Saturday, February 26, 2011

Garage Pop from 1960s South Africa: The In-Vaders and Billy Monk

The In-Vaders

South Africa is one of those African countries, like Mali, Congo and Guinea that seems to be situated on top of a musical lode almost endless in its depth and diversity. Jazz, reggae, Zulu, Funk, R&B and myriad forms of traditional music make South Africa's contribution to contemporary popular music virtually unique.  Today's post brings yet another page in the many-chaptered story of South African music: The In-Vaders.

Inspired by seeing Cliff Richard and the Shadows in his 1961 tour of South Africa a group of friends from the Port Elizabeth area bought a couple of guitars, found a garage and began their journey to become one of South Africa's most successful pop groups.  Struggle, personnel and name changes, endless touring and a self-financed single, finally led to a record deal with Trutone Records in 1967.  With the backing of a label and the confidence of chops developed in the hardscrabble clubs and bars and community halls of the Eastern and Western Cape, The In-Vaders launched a string of hits that kept them in the charts and airwaves for several years. 

The In-Vaders music on this double collection shows their ability to perform pop music of many styles:  Born on the Bayou (garage), Oh Darling (rock) and their mega hit, Shockwave (instrumental).

At the same time The In-vaders were playing the bars and nightclubs, a bouncer named Billy Monk took pictures of the clubs' patrons in many states of happiness, drunkenness, fatigue and boredom.  Monk, never a professional photographer, captured a world that reflects not just a late night bar scene but one where violence and rage is almost palpable.  Indeed, Monk himself was tragically fatally shot  on the streets of Cape Town in the early 80s.  His work has been subject of some critical interest with major exhibitions of his night club photos in several European cities and galleries (click here).

I hope you enjoy the sights and sounds of 1960s nightclubs of South Africa.

Listen here (Disc 1)
Listen here (Disc 2)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rajasthani Slide Guitar: Kabra and Bhatt

Brijbhushan Kabra

I referred to these two artists in a recent post as being the very early pioneers of Hindustani blues.  Not  many sonic links with southern United States can be discerned in their music. But both men, like the many giants of the American Blues, have mastered the art of playing slide guitar. In this instance an appropriately (to the Hindustani classical musical scale) modified Hawaiian guitar played, like a pedal steel, face up, and resting on the lap.

The Call of the Valley came out in 1967. I remember a thick EMI India vinyl copy appearing in our small family music collection around 1970. I loved it from the first time I heard it. Indian classical music to me was still a mysterious, esoteric and not very interesting world. But this album was something different. It didn't pander to 'pop' or 'western' tastes and maintained its basic classical music integrity. But it was far more accessible than Ravi Shankar. The flute sounded like the ones I heard played by locals in the lonely mountains where I attended boarding school. The record introduced me to the santoor which has, along with the oud,  remained one of my favorite instruments ever since. The third instrument I mistook for a sitar. Only many years later did I learn that it was in fact one of the first mainstream recordings of Brijbhusan Kabra India's slide guitar pioneer.

Call of the Valley has gone on to reach an 'iconic' status. Bob Dylan and other rockers are said to be fans.  The authoritative online font of all musical knowledge, All Music Guide, advises: If the newcomer buys only one Indian classical recording, it should be Call of the Valley.

Track listing
1.  Ahir Bhairav/Nat Bhairav
2. Raga Piloo
3. Bhoop Ghara
4. Raga Des
5 .Raga Pahadi
6. Ghara/Dadra
7. Dhun Mishra Kirwani
8. Bageshwari

Listen Here.

Meeting by the River came out in 1993 and won a Grammy Award.  And indeed, like Call of the Valley, this is a classic.  Vishwamohan Bhatt took the slide guitar of Kabra to the next level by modifying its strings and body (slightly) to create the mohan veena.  Ry Cooder, one of the world's most accomplished and elegant and inquisitive guitarists teamed up with Bhatt to record this amazing duel simpatico.  The four tracks give each guitarist ample opportunity to express themselves and weave an intricate and ornate recital. The final track, Isa Lei is one of the most beautiful pieces of string bending you'll ever hear. Promise.  

