Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carnatic Soul/Jazz


Not many months after I discovered Ghazal’s album As Night Falls on the Silk Road (previous post) I found myself dwelling on the Silk Road.  Tajikistan, the poorest of the Soviet Stanley Brothers, was in 1999 emerging from a traumatic civil war. My wife, Yvonne, and I were employed by an American NGO that ran quite a big microcredit and public health program throughout the country. It was one of the most challenging professional assignments I’ve had, dealing with a government of gangsters, unreconstructed Communists and Islamists with names like Rahman Hitler!

We fell in love with the ancient landscape and culture of Central Asia, however, and our visits to Samarkhand, Bukhara and Khojand (all major stops along the Silk Route) will forever remain one of the highlights of our lives.  In our daily lives in Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad) the capital, there was little to do after hours, however.  The Indian Embassy had an open bar and restaurant as did the UN. If you didn’t drink in those places you did so at home.  The large expatriate community socialized together a lot and one of those whom I developed a friendship with was a jovial Bangladeshi who ran Save the Children’s program.  He, like me, was a fanatic music buff and it was from him that I received the gift I share with you today.

Shankar (Lakshminarayana Shankar) is an Indian classical violinist and vocalist most famous for his mid-70s ‘fusion’ collaborations with the guitar wizard John McLaughlin in their group Shakti. A child prodigy who sang complex Carnatic compositions at age 3 and played drums and violin by age 7, Shankar, developed a passion for bringing together in an aural sangam the Western and Indian (Carnatic, in particular) musical traditions. In addition to his groundbreaking work with McLaughlin, he recorded and performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa and a host of pop and rock ‘n roll stars at various points in his career.

This 1989 album Pancha Nadai Pallavi is two extended tracks of what can only be described as Carnatic soul/jazz. Since 1980 Shankar has played a double-necked violin with 5 strings that sound like a cello  and five with the more traditional tone of a violin.  In these pieces (accompanied only by his wife, Caroline, on drone and Zakir Hussain on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam) Shankar improvises the most exquisite and plaintive music.  If you wanted virtuosity, look no further than this masterwork.

Here is a review from AMG.

As if playing one violin within the Western art music tradition wasn't difficult enough, the virtuoso L. Shankar has made it his trade to both sing and play a customized double violin within the contexts of Hindustani, Carnatic, Western, and experimental musical sensibilities. On this 1990 ECM release, Pancha Nadai Pallavi, he lays down two tracks, the first without percussion and the second in collaboration with Zakir Hussain on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam. Caroline also accompanies the L. Shankar with the drone setting sruthi (a small one-note hand-pumped reed organ) and talam (a pair of small hand cymbals). With the first track L. Shankar performs the ragam "Sankarabharanam" (a ragam is the Carnatic equivalent to the Hindustani raga). For nearly 30 minutes he elegantly articulates an innumerable series of variations on traditional forms, melodies, and rhythms. The double violin allows him to imitate the sounds of a multi-octave string ensemble. On the CD's second cut a serpentine nine and one-half beat rhythmic cycle, the Mahalakshmi Tala, provides the temporal framework for the performance. An original creation by L. Shankar himself, this tala is realized by tabla superstar Zakir Hussain and the celebrated ghatam (clay water pot) player Vikku Vinayakram. Both of these percussive masters draw a myriad of tones and conjure up a fortified stew of rhythmic cadences from their respective instruments. In sum, Shankar's Pancha Nadai Pallavi is a smashing CD that represents virtuosic creativity and experimentation at work in both solo and collaborative contexts.

Track listing:
1.    Ragam: Sankarabharanam
2.    Talam: Mahalakhshmi Tala (9 1/2 beats)

Listen here.

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