatarangui slide guitar (modeled after the six stringed guitar) and the main melody is further doubled by Pandey’s classical guitar.
Nevertheless, the two guitars faithfully perform the “ghosting” function required for traditional vocal music, and the artful variations in Teental should satisfy even the most dogmatic Hindustani purist.
Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances at www.bollywoodgharana.com.