Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bangla Bliss: Prahlad Brahmachari and Ram Kanai Das

Everyone asks: "Lalan, what's your religion in this world?"
Lalan answers: "How does religion look?"
I've never laid eyes on it.
Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
some tasbih [Muslim rosaries], and so people say 
they've got different religions.

But do you bear the sign of your religion 
when you come or when you go?
(Lalan Fakir, Baul)

India’s mystical spirit does not have a single face.  Rather in each region certain gods and saints are especially revered.  The Sufi spirit expresses itself differently in different parts of the country. Mystical practice and ritual and the music that accompanies that ritual is local not national.

So while the dohe of Kabir are held especially close to Sikhs, the bhajans of Meera have a strong hold on Rajasthanis. In Bengal, it is the songs of the Baul, and the sayings of Chaitanya that are most revered. 

Baul is the name of a religious sect of Bengal. It has borrowed its religious ideas from different sources—Buddhism, yoga, Islam, Hinduism and the worship of Vishnu.  It is the product of the medieval ages when mystic poets like Dadu, Nanak and Kabir appeared in different parts of northern India. During this time the great social reformer Chaitanya appeared in Bengal.

The Baul do not worship any idol of any God whom they realize within their inner soul. They express the ecstasy of their intense joy of union with God in songs accompanied with dance. The Baul do not believe in any written scripture. They preserve their own scripture in the form of songs alone.

Bauls are drawn from both major communities of Bengal—Hindu and Muslim. When they enter the sect they discard their individual religion and are known as either Vaishnava (Hindu) Baul or fakir (Muslim Baul).

The Baul describe their longings for union with the Supreme Being in their songs. They consider the Supreme Being to be their beloved and very near to their hearts and refer to him as Maner Manush (Man of the Inner Soul).
(Liner Notes)

The first recording tonight is by a Bengali singer named Prahlad Brahmachari.  Born in what is now Bangladesh in 1940, he learned Baul songs from the ‘Emperor’ of modern Baul singers, Purna Das Baul. In addition to Baul songs, Brahmachari is a well known singer of folk songs and has been extensively broadcast on All India Radio.

            Track Listing:
            01 Premik Na Hoile Prem Koiro Na
02 Emon Bhaber Nadite Soire
03 Aat Kuthuri-Noi Darja
04 Nimer Dotara Tui More
05 Ajgubi Ek Katha Shune
06 Kanya Haste Kadamber Phool
07 Eso He Gourchandra
08 Guru Bole Premer Badam Tolo
09 Naire, Nayer Badam Tuila
10 O Bondhure, Amar Mon Korechho Churi
11 Dayal Guru Re
12 O Kanyalo Jaimu Ami Boideshete
Listen here.

Ram Kanai Das

The second selection is a recent CD of Bengali folk songs sung by the Bangladeshi classical singer, Ram Kanai Das. Now in his 80s, Das has long been at the very top rung of Bengali singers. From a family of folk singers in the Sylhet region of NE Bangladesh, Das studied classical music as a young man but claims the folk culture is his blood.  This terrific collection, officially launched just last month, is issued by the Bengal Foundation.

Krishna bhaktis, early morning, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bengal, like the Sindh, on the other side of the sub-continent has developed a unique and deeply syncretic culture that is proudly claimed and celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims.  In this collection, Das sings songs composed by Hindu (Guru Bina Hoy Na) and Muslim (Alla Sabur Korlam) poets, as well his parents (Oshomoye Dhorlam Pari).  His voice is strong and one feels he can keep singing till he’s at least a hundred.

            Track Listing:
            01 Oshomoye Dhorlam Pari
02 Amar Mon Mojore
03 Ami Na Loilam
04 Joler Ghate Deikhkha Ailam
05 Ailare Nua Jamal
06 Monchora Kaliare
07 Jalailo Piriter Agun
08 Alla Sabur Korlam
09 O Shona Bhondure
10 Kanai Tumi Kheir Khelao
11 Ki Shopono Dekhilam
12 Guru Bina Hoy Na
13 Broje Jaito Re
14 Shua Urilo
Listen here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

6000 Year old Spirit: Asha Puthli

Asha Puthli

If you don’t by now, the Washerman’s Dog loves Indian music.  Music by Indians who live in India, musicians who used to live in India but now in neighboring countries with newer names, as well as Indians in the diaspora.  

