World-Music Fusion is More Like fission
“World fusion” is a genre of music that’s tough to pull off. In theory, it sounds great: mixing the traditional instruments and structures of, say, Indian classical music with the inventive tempos and ornamentation of jazz or blues should make for a constantly surprising musical melange, an entirely new style of music that draws from both traditions without being beholden to either. Or something like that. All too often, though, the result is something of a mess, a jarring puddle of sounds that is neither one thing nor the other, and that fails to capitalize on its initial promise.
Debashish Bhattacharya’s Beyond the Ragasphere isn’t quite that unrewarding, but it does fall prey to some square-peg-in-round-hole pitfalls, and it’s only rewarding in snatches. This isn’t the fault of the musicians, who are all adept at their instruments, particularly Bhattacharaya himself on guitar, as well as his daughter Anandi, whose lovely and ethereal vocals add much to the proceedings. Elsewhere, though, the record often fall flat, trying too hard to do too much. It’s telling that the most successful compositions here are those that hew most closely to tradition, minimizing the “fusion” elements altogether.
Album opener “Kirwani One.5 + 8.Five” is a good example of how things can go wrong. Off-kilter guitar and sarangi lines weave over jittery percussion, including traditional tabla, in a nervous stop-and-start rhythm that never settles down for the whole of its six-and-a-half minutes. Ditto for “Rasam Samba”, whose pulsing undercurrent seems at odds with the melodic fretwork and ethereal vocals floating above it.
A number of songs, including “Rasam Samba”, attempt to incorporate Latin music rhythms into the Indian traditional framework. The result is fairly disastrous. The most egregious example here, “Indospaniola”, manages to succeed neither as Latin music nor as Indian music. I’s an example of what I mentioned at the outset, a musical mixture that theoretically might work but simply ends up being unsatisfying on any level. The interplay of Spanish guitar and snaky sitar lines might sound like a great idea. It’s not, and it goes on for far too long.
More successful is “A Mystical Morning”, at sixteen minutes the album’s longest composition as well as the most satisfying. Structured something like a traditional raag, with a leisurely opening section and then a more boisterous back half, “A Mystical Morning” segues from Bhattacharya’s languid interplay with fellow guitarist John McGlaughlin to a quiet storm of tabla and—believe it—electric guitar.
“Khamaj Tarana” is a straightforward song, heavy on the Indian-trad elements, that benefits from Anandi’s sweet vocals, while album closer “Ode to Love” is a gentle, faintly bluesy number that reveals the guitarist’s deft touch. It’s a pretty song, well suited to late nights and rainy afternoons. It’s also an example that, in this particular case, less it more. By not piling on jazz tempos or Spanish rhythms, Bhattcharya is left to simply play a lovely tune and play it well. He ends up with one of the best tracks on the record.
Ultimately, adventurous fans of world-music experimentation might be tempted to give this a try. But go into it with open eyes: Beyond the Ragasphere does live up to its name, but it’s nonetheless a hit-or-miss affair.