New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: indian music

Breathtakingly Gorgeous Interpretations of Rumi Love Poems From Katayoun Goudarzi

Singer Katayoun Goudarzi‘s voice is Albert Camus’ concept of lucidité brought to life. She sings with a disarming, viscerally breathtaking, completely unselfconscious clarity and, ultimately, hope. Her latest album, This Pale – streaming in various places at youtube – is a series of incandescent settings of Rumi love poems, played by her longtime collaborator, sitarist Shujaat Khan with ney flutist Shaho Andalibi and tabla player Shariq Mustafa. Goudarzi took her initial inspiration for the project from the irony that Rumi’s work would be reaching a peak of popularity in America in the months after the 2016 Presidential election, when hatred and bigotry were seeping out from under every rock.

Wild, the album’s first track, has a matter-of-fact tenderness – and when Goudarzi becomes more assertive, the effect is breathtaking. Likewise, Khan develops a backdrop that begins starry, then he adds triumphant ornamention. Meanwhile, the percussion grows more energetic, Andalibi’s dreamy solo at the center.

The second track, One is more of an amiably lilting ghazal. Mustafa doesn’t waste his time bringing his flurrying beats front and center; Khan’s glistening solo sets up Goudarzi’s soaring crescendo. He takes a bright, tantalizingly curlicuing alap to introduce Tender: Goudarzi varies her vibrato from a resolute gentleness to a shivery expectancy.

Andalibi’s mystical, mysterious ney trades off with Khan’s bracing Middle Eastern-flavored modal work as Sweetest gets underway. Paradoxically, it’s the most hypnotic yet most energetic and arguably most straightforwardly beautiful track here.

Khan builds a barely restrained vigorousness to begin Still Here, then Goudarzi engages in wistful exchanges with Andalibi. Sitar and tabla join in a pensive, purposeful stroll, Goudarzi reaching for the night sky before the group calmly recede. She decided to record the final poem, All I’ve Got after hearing from a woman fan in Afghanistan who would sing quietly, in secret, around the house and hoped that someday Goudarzi would sing it for her. From Khan’s spellbinding chromatic intro, to Goudarzi’s resolute, impassioned vocals and Andalibi’s desolate ney, it’s a stunning way to close the album.

In the most troubled time in world history, we are fortunate to have artists like Goudarzi to remind us that the forces of love and compassion are infinitely more powerful than anything any wannabe tyrant could throw at us.

A New Album of Warm, Imaginatively Textured Sikh Spiritual Songs From Manika Kaur

For those who like the idea of Enya but find her music insubstantial and samey, singer Manika Kaur is your elixir. Her latest album Ek (“Oneness”) – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything that’s made her a favorite among fans of Sikh sacred music. It’s a mix of new and ancient kirtan themes and ambient music with occasional, playful hints of jazz.

The opening track has santoor, tabla, synth and Kaur’s airy, inviting, expressive voice. The second, spiced with melismatic violin and tanpura, is titled Magic Mantra – but it’s a lot more lively than that. After that, there’s a mix of harmonium, shennai oboe and glockenspiel, then acoustic guitar and veena: how’s all that for interesting textures?

Bansuri flute and strings? Check. Tender vocals contrasting with stark string orchestration? Doublecheck. Liberation theology? Check, check, check. There’s also a catchy folk-rock tune, a lingering, rustically rubato soundscape and a couple of quasi trip-hop anthems. Good stuff for unwinding and lighting up your chakras.

Aakash Mittal Reinvents Nocturnal Indian Sounds on His Magical New Trio Album

Musicians tend to be night creatures, and nobody knows that better than alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal. His new album Nocturne – streaming at Bandcamp – is a magical, evocative suite celebrating afterdark sounds, particularly several styles native to Kolkata, where he pursued an intensive study of Indian music and had many epiphanies along the way. It was a lot of fun watching him work up the material on the album in concert in venues across New York prior to the lockdown.

Mittal’s Awaz Trio take their name from the Hindi word which, depending on context, can mean sound, noise, or voice. Mittal is a connoisseur of all three. From Coltrane to Rudresh Mahanthappa, scores of reed players have used Indian music as a springboard for jazz, but Mittal’s alternately bright and mysterious sound is uniquely his own, in many ways closer to the otherworldly sources of the themes he draws on here.

The first sound on the album is Mittal’s Kolkata teacher Prattyush Banerjee urging him to keep his ears open. Mittal’s oboe-like, microtonal melismas over Rajna Swaminathan’s casually bounding mrudangam rhythm will give you goosebumps. He follows with the first nocturne and its contrasts between the insistence of Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki against his own wafting, fluttering atmospherics and semiquavers.

Mittal bookends a tantalizingly modal miniature, Street Music, with samples of Kolkata percussionists building a qawwali-like groove on the street outside a temple of Kali. Nocturne II draws on the restless Raga Marwa, an evening piece: the group circle through simple, clustering cell-like phrases, Mittal joining the interweave with gently assertive riffage, then hovering and bounding overhead. Those who don’t know the raga may not catch the Indian vernacular. Okazaki’s variations on what’s essentially a catchy, trickily syncopated bassline are a tasty touch, as is Mittal’s choice to go the mysterious route afterward.