Asha Puthli is the sort of guest a shy person invites to a dinner party.  Her larger than life personality and wicked laugh galvanize everyone’s attention. She’s got an unusual background and drops names like a tropical thunderstorm.  The quiet host sits back and smiles as Asha regales the other diners with her story of how she filled in for Ursula Andress in an Italian B-movie, and sparked a disco craze in Germany.  One of the guests sniggers at the mention of the word ‘disco’. Ms Puthli fires a wilting glance at the offender and by way of putting him in his place reminds people that she won a couple of jazz awards for her work with Ornette Coleman.   The dinner party, everyone agrees as they stumble home in the wee hours, is a smashing success.

Asha Puthli, the truly unique artist upon whom the spotlight shines tonight, is what the tax authorities of India refer to as a NRI (non-resident Indian). Born into a Hindu home in Mumbai and educated in a Catholic school Asha fell in love with the American jazz she heard on Voice of America.  She began her career singing in clubs around India’s most hip city but always wanted to make it in America. “I wanted to fuse the 6,000-year-old culture of India with American music. I feel like a global person,” she once told to an interviewer. “My psyche, I think, is very American. My soul and my roots are very Indian. And my career has been more European.”

Ved Mehta, wrote an article for the New Yorker, about Bombay in which she got several mentions. Some time later she bagged a Martha Graham dance scholarship to the States in the late 60s. John Hammond, legendary producer and talent scout (Billie Holliday, Dylan, Springsteen) for Columbia Records who had read the New Yorker article recommended her to the giant of free jazz Ornette Coleman who was searching for a new voice to sing his complex music.

The match was made in heaven. Coleman found a singer he couldn’t believe and Asha won accolades from the jazz pandits for her performance.

Though she was off to smashing start in the land of her dreams the American music machine couldn’t find a place to fit her and opportunities dried up. She moved to Europe where she scandalized and charmed her way into the hearts of Italian, German and British audiences. Her records, which tread the ground between soul, jazz and disco (often seen as a forerunner to Donna Summer’s sensual stylings), were not only understood but appreciated. Asha was at last able to give her voice, trained in opera and Indian classical music, the freedom and varied terrain it yearned for.

Tonight’s post is a 1973 record made in the UK.  Asha covers JJ Cale and Jimmy Webb and makes it sound like something completely her own.   In recent years her music has been amply sampled by hip hop artists and Asha, still a resident of New York, has found a late life celebrity.

This is amazing stuff served up by a natural artist and cracker of a dinner guest.

            Track Listing:
            01 Right Down Here
02 Neither One Of Us Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye
03 I Dig Love
04 This Is Your Life
05 Love
06 Lies
07 Let Me In Your Lifes
08 I Am A Song (Sing Me)
09 Truth

 Listen here

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gurdwara Music: Bhai Harjinder Singhji Srinagar Wale and Sant Niranjan Singhji Jawadi Kalan Wale


It is late. Andy Murray is battling Novak Djokovic. It is gripping. It is going to 5 sets.

No time to write much tonight, so I’ll just post a soothing selection of Sikh kirtans. This is calming music of the sort you hear in Sikh gurdwaras anywhere in the world.

Gurdwaras are wonderful places. Peaceful and welcoming, all who ask are given three days free lodging, medical care and simple food. There is no obligation to believe anything or participate in worship.

There is a lot to be calm about these days. So let this music get your mind in a better place.

            Track Listing:
Listen here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mystical Songs of Malwa: Nirgun Singers and Lata Mangeshkar

Meera and Kabir

The western districts of the Indian state Madhya Pradesh are known as Malwa. One of the many ancient kingdoms of India, the Malwa region blends Gujarati, Rajasthani and Marathi culture, language and cuisine into a unique regional tradition.

Indore, a huge industrial and commercial center is the biggest city in Madhya Pradesh but the glory of the region is the ancient capital Ujjain. It was here that India’s greatest monarch, Ashoka, served as governor in his youth and it was in Ujjain that the Homer of India, Kalidasa, wrote his ancient plays and poetry. Ujjain was also where the art of perfumery was perfected and where it is said, they could make perfume that smelt like rain falling on dust.

In contemporary times Malwa is home to some of India’s brightest lights of the arts: Pandit Kumar Gandharva (classical vocalist), Lata Mangeshkar (Queen of Bollywood), Kishore Kumar (Prince of Bollywood), Rahul Dravid (cricket) and Johny Walker (the Bollywood comedy actor, not the whiskey) and M.F. Hussain (India’s greatest contemporary painter).

The region has been ruled by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims and the British at some point and its tribes and local cultures draw upon the bordering regions of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan.  A strong folk music tradition exists here in the Vindhya Mountains and their surrounding plains. Within this tradition are the group of singers renown for singing songs of the great bakhti poets, especially Kabir. Collectively known as the Nirgun (the One without Attributes; God) singers, they are led by an amazing singer, Prahlad Tipaniya. A Dalit (formerly known as ‘untouchable’ or Harijan) with no musical tradition in his family, he came across the poetry of Kabir as a young man and has since, in effect, become a disciple of the 15th century weaver-poet.

