I recently discovered a techno-dance album called Rare Elements, which consists entirely of tracks by Sultan Khan remixed by different techno DJs. I’ve always admired Sultan Khan’s accompaniment parts, and I saw this as an opportunity to devote an article entirely to him. This turned out to be a mistake, but a mistake that was well worth making.
The more I listened to this album, the harder it became to figure out exactly why his name was on the front. I had heard more of him on albums where he was officially only a sideman. There were great sarangi solos on every cut, but they were usually only four to eight measures long. The first cut begins with a powerful male vocal, which led me to think that Sultan Khan had been jogging or lifting weights since I had last heard him sing. A few minutes into the track, however, I heard a voice that was clearly the Sultan Khan I had remembered: soulful and expressive, but definitely that of an older man whose primary musical discipline had been elsewhere. I discovered that there were two other male vocalists listed on the inside cover, and it often seemed as if they had been chosen to sound like younger versions of him. So how was I going to be able to write an article about Sultan Khan when I couldn’t even tell when he was singing and when he wasn’t?
My first trip to the record label’s website(www.nudgie.com) revealed that this was currently the only album on the label (which was called 5 Points, clearly meant to be evocative of the world-techno label Six Degrees). There was, however, a promise that this album would be “the first release in a series of groundbreaking albums that will feature the blending of master musicians with the world’s top remixers.” The next time I visited the site, however, there was an announcement of future releases by an Anglo rock band, a Hispanic singer from New Orleans, and the quote in the previous sentence had moved to another page. What was going on here?
I discovered that 5 Points Records was one of many offshoots of a company called Nudgie Music, which was founded and supervised by a musician-producer named David Nichtern. The others included a New Age label called Dharma Moon, and a label called Soap Records because its only artist was a TV soap opera star who sang country music. Nichtern also composed and played music for that same soap opera (for which he had won three Emmies, and was nominated for a fourth), and had composed one of my favorite songs of the 1970s, “Midnight at the Oasis.” Despite the wide range of styles, there was nothing derivative or dilettantish about any of this music. Nichtern was clearly willing to try almost any style, but he was equally determined to put his own stamp on whatever he touched.
This Rare Elements album, although clearly aimed at a specific market, had a unique freshness and excitement to it. I couldn’t explain why, but I could definitely sense it. So I asked the publicist at 5 Points to send me the original tracks that Sultan Khan had sent to the remixers, so I could reconstruct the creative process that lead to the final version. Those tracks, however, were also highly collaborative, and had an intimate world chamber music sound that was very different from the final tracks.
“Sultan Khan was introduced to me by Falguni Shah, one of the artists on our Dharma Moon label,” says Nichtern. “At one of our dinners together Sultan started talking about me producing a record for him, featuring himself as well as Masterji [Niaz Ahmed], a wonderful Sufi singer and dear friend of Falguni and Gaurav Shah, who were longtime vocal students of Khan’s. It was totally Sultan Khan’s idea to record songs these four Indian singers would write against contemporary loops and rhythm tracks. So we gave them the rhythm tracks, and then they came back into the studio with me on guitar, Bill Laswell on bass, Kevin Bents on keyboards, and percussion and drum loops by David Marino and Jordan Leib. We all jammed on those grooves, with the song elements filtering in and out, all conducted by Sultan Khan. That’s how we created the tracks that were given to the remixers.” Marino and Leib (known to the DJ world as Brainpolluter and Radar One respectively) also did five of the remixes.
As I listened back and forth between the original tracks and the final remixes, it became clear what makes this album special. It is anchored by a genuinely fresh and spontaneous live jam session, whose energy shines through whatever electronic transmutations it received. Each track pays homage to a different remixer’s unique style: the dark hypnotic sounds of Thievery Corporation, Joe Claussell’s tribal house beats, the high-energy pulse of Ralphi Rosario’s club anthem, and the bigbeat world dance music of Nickodemus and Osiris. But there is also frequent use of some nicely retro keyboard sounds, such as the Fender Rhodes and the Hammond B3 (although I suspect that these are actually samples stored in a more recent keyboard). There is also artfully juxtaposed acoustic percussion, such as congas, dunbek and castanets. The volume goes up and down, the moods change radically, but the original enthusiasm is always there. When you consider that all of this was inspired by four Indians singing in Hindi, Punjabi, or Urdu, it’s really quite amazing how many different places this music manages to go, and how all the performers and remixers manage to both inspire and be inspired by such purely Indian sources.
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.