Track Listing:
1. Meeting by the River
2. Longing
3. Ganges Delta Blues
4. Isa Lei

Listen HERE.

Stand up to the Colonel: Hamid al Shar'eri

In this time of existential crisis in the ancient land of Libya, in this time of severe struggle, I post an old record by Benghazi born and raised (but now exiled in Egypt) musician Hamid al Sha'eri.  Let us hope that he will soon be able to play his pop dance music back in Tripoli before too long.

Track Listing:
Wein Ayamak Wein
Ya Bonya Khashety Baly
Ya Ghaly
Ya La Yemin
Ya Markeb El Gahye
Geit Ya Sheta
La Ma Nasina
Ya Saheb

Listen HERE

I am grateful to the great blog Digital Meltdown for this record. Check out the blog for other North African and Middle Eastern music from countries currently in turmoil. A great place to learn and contribute at least some spirt to the cause.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hindustan Blues: Slide to Freedom

Mohan Veena
The  Blues and India are not what you’d call natural partners.  Africa and the Blues? Of course.  But India? What do ragas have in common with those three big notes that form the basis of modern American music?  Quite a bit actually when Doug Cox and Salil Bhatt got together with a couple of friends.

India’s improbable connection to the blues can be traced to Rajasthan and Brij Bhusan Kabra who fell in love with the sound made by the Hawaiian guitar. Employing the natural annoying persistence of a young boy he convinced his father to buy him one.  “I promise to play only classical music,” he said. And in a very unnatural act for a young boy, he stayed true to his promise. Playing the guitar on his lap, and with a slide, Kabra eventually found a way to play India’s ancient music on this weirdly out of place modern instrument.  So good was he that one of India’s grand musical master’s, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, took him under his wing and instructed him.  While Kabra’s breakthrough album Call of the Valley with flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, was strictly an adventure in Hindustani music, the man who in some ways could claim the title of the Robert Johnson of India, had set something in motion.

Back in Jaipur a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar took up the lap guitar and started playing around with its strings. Vishwamohan Bhatt soon had modified Kabra’s guitar so much that it had become something new again: the mohan veena. In 1993 V.M. Bhatt released a stunning album with the mighty American guitarist Ry Cooder: Meeting by the River. The record won both men a Grammy Award. One of the tracks was called Ganges Delta Blues but the collaboration, exquisite as it was, was still a long way from ‘the blues’.

Enter Salil Bhatt son of Vishwamohan.  His jugalbandi with Canadian bluesman Doug CoxSlide to Freedom, completed the journey from the Ganges Delta to the Mississippi Delta.  Joined by his father and tabla player Ramkumar Mishra, Bhatt and Cox give some classic country blues by the likes of  “Mississippi” John Hurt (Pay Day) and ‘Blind’ Wilie Johnson (The Soul of Man) a fresh and completely convincing remake. Bhatt’s slide work on his own version of the mohan veena, the satvik veena, blends incredibly well with Cox’s guitar and mandolin work. On Arabian Night and Bhoopali Dance Cox follows Bhatt down more Indian musical galis but never gets lost. And the result is as enjoyable as when Bhatt plays the blues. The album ends with a slightly tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to Bhatt’s great pioneering father and his famous collaboration with Cooder, in an eight and a half minute Meeting by the Liver.

A great piece of music. Enjoy. Again and again.

            Track Listing:
1.     Pay Day
2.     Bhoopali Dance
3.     Arabian Night
4.     Soul of a Man
5.     Fish Land
6.     Father Kirwani
7.     Beware of the Man (Who Calls You Bro)
8.     Meeting by the Liver

Listen here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Doctor and the Ustad: Matchless


I've been reading a lot about African music, especially Congolese rumba, in the past few months. But what is going around my iPod and other musical machines at the moment is devotional and classical music from India and Pakistan. 

Before nipping off to bed I thought I'd share one of my favorite records with you.

