When I first asked Karsh Kale why he called his music “Asian Massive,” he said, “Talvin Singh called his music ‘The Asian Underground.’ I wanted to say that we were no longer underground, we are now massive.” But Kale’s music is not just massive in the sense of reaching a mass audience. There are intrinsic characteristics in the music itself that are best described by the word “massive,” and these qualities spring from Indian roots.
Indian classical music is rich and complex, and filled with references to an intricate network of traditions and meanings. But all of that information is expressed in a single melodic line, which 1) both follows and breaks melodic rules, 2) layers cross-rhythms against a foundation which is mostly heard in the audience’s and performer’s minds, and 3) is ornamented by sruti (microtones) and other instrumental techniques, which color and change each note with the same kind of complexity that is produced in the West by orchestrations. Despite its complexity, such music will sound “thin” to people who are used to listening to the “massive” textures of a Wagnerian symphony orchestra.
However, it is not just Westerners who have been trained to hear in thick textures. For many years, Indian film songs were supported by large Western orchestras supplemented by a few Indian instruments. The arrangements accompanying these songs weren’t (and still aren’t) considered to be “serious” music. But as time has gone by, they have evolved their own kind of artistry which is both original and uniquely Indian. The earlier Indian film orchestrators had to write out arrangements for both Indian and Western instruments, and have them all played together in one take. These conditions put the improvising Indian musician at a disadvantage. Contemporary film composer A.R. Rahman, however, introduced multitrack recording, sampling, and synthesizer programming. These new technologies enabled him to capture improvised musical performances at their most spontaneous, and then later build the arrangements around them. “You can’t expect an Indian classical musician to read a hundred measures of rests, and then play 20 notes”, Rahman said when I interviewed him in London. “They’re like free birds, and you can’t cage them up that way.” Multitrack recording made it possible to combine the spontaneity of improvised music with the massive textures that could once be produced only by written arrangements.
The music of both Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz grew out of the orchestral textures that have been created for these contemporary Indian films, and the work of expatriate Indian Club DJs in London. Those DJs first used multitracking to create rich textures on top of traditional Indian foundations. What is now widely known as bhangra was first created by adding electronic drums and bass to recordings of Punjabi bhangra folk music. The Asian Massive sound continues this tradition of “cutting and pasting” contemporary and traditional music into a sonic collage, but uses a much broader palette of musical colors. Indian folk and film music goes into the mix, and so does classical. However, it is obviously impossible to fully develop a raga when it functions like a single stone in a musical mosaic. If listening to a classical raga is like dwelling in a cave with a yogi, then listening to an Asian Massive recording is like wandering through the Taj Mahal. It might not be as profound, but it is overwhelmingly ornate and dazzling.
However, this new technology is not a substitute for craftsmanship or creativity. There are still techniques that must be mastered by the DJ/engineer, and artistic decisions that need to be made. If these diverse elements are not combined in such a way as to be both related and distinct, the result could be an incomprehensible sonic mush. Proper placement of tracks in the stereo image is essential, which is why Kale’s and the Punditz’s artistry are only fully revealed in headphones, or when one is standing between two massive speakers on a dance floor. Skilful equalization is also necessary, because too much volume within the same frequency range can cause sounds to cancel each other out. And the use of multiple reverbs of different depth and sustain creates a sense that certain tracks are nearer and further from each other, giving a sense of a truly massive sound.
The Midival Punditz were, ironically, the first Indians actually living in India to create music in this style. The Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj duo patterned their “Cyber Mehfils” in New Delhi after The Asia Underground club scenes, and attracted young Indian professionals who heard the techno-aspects of this music as being exotic evocations of faraway London, and the Indian elements as accessible reminders of home. For my taste, their self-titled first album relied a bit too much on machines and not enough on human performances. InMidival Times, however, they have produced a beautiful balance between programming and musical performance, providing an original and effective showcase for the talents of traditional masters like Sultan Khan, Anoushka Shankar, and Vishal Vaid. The electronic textures add a rich grandeur to the classical performances that is both appropriate and innovative.
In Karsh Kale’s newest album, Broken English, he brings forth even more of his many talents to make the transition from DJ and producer to full-fledged rock star. The producer as the “front man” in a rock album will seem strange to American audiences—as if the Wizard of Oz were shouting, “Pay more attention to the man behind the curtain!” But the production is what is truly stellar about this album. Kale stamps every song with his distinctive style as he showcases different rap, rock, and folk vocalists, while weaving in his trademark Indian and techno elements. You don’t really want to hum the tunes or think about the lyrics when you listen. You just want to bathe yourself in the massive universe of textures that only he could create.
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.