CD Review: MAHIMA
When Brij Bhushan Kabra was featured in an article in Guitar Player magazine several years ago, most Westerners assumed that he was the only slide guitarist in India. Then, American slide guitarist Ry Cooder recorded a Grammy winning album with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and for many people Bhatt's name became almost synonymous with Indian slide guitar. Bhatt even renamed his custom built Gibson the "mohan veena." Now, however, there is a new contender for the slide guitar spotlight, who has built on the work of his predecessors and taken it in remarkable new directions. Debashish Bhattacharya has customized not one, but three new versions of the Indian slide guitar, which he calls the "trinity of guitars."
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The Chaturangui evolved out of a standard six-string guitar, although it features such innovations as a hollow neck for greater resonance, and two extra high strings for chikare. The Anandi is the slide equivalent of the ukulele, and the Gandharvi is the equivalent of the 12-string guitar. Bhattacharya has also developed a new playing technique using both the thumb and index finger, which makes his deris (trills) and jhalas (strums) faster and more powerful than has ever been possible on the slide guitar. And he has adapted to Indian music a technique, commonly used by jazz guitarists, of singing and playing the same note simultaneously. This enables him to combine what he has learned from his two main gurus: slide guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra and Hindustani vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty.
Bhatacharya's newest CD, Mahima, is a collaboration with Hawaiian Blues player Bob Brozman. At first, I was somewhat amused when the press release referred to it as a
"unique album," How could they dare make such a claim after Bhatt's collaboration with
Cooder on the album Meeting by the River? Once I heard Mahima, however, I realized that it was as different from the Cooder-Bhatt collaboration as any two slide guitar albums could possibly be.
Meeting by the River's greatest virtue was its spontaneity. Cooder arrived in the studio at 2 a.m. after a four-hour drive from another gig, was introduced briefly to Bhatt, and then the two of them began to play. The result is a long flowing texture without any structure or planning, but with an amazing sense of affinity and interaction. The Bhattacharya-Brozman collaboration is, however, a series of scrupulously polished little gems, made possible by both musicians' willingness to immerse themselves in each other's traditions for an extended period of time. Most of the pieces are less than six minutes, and each one has a distinct personality that could only be produced by combining specific elements from each tradition in ways that show an awareness of the similarities and differences of each. There are also crucial contributions by two other members of the Bhattacharya family: Debashish's brother Subhashis on tabla, and sister Sutapa on vocals.
The first listening gives the impression of a small intimate chamber ensemble. There is no string bass on the album, or any electronic instruments of any sort. In fact, except for the percussion and vocals, all of the parts are played on some form of slide guitar. There is, however, extensive use of multi-tracking, which enables each player to combine and layer tone colors, using techniques that could never be played simultaneously. These slide guitars are, of course, guitars, and thus can also produce the crisp sounds of muted strings, the driving chordal rhythms of flamenco-style strums, and low, gutsy 12-string solo lines.
Subhashis plays not only tabla (whose baya effectively substitutes for electric bass), but also a variety of Middle Eastern, Latin, and Indian hand percussion. And Sutapa's vocals are frequently accompanied by multi-trackings of herself and her brothers singing in both counterpoint and harmony.
I've heard enough unsuccessful fusion albums to know that a list of intriguing ingredients doth not a great album make. But Brozman has a strategy, which has worked well for him in the past, and works especially well on this album. "Total immersion in the project at hand is essential," says Brozman's executive producer Haley Robertson. "The artists live, cook and eat together. They learn about each other's languages and cultures, make jokes using each other's slang, bestow nicknames, and throughout the process they blur the lines between work and play. They spend late nights talking about life and art, waking each day to dive more deeply into the music.' This is, of course, what musicians who share a common culture do without even thinking about it. And this shared life-world makes it possible for a set of mutual musical interactions to naturally evolve, an unspoken, even unconscious, sense of "when they do that, I should do this:' The remarkable thing about Mahima is that every cut is full of such interactions, but they are totally new and unique to this album, and involves riffs and patterns that evolved thousands of miles away from each other.
For example, in Konkani Memories, Debashish and Brozman feature the tight rhythmically unified stops that are now quite commonly played by the tabla and melody instrument in Hindustani music, but they play them with one playing a strum and the other playing a slide on their respective instruments. Bana Mali unfolds with Debashish playing variations of continually increasing intensity and speed in ways that echo the drut section of raga. But Brozman accompanies these variations with a blues ostinato played on a baritone National guitar.
My favorite song on the album, however, is Digi Digi Dom Dom. It was originally inspired by nonsense syllables playfully uttered by Debashish's three-year-old daughter Sukanya. Debashish then asked his vocal guru Ajoy Chakraborty to write lyrics for it, which praised their home city of Kolkata. From there, it evolved as newly layered elements took it almost everywhere: an African 6/8 feel in the drums and rhythm guitar, cheerful Hawaiian slides in both harmonies and octaves, and counterpoint vocals that include everything from breathing to humming. Although the initial melody sounds silly and playful, it gradually transforms itself into something charming, and then becomes genuinely beautiful.
Although a lot of careful digging had to be done to find these affinities, Brozman and the Bhattacharyas actually had common historical roots that were reunited for this album. Brozman's Hawaiian guitar guru was Tau Moe, who lived in Calcutta from 1941 to 1947 and helped to popularize Hawaiian music in India. One of his students taught Brij Bhushan Kabra, who developed a classical Hindustani style on the instrument, which he then taught to Debashish. This album thus brings these two branches from the lineage of Tau Moe together for the first time, and reveals that there are still enough connections between them to provide a foundation for memorable and delightful music.
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.
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