Matchless is an excerpt of a live concert by Dr. L. Subramaniam, violinist par excellence and Ustad Allah Rakha, magician of the tabla.  The good Dr. is brother of the other great Carnatic violinst, L. Shankar (featured in an earlier post Carnatic Soul Jazz).  Ustadji, of course, is most famous for being Pandit Ravi Shankar's accompanist for most of the 1960a and 70s.  The combination of these two master musicians is sublime.  Both Dr and Ustadji take their turns at beguiling the lucky audience with their virtuosity and soulfulness by playing extended solos before joining forces in Raga Malika.

 If you've just woken and getting ready for a day, let this mini concert center you. If you are contemplating rolling into bed, let this be your bedtime story.

Track Listing

1. Raga Dharmavati
2. Raga Malika

Listen here

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Control Freaks!: The Jalebee Cartel


My favourite Indian sweet is the sticky, hot, juicy, sweet and crispy jalebee.  Downing a half kilo in 20 minutes used to be no problem. The sugar buzz just what a teenaged body needed to make it through to lunchtime!

So imagine my curiosity when one sweltering afternoon I spot a CD in a Delhi bookshop by a group called the Jalebee Cartel.  Like a hungry mahseer I snapped at the glitter and found myself hooked. 

This is contemporary club music of the genre officially known as ‘EDM’ (electronic dance music).  DJs mix and scratch and the beat is knocked out on instruments that during the daylight hours send email and connect to the internet.  The Jalebee Cartel is India’s most accomplished and internationally reputed electronic music group.  Made up of four Delhi-wale, Arjun Vagale (laptop and mixes and scratches), Ashwin Mani Sharma (laptop and synth),  Ash Roy (vocals and percussion) and G-force Arjun (bass and synth), the sweet monopolists have toured all over India and world, earning ever more euphoric accolades from clubbing DJs and winning fans from New York, to Moscow and from Delhi to Jakarta.

This is music of the times. I’ve not yet been able to discern anything distinctly Indian or Hindustani or desi in their album OnePointNothing. Indeed, it appears the boys are intent on making truly global sounds that will fit comfortably into the globalised virtual disco.  This is not a criticism. Though the Cartel do not bring as refined a focus and commitment to their music as some EDM acts, like the Gotan Project with its distinctive electronic tango, their music is of a very high quality and interest.  I especially like the back-to-the-70’s vocals of Ash Roy on several of the tracks. One wonders if he learned his trade from the LPs his dad listened to at Delhi hot spots, The Cellar and Wheelz circa 1972.

This is infectious, addictive, hot and crispy music. Just like the sweets the supply of which they claim to control. 

They are also the first band in India to release an album on USB!  You got to love that!

            Track Listing:
1.     Blue Over Red
2.     Back Up
3.     Dark Shadows
4.     Beautiful Rising
5.     Tough Cookie
6.     Random Reason
7.     Mirrors
8.     Midnite Madness
9.     A Crazy Virus on Akerstraat
10. 33 Beyond a Hundred
11. Fade Away

Listen here

Monday, February 14, 2011

Kya Baat!: A Sampler of Pakistani Music Volume 2

The interest in the Dog’s very first post, Zabardast: A Sample of Pakistani Music has been consistently high. And so to reward all those who have visited and checked out the post and, more importantly, the wonderful music from that part of the world I offer in this post a second instalment.  This volume is called Kya Baat!: A Sampler of Pakistani Music Volume 2.

Yeh Dil, Yeh Pagal Dil is one of the greatest ghazals of all time, bar none. Ghulam Ali, the artist, is one of Pakistan’s absolute icons, holding a position akin to that of B.B. King in the United States, in that both are virtually synonyms for their genre.  This ghazal speaks of lost love in terms that are simultaneously intimate and grand: is dasht mein ek shahr tha/woh kya hua/ awaargi/yeh dil yeh pagal dil mera (in this desert there was once a city/what became of it?/desolation/ this heart, this mad heart of mine).  Such a powerful musical moment it forms the basis of my second novel.