Mittal loves rarely-played late-night and wee-hours ragas, which have some of the most delicious tonalities in the raga cycle, evidenced by the third nocturne, which draws on Raga Bageshri. The dichotomy is much the same as the first nocturne; perhaps ironically, it’s more vampy but also more lively. The group’s build to a Morricone-esque taxi drive through a maze of Kolkata backstreets of the mind is irresistible.

A raucous found-sound street scene introduces the album’s acerbically gorgeous fourth nocturne, a mini-suite inspired by Raga Yaman, a piece for sundown. Mittal’s airy, microtone-infused lines over Okazaki’s spare, bristling incisions, a couple of bracing crescendos and persistent modal eeriness scream calmly for the repeat button.

The well-known Raga Jinjoti serves as the catalyst for the amiable final nocturne, a funky romp that’s the closest thing to straight-up postbop here, although once again, Mittal works the rhythmic/misterioso dialectic for all it’s worth.

The final street scene has a great backstory. Mittal’s Kolkata neighbor was a security guard who had plenty of time to practice his homemade shennai oboe, made out of “PVC pipe with drilled finger holes, utilized a metal cup as the bell, and was played with a double reed. The timbre was raw, buzzy and completely outside of any tuning system. His playing was a reminder to me that music and creativity do not need to be bound by rules: they are innate to our spirit as humans,” Mittal explains in his liner notes. His shift between calmly pulsing energy, aching modalities and a coy deviation at the end of the tune perfectly summarize his individualistic, boundary-defying, resolutely melodic approach, Assuming that best-of-2021 jazz album polls are still happening at the end of the year, it’s a good bet we’ll see this one on a bunch of them.

Magical Middle Eastern Dichotomies on Opium Moon’s Lavish New Double Album

Opium Moon picked a good bandname. They play rapturous, often haunting original Middle Eastern themes with influences that span from Egypt, to Iran, Israel, Turkey and sometimes India. Their music is psychedelic, otherworldly and infused with the occasional dubwise touch. Their new double album, Night and Day, is streaming at Bandcamp. They love long songs: pretty much everything here isn’t finished until after the seven-minute mark. The first disc is nocturnes, the second a party record which in many ways is a reverse image of the first.

They open the record with the title track, a spare, slinky nocturne which rises almost imperceptibly out of a one-chord jam, Lili Haydn’s violin soaring over a backdrop of MB Gordy’s boomy dumbek, Hamid Saeidi’s spaciously rippling santoor and Itai Disraeli’s warpy, hypnotic fretless bassline.

Wisdom is slower and even more mysterious, Haydn’s gentle, graceful chromatics wafting overhead, throughout more than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping rapture. They pick up the pace with Dhikr (Night), violin and santoor elegantly exchanging phrases over a suspenseful flamenco-tinged drumbeat.

Likewise, the group make a dusky flamenco-tinged theme out of an ancient Jewish prayer in Ahava Ve Shalom, a tantalizingly brief santoor solo at the center. They slowly coalesce out of an Indian-flavored theme in When Their Wings, swooping bass contrasting with the violin’s terse resonance. With Messengers, the group take a stab at making Indian carnatic music out of a famous British folk theme and follow with I’ll Wait For You, a quasi trip-hop number and the album’s most hypnotic interlude.

The second record begins with a lively clip-clop depiction of birds in flight: “They’re smoking the opium of pure freedom,” Disraeli asserts. Dkihr (Day) is a brisk, psychedelic Balkan dancefloor variation on its parallel theme from the first disc, with some wryly amusing flourishes from the bass.

Likewise, they take the first album’s carnatic melody and make Feast of Sevens out of it. With its blend of Indian and classical influences, Dream is much the same. La La Lai, a pulsingly joyous chromatic romp, features Turkish-Kurdish ensemble MiRaz as well as two of the album’s most adrenalizing santoor solos. The final cut is 100 Ways to Kiss the Ground, which seems to be more about kissing the sky. Despite global conditions that have made it almost impossible, so many groups have put out transcendent albums this year, and this is one of the best of them all.

A Characteristically Soulful Alice Coltrane Rarity Resurfaces

While Alice Coltrane did not live in the shadow of her iconic husband, her work is too often overlooked. During her life, she was revered as a creator of longscale, spiritually-inspired jazz compositions. She was a talented improviser on the concert harp, organ and piano. There’s a reissue of an obscure, limited-edition 1981 Alice Coltrane album, Kirtan: Turiya Sings, just out and streaming at Spotify. If her better-known music resonates with you, this a special treat because it’s a rare opportunity to hear Coltrane on both vocals and Wurlitzer organ.

Coltrane shared her husband’s love of Indian music and spirituality – her son Ravi, named after Ravi Shankar, produced this album. Here, she takes her time with a series of ancient Indian kirtan themes, singing in Sanskrit in a modulated, often stark alto voice over slowly shifting organ chords. The music draws more on the blues and 19th century African-American spirituals than it does the Indian carnatic tradition, often very anthemically. Listen closely and you’ll discover variations calmly unfolding. And the hypnotic sixth track could be a Doors song. Essentially, these are hymns, easy to sing along to as part of a yoga practice, for meditation or as just plain good chillout music.

