Friday, March 8, 2013

Of Prophets and Disciples: Bill 'Ravi' Harris and Chitti Babu

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.
[Rudyard Kipling]

Say what you will about the imperialistic, macho poetry of the British Raj’s great apologist, but buried within the sentiment, faux-chivalry and smugness lay some cracking lyrics. The one that opens tonight’s post is not necessarily the best of Kipling’s nuggets but it is, arguably, the most widely quoted.

And in some weird way it encapsulates the purpose of this early, hot, autumn Friday evening post. East and West try to meet. Two strong men (with their retinues of Prophets and Disciples) stand face to face, ready to do battle. Not with sabres or bandooks but armed with sitar and veena.  

The Washerman’s Dog will leave to you to pronounce judgment whether either of these men have been able to prove Kipling wrong and blend East and West.

Bill ‘Ravi’ Harris has a day job. He produces very groovy R&B records for the likes of Sharon Jones and the Daptones on his Daptone Records label. As a teenager Gabriel Roth (Bill’s day-job name) had two loves: James Brown and the sitar.  The combination was bound to end in trouble one day. And that day resulted in a weirdly wonderful recording called, not unexpectedly, Funky Sitar Man. With a couple of Hindu erotic sculptures (could be from Khajuraho) swinging their hips on the cover, Harris gets encouragement for his sitar-funk curry from a couple of Prophets: Mike Wagner on bass and on drums, Philippe Lehman.

The record covers songs by Harris’s hero James Brown, The JBs and a very cool version of the original Afro-funk hit, Soul Makossa.  I’ve heard many attempts to fuse the sitar with Western music but never did I think I’d be tapping my foot to Sex Machine!  

Sounds like a novelty and I suppose in some sense, the record is. Certainly, its a bit of personal indulgence; Harris is having fun for sure.  But put all that aside, the music is good. While he’s no Ravi Shankar, his sitar playing is not at all bad, and with the Prophets providing a funky rhythm, the overall sound is very much worth repeated listens.

Funky is not a word normally associated with the ancient Indian instrument, the veena. But Telegu musician, Chitti Babu, is certainly nothing if not cheeky. Famous for being one of India’s most talented veena players, he also had a knack for making records with wild, rather contextually inappropriate covers.  Indeed, it was the cover of tonight’s second record that attracted me to the music of Chitti Babu. Looking like a rural playboy, lounging in his very own ‘love den’, his voluptuous veena nestles next to him like his darling lover.

The record is called The Musings of a Musician and is performed by Chitti Babu and His Disciples.  In English that sounds hubristic. Even Messianic. But in Indian English and coming from a recognized master of classical music, the serious-looking men on the back cover, are indeed disciples. The structure and tradition of Indian classical music, Hindustani  or Carnatic, is built around the relationship between the Pandit/Ustad (master) and the shishya/shagird (student) which over many years of association takes on the tone and tenor of discipleship.

The music (and clearly, the cover, too) is aimed at a Western audience.  Side 1 is fairly straightforward-a medley of several ragas.  But Side 2 is a frank bid to make music along non-Indian lines.  With titles like Rendevouz and Fairy Tale the tracks are truncated and never really get off the ground.  But that being said, the record is worth listening to for its audacity and creative vision.  India had rock bands and jazz bands that played music that was immediately recognizable as ‘rock’ or ‘jazz’. It was jazz that just happened to be played by Indians.  But this record is one of the few made by purely classical Indian musicians (Ravi Shankar, and L. Subramaniam, being the most notable) who tried to make  Western, or Western-themed music with traditional Indian instruments.  And for that Chitti Babu deserves to be recognised.

So, two strong men, from the ends of the Earth, refuse to buy into Kipling’s fatalistic vision. One tries to recreate his beloved sexy soul music on a foreign sitar. The other uses his native instrument to make music that foreigners can dig.  

Wah! Cool!

Track Listing (Bill ‘Ravi’ Harris)
01 Path Of The Blazing Sarong
02 Gimme Some More /Hotpants Medley
03 Soul Makossa
04 I Dream Of Gina
05 Ravi's Thing
06 Cissy Strutt
07 Look A Py Py
08 Lost Dragon Of The Sahara
09 Pass the Peas /Sex Machine Medley
10 Funky Sitar Man
11 Same Beat
12 Escapism

Track Listing (Chitti Babu)
01 Raga
02 Rendevouz
03 Old Memories
04 Fairy Tale
05 Rhapsody
06 Royal Salute
07 Solitude

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