Raga Aasa by Saeen Marna. The ektara is one of the world’s simplest stringed instruments. A single lonely string attached to a stick pulled across a hollowed coconut or gourd..  Associated with wandering mendicants of all stripes from Khorasan to the Ganges Delta it is played by a single finger plucking upon it. Saeen Marna (d. 1961) was an untrained folk singer who made this little instrument sing so soulfully it is hard to believe such sublime heights are possible. This recording is from an old tape of an even older tape but for those who are prepared to listen, this piece will not disappoint.

Ghoom Charakda by Abida Parveen Pakistan’s great female Sufi soul shouter should be played at high volume and in a place where there is room to twirl like a dervish.  The song, sung in Punjabi, is an ancient Sufi tune associated with the 16th saint Shah Hussain, credited with inventing the kafi a form of mystical poetry indigenous to Pakistan.  There are hundreds of versions of Ghoom Charakda but Abida’s rendition is my favourite, especially the tabla playing which sounds like a freight train tearing through the desert.

Dil mein Meethe Meethe Dard is a beautiful ghazal by Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. A master exponent of the Patiala gharana (school) his classical training is evident in his phrasing and note control. And yet this love song, which likely was part of film soundtrack, is moving and gentle.

Mirza Sahiban is a rock n’roll remake of a traditional Sufi song by Arif Lohar, one of Pakistan’s most interesting contemporary musicians. Laced with a machine-gun like drum track that starts strong and builds in intensity throughout the piece this is an amazing track. At various points the song veers almost towards ‘metal’ or ‘industrial’ music but never loses it core folk roots. Absolutely powerful and fun.

Black Night, a recent DJ-designed qawwali by Badar Ali Khan, like the song that precedes it a great combination of tradition meeting modernity. Less intense than Mirza Sahiban but completely enjoyable.

Lutf Woh Ishq Mein is a pleasant film song by one of Pakistan’s most popular playback singers. Mehnaz has a voice that is less nasal in tone (and hence a bit more alluring to Western tastes) than the ultimate Queen of Melody, Noor Jehan, who dominated Pakistani film/popular music for decades.  Mehnaz voluntarily ended her career relatively quickly and now is settled in the United States.

Tu Jane Ne my latest favourite pop song by Atif Aslam. Strong voice, elegant arrangements and composition and addicting melody. What more do you want?

Raga Bahar. Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan Mando a shenai (clarinet) player of the Qawwal Bacchay gharana is a recent discovery for me about whom I can find very little information. While I keep looking, I think you will really enjoy this gorgeous raga which at times has a jazz-like fluidity.

Tamam Umr Tera by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan who hails from one of the oldest Hindustani musical families. His ancestors were singers in the court of the grand Moghul Akbar. An exponent of the Sham Churasi gharana (school) Salamat Ali Khan was widely popular throughout India and Pakistan in his lifetime for his mellow voice. His sons, Shafqat and Sharafat, continue the family tradition today.

Hai Yeh Unki Aaj Mujh Par. Attaulah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’ from the western district of the state of Punjab was in the 1980s the preferred singer of most taxi and truck drivers in Pakistan.  His vocal style is marked by an almost desperate passion which it was said was the consequence of a failed love affair. His concerts were blusterous affairs in which the audience was known to shoot off weapons in excitement. Attaulahji would have to plead with his fans to get control of their emotions. This track is a more recent, less raw rendition than those early ones but is still good solid popular song.

Umaran Lagian Paba Par/Meri Dastan-e-Hasrat. The son of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Asad Amanat Ali Khan, ends this volume with two majestic pieces taken from a ‘live’ concert tape I picked up in Islamabad in the late 1980s.  The first is a mystical song in the Sufi tradition (again with some stunning tabla accompaniment); the second a gorgeous love song. 

I hope you enjoy.

Listen here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Passing of a Giant: Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
Last week I was listening in rapture to Bhimsen Joshi singing Raga Gaur Sarang. He has been an old favorite for years, the first classical Indian musician of whom I became aware when my dad brought one of his recordings home in the mid 1960s.  I am sure one of the reasons my father bought the record was because Joshi was a Gadag boy, raised in the same district town in what is now, northern Karnataka, that my parents began their 36 year career as missionaries. 