A Stunning Ravi Shankar Rarity Rescued From Obscurity

There’s enough Ravi Shankar online to listen to for a year without a break. Needless to say, pretty much every time he sat down with his sitar, the J.S. Bach of Indian music was spine-tingling to witness. Today’s album is a rarity. Ravi Shankar Live in Hollywood 1971 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded at a house concert and only released posthumously. It’s Shankar at his most succinct. In concert, he could and would often go on for hours, but three of the four ragas here are especially brief for him. Poignancy, humor, relentless suspense, spectacular peaks, it’s all here, in slightly smaller but no less psychedelic packages than usual.

He opens with a relatively rare morning raga, Raga Vibhas, slowly and meticulously building a low midrange melody, the sun gradually looming over the horizon as he brightens the textures. Yet immediately, he introduces a persistent chromatic unease. It’s extraordinary how he senses the need to pick up the pace at almost exactly the midway mark, not knowing how this will end! The late introduction of the tabla gives Shankar the chance to drive toward a big crescendo with his clustering phrases. Wryly twinkling riffs draw a chuckle or two, then Shankar focuses in with an incisive attack.

Raga Parameshwari is the centerpiece, the sitarist at the top of his game through another morning raga that goes on for well over fifty minutes. The long, steady, lingering opening alap, Shankar finally descending to rich, suspensefully warpy low tones, also features spare, allusive tabla. The sitar builds intensity with recurrent variations on an allusively chromatic, tantalizingly unresolved rising phrase, then the music warms, rising and falling, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. A momentary, hypnotic, minimalist lull is breathtaking (for everybody, it seems) and signals a first round of rapidfire volleys, supersonic sizzle intermingled within the persistent metallic gleam.

Shankar dedicates the brightly lilting, relatively brief Raga Dunh to the people of Bangladesh, imperiled at the time by a Pakistani invasion. The single, bracingly rising opening riff, plaintive, resonant tones and classic, stairstepping moment in the alap that opens Raga Sindhi Bhairavi only hint at the torrential power Shankar  will generate. Considering its origins, this raga has more Middle Eastern ambience than most of the others in the cycle. And yet, Shankar is just as rambunctiously funny in places as he is slashingly incisive elsewhere. Of all the ragas here, this is the most straightforward and unrelenting, his volleys of tremolo-picking and wild bends rising throughout a long, stunning coda.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Wild Indian-Flavored Dance Tunes on Sunny Jain’s Eclectic, High-Voltage New Album

Sunny Jain‘s new album Phoenix Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a good dance album. It’s a fun guessing game: trying to figure out who’s playing on what tracks is not easy, considering how many people play on them, but their very distinctive, individual voices sometimes give themselves away. Jain being a multi-percussionist – the dhol player and leader of Red Baraat, but also a first-class jazz drummer – the focus of his music is always the rhythm. As you would imagine from how eclectic the projects he’s played in over the years have been, the music here is just as diverse.

That’s definitely Malik Work out in front of the band on the vampy, opening hip-hop tune saluting the world’s everyday heroes. The calmly impassioned voice on the mic in the undulating, qawwali-inflected Where Is Home sounds like Arooj Aftab – and is that Rini on the slashing, carnatically-inflected violin? It could also be Raaginder – or, conceivably, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s Mauro Durante, who’s known for more tartantella-flavored sounds.

The vocals on Say It, a soul-infused, trip-hop-ish number, sound more like the misty, alluring Shilpa Ananth; the slithery bass is probably Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, but Devon Gates, Bubby Lewis and Endea Owens are also on the album somewhere.

I’ll Make It Up To You is one of the album’s most surreal numbers, a snarling Stonesy slide guitar rock tune: that has got to be Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada on guitar – or is that Jonathan Goldberger or Pete Eide showing off his secret inner Keith Richards?

On Pride in Rhythm, a swirly, hypnotic synth-and-percussion number – that’s got to be Rachel Eckroth playing keys – is followed by the album’s title track, a bracing action movie-type sequence with a sax duel at the center. Guessing that’s Pawan Benjamin on the edgy alto and Lauren Sevian on the smoky baritone.

Wild Wild East, an earlier track, gets reinvented in a storming electric bhangra version with carnatic singer Ganavya over a searing electric guitar-driven backdrop. Kushal Gaya’s wildfire vocals on the edgily modal Ja Ja Re Apne Mandirwa, a high-voltage jazz reinvention of a traditional Indian tune, are electrifying: and that has to be Goldberger on guitar here.

They close the album with In and Out, the album’s most traditional tune, at least until the beat goes halfspeed and the roaring electric guitars kick in, take your pick from above for the cast of characters. That sounds like Ganavya and Gaya on vocals again. Damn, this is one of those albums that must have been as fun to play on as it is to listen to – or dance to, for that matter.

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.