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.

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