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was the greatest living exponent of an ancient musical tradition, Hindustani gayaki (classical Indian singing). It is a ‘serious’ form of ‘high art’. An enterprise that demands utter and complete devotion and subjugation of the individual to the demands of the Guru, the tradition and the ideal. Those who attain the heights are regarded as demi gods and their lives are perceived to be somehow removed from the mundane round experienced by mere mortals.

Yet Bhimsenji’s start in music and subsequent life was not dissimilar to a thousand other musicians including many pop stars. His young spirit was captured by what he heard on the radio and at first opportunity hit the road, without his parents’ approval to find a place and a mentor who would lead him deeper into the mystic. Throughout his career he struggled with alcohol abuse and nurtured an enthusiasm for fast cars!

The Kirana gharana  (school) of classical singing was Joshi’s maidan.  Especially popular with singers from the Karnataka/Maharashtra region it blended elements of Hindustani and Carnatic traditions in the same way as the Bijapur kingdom of the 18th century developed a syncretic northern-southern culture in India’s central Deccan area.

On January 24 Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away.  I’ve included an obituary from the Economist which ran the entire final page of this week’s edition.

MUSIC seemed to require him to use every part of his body. From a slow, mesmerised, almost motionless start his eyes would roll upwards, foreshadowing the ascent of the notes that emerged from his distended, gaping mouth. His hands flailed, as though reaching for some imagined object just out of his grasp. Perhaps Bhimsen Joshi was trying to bring back to earth a soaring note from one of his magnificent taans, the series of rapid melodic passages with which great classical singers in the Hindustani tradition of northern India demonstrate how skilled they are.
Few could sing them like he could, his sonorous voice ranging effortlessly over three octaves as he explored the nuances of ragas—Indian music’s tonal settings for improvisation and composition, each associated with a season or a time of day. Yet those who packed concert halls to listen to him sing, as Indians did for over six decades, rarely mentioned his technique. Instead, they would talk about how he had made them feel, on a night long ago at the Dover Lane music conference in Calcutta, or under a tent in the grounds of Modern School on New Delhi’s Barakhamba Road, when he sang a raga of the monsoon—and suddenly the skies were full of thundering black rainclouds, even though it was bone dry and bitterly cold.
It was on nights like these that Indians fell in love with this strange man, whose contortions defied the best efforts of those in charge of microphone placement. For nobody could match the extraordinary ability of Bhimsen—always Bhimsen to his listeners—to capture the essential character of a raga, whether playful or grave, and send audiences out into the night humming, with the music under their skin, almost stunned with the force of something they could not quite comprehend.
That was what made generations of homesick Indian students turn to him on freezing winter nights in south London or Cambridge, Massachusetts, when home seemed unbearably far away and the darkness demanded nothing less than the master singing a sombre raga of the late night. But his voice meant a great deal even to those Indians who had little time for classical music. Millions of homes in Maharashtra woke up to him singing the abhangs, or hymns, of the medieval Marathi saint-poets on the early-morning programme on All India Radio’s Bombay station. A much-loved television campaign promoting national unity, which opened with his singing, ensured that even those who grew up with rap rather than ragas knew, and loved, that voice.
His childhood, in the culturally fertile Dharwad region in the state of Bombay in British India, was suffused by music: the devotional songs his mother sang as she went about her chores; the azaan, or calls to prayer, from the nearby mosque. But his love for music crystallised when, at 11, on a scratchy 78rpm record, he heard Abdul Karim Khan, the great master of the Kirana school, which melodiously blended elements of the music of both north and south. That was how he wanted to sing.
The railway boy
Spurred by music, then, he ran away from home, travelling ticketless on the trains that snaked across India from the home town of one great master to another, relying on his singing to melt ticket-inspectors’ hearts. Passengers, too, threw him small coins for his songs. By 1936 he had persuaded Sawai Gandharva, a disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, to teach him the intricacies of the Kirana style of singing. In 1941 he gave his first public performance; by 1946 he was famous.
His style picked up influences from all over India. True, he had the Kirana school’s tunefulness. But those intricate taans owed something to the Jaipur school, even to the style of Faiyaz Khan of Agra. For Bhimsen Joshi was really interpreting Hindustani music in his own way. A good singer, he said, was a bit like a thief, incorporating what he liked best about others’ styles into his own. He sang where he could, too, in the early years: bhajans, or devotional songs, for All India Radio’s Lucknow station for 25 rupees a day, and occasional songs for films later.
It was hard work. A glass of rich buffalo milk in the morning; then four hours singing araga in the lowest octave as the first part of up to 20 hours of practice. But milk was not all he drank. People told other kinds of stories about Bhimsen concerts, the ones where he was repeatedly announced but didn’t appear for hours. It was only by the late 1970s that he overcame his problems with liquor.
His drinking, like his love for fast cars, was of a piece with the man: slightly reckless, fully immersed in whatever he was doing. His singing, he said, reflected his personality. He reckoned that everyone’s should. Don’t sing like me, he would urge his students. Sing like yourselves, find your own voice.

