Peace through music
The town of Nagore in southeast India’s Tamil Nadu province is the site of a Sufi shrine dedicated to a Sufi saint named Meeran Sahib Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid Badshah. The site is home to a group of devotional singers practicing a transcendental form of Islam that relies of music to induce trances of religious ecstasy. It is not uncommon for pilgrims to visit other nearby religious sites—a Hindu temple, a Christian church—to mingle on the grounds, contributing their own flavors of devotion. In a country as fraught with religious extremism as India, the Nagore shrine serves as a reminder of the ability for diverse religious traditions to coexist, and even to nourish one another.
Now EarthSync, a music label based in Chennai, has gone a step further in bringing this site to the attention of the world. Nagore Sessions combines the voices of the shrine’s singers with instrumentation from both Indian and western traditions—a touch of sitar and harmonium, a little violin, some subtle keyboards and not-so-subtle bass. In so doing, the record softens the ragged edges of the music while injecting it with a bit of lower-register verve. The results are compelling, and manage to avoid the worst follies of juiced-up traditional music.
Songs are built around three primary singers and a handful of backing vocalists, while thrumming bass and handheld drums provide a propulsive undercurrent. Opening track “Baghdad Guru” is a bit of a warm-up, while “The Saint” is more memorable, benefiting from a cartwheeling melody and nice accents from tabla and bamboo flute. The keyboards are understated enough to be missed unless you listen for them; they serve primarily as a kind of background to the layers of vocals and the trilling flute.
The album hits its stride with “Ya Allah” and “Allahu Allah”, a couple of midtempo tunes that feature compelling vocal performances, chugging rhythms and a minimum of studio trickery. That said, the bass line does kick in one minute into “Ya Allah” and is present throughout “Allahu Allah”, so if you prefer your traditional music absent of electronica, this record is not for you. Those who aren’t put off can enjoy spacing out to the strongest tracks on the album.
The rest of the album continues in the same vein, either keeping the trance-vibe going or else achieving diminishing returns, depending on the listener’s point of view. “Ya Haja” bounces along on waves of violin and harmonium and booming frame drum. It’s also the most fast-paced song on the record—“fast” being a relative term, never more so than here. The oddly-titled “Into Your Eyes” features some effective flute and sarangi—a kind of Indian fiddle, played upright between the knees—while album closer “Mahane Mohabat” is a mini-epic clocking in at eight and a half minutes. Utilizing many of the same elements as the other songs, “Mahane Mohabat” closes the proceedings with a satisfying gravity.
One can only hope that the devotional cross-pollination represented by the Nagore shrine makes itself felt elsewhere. This record is a modest beginning, but it is a compelling one nonetheless.