Tonight’s first selection is a selection of mystical songs by Malwa’s Nirgun singers. (Prahlad Tipaniya above) This is real folk religious music. Sung with minimal and entirely traditional instrumental accompaniment, the songs are heartfelt, uplifting and enchanting.  If you’ve ever travelled for days on an Indian train or through the villages these sounds will be entirely familiar.  Devotees singing their hearts out to their God.

The second set highlights India’s nightingale, Lata Mangeshkar, a native of Indore, singing several poems of the mystical woman poet, Meera. A high born daughter of a Rajput chieftain, Meera, was a devotee of Lord Krishna, who is said to have composed more than a thousand bhajans (hymns) during her lifetime.  Along with Kabir and Surdas, Meera is regarded as one of the greatest mystical poets of India.

The Rajputana had remained fiercely independent of the Delhi Sultanate, the Islamic regime that otherwise ruled Hindustan after the conquests of Timur. But in the early 16th century AD the central Asian conqueror Babur laid claim to the Sultanate and some Rajputs supported him while others ended their lives in battle with him. Her husband's death in battle (in 1527 AD) was only one of a series of losses Meera experienced in her twenties. She appears to have despaired of loving anything temporal and turned to the eternal, transforming her grief into a passionate spiritual devotion that inspired in her countless songs drenched with separation and longing.
Meera's devotion to Krishna was at first a private thing but at some moment it overflowed into an ecstasy that led her to dance in the streets of the city. Her brother-in-law, the new ruler of Chittorgarh, was Vikramaditya, an ill-natured youth who strongly objected to Meera's fame, her mixing with commoners and carelessness of feminine modesty. There were several attempts to poison her.[2] Her sister-in-law Udabai is said to have spread defamatory gossip.
According to some myths Meera's brother-in-law Vikramaditya, who later became king of Chittor, after Bhojraj's death, tried to harm Meera in many ways like as follows:
    The famous one is that he mixed poison in the prasadam or chandanamritam of Krishna and made her drink that. But by God's grace, Krishna changed it to Amrit.
    Secondly, he pinned iron nails in Meera's bed, but again by God's grace it turned into rose petals.
Another one is that he put a snake in a flower basket and said her that it's a gift from him to her Lord, but when she opened it it actually became a gift- a garland.

Meera's songs are in a simple form called a pada (verse), a term used for a small spiritual song, usually composed in simple rhythms with a repeating refrain, collected in her Padavali. The extant versions are in a Rajasthani and Braj, a dialect of Hindi spoken in and around Vrindavan (the childhood home of Krishna), sometimes mixed with Rajasthani.

Lata’s interpretation of these bhajans is, as expected, polished, as all things surrounding Bollywood royalty are wont to be. But that doesn’t detract from there austere beauty and it is always great to see playback singers doing things that have nothing to do with their day jobs. Lata’s voice is gorgeous and it rises and lifts beautifully to the spiritual heights (and depths) of the occasion.

            Track Listing:
            Nirgun Singers of Malwa
            01 Satguru Se Milwa Chalo Re (Kaluram Bamnia)
02 Rang Mahal Mein (Prahlad Singh Tipaniya)
03 Bina Bhed Bahar Mat Bhatko (Kaluram Bamnia)
04 Meera Zahar Ka Pyala (Bheru Singh Chauhan)
05 Koi Sunta Hai Gurgyani (Prahlad Singh Tipaniya)
06 Lere Naam Lere Naam (Sundar Lal Malvi)
07 Inka Bhed Bata Mere Avdhu (Prahlad Singh Tipaniya)
08 Phagan Aayo Re (Bheru Singh Chauhan)
09 Ya Gadi Hara Des Ki (Hansraj Malvi)
10 Har Har Maroonga (Prahlad Singh Tipaniya)
11 Tu Mat Jago Piyaso (Kaluram Bamnia)
Listen here.

            Track Listing:
            Lata Sings Meera
            01 Sanvaro Nanknandan
02 Kinun Sang Khelun Holi
03 Mhara Re Girdhar Gopal
04 Thane Kanee Kanee Sunava
05 Maee Mhano Supnama Parnare Dinanath
06 Oji Hari Kit Gaye
07 Ramaiya Bin Nind Na Aave
08 Sanvara Mari Preet Nibhajonji
Listen here.