His favourite composition, in a raga named after a town linked in Hindu mythology to the god Krishna, used words in praise of a 12th-century Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the saviour of the poor. But there was not one sectarian note in Bhimsen Joshi. He loved the syncreticism of Hindustani music, with its mixture of Hindu and Muslim influences. Music had no religion or caste, he often said. The religion of music was music. 

Track Listing
1.  Raga Brindabani Sarang
2. Raga Gaur Sarang
3. Raga Multani
4. Raga Shudh Kalyan
5. Raga Kalashree
6.  Thumri Jogiya
7.  Bhajan Bhairavi

  Listen here

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hard Miles Travelled: Tom Ovans

Tom Ovans

There was a while there back in the 1970s when almost every new male singer songwriter was saddled with the label: the ‘new’ DylanSpringsteen, Waits, Prine and Wainwright all had the ‘compliment’ foisted upon them but saw it as a straightjacket. They all went on to make their own music and quickly show the world that there will always only ever be one Dylan. But also that there was room for their voices too.

In those same years that all the ‘new’ Dylans were being announced, there was a singer who shared the same haunts in New York and Nashville but who went unnoticed. He hung out with Tim Hardin and Phil Ochs and made his way across the continent singing, doing odd jobs and sleeping on the streets. All the while living a pretty raw version of life but turning the experience into art.  When his songs began to be recorded it seemed as if at last here was a real ‘new’ Dylan. But by that time the music industry and critics had given up the game and the singer continued to languish in obscurity.

His name is Tom Ovans and if you’re not familiar with his music you’ll be taken by some amazing similarities with Dylan. In fact, you’ll hear some of the best music that Dylan never recorded. Ovans’ voice seems at times to come from exactly that same gene pool as the Bobster’s. And the man’s turn of phrase can be as alluring, hard-hitting and surprising as Dylan’s.  And when Ovan blows his grim harmonica you can be persuaded that the great man himself is sitting in on the session.

And perhaps after an initial listen or two you will stop listening. Why drink Campa Cola when the fridge is full of Coke? But if you do turn him off then you’ll be making a mistake.  Tom Ovans is no tribute band. He is no impressionist. And he is not trying to revive the practice of crowning yet another ‘new’ Dylan. In fact, Ovans couldn’t give a shit about what his voice or harp playing sounds like. And I’m sure if you asked him about his lyrics he’d tell you that unlike Dylan who mythologized most of his early years, he’s lived every hard day and walked every long mile that he sings about.

In Tom Ovans you’ll discover an unsanitized Boss, a man who sings with desperate intensity about the current state of the world as experienced by a haunted but somehow resilient and hopeful American hobo.

            Track Listing:
            1. Mama Went To Arkansas

2 Cool Daddy

3 Let My Spirit Fly

4 I See You There

5 Dark Road

6 Sixth Avenue

7 Underground Train

8 Meeting On The Road

9 Living In This Town

10 The Night I Saw The Devil

11 I Got A Feeling For You