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Tabla Beat Science

Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove

(Palm Pictures; US: 9 Jul 2002; UK: Available as import)

This is a recording of a concert that took place on 12 August 2001, in front of approximately 12,000 people in San Francisco’s Stern Grove Park. I wasn’t there, but my friend was—he said it was shitty and boring and ill-mixed. All I have to go on is this 100-minute album, which is probably the third-greatest live album I have ever heard in my entire life.


And the first two are the two James Brown Live at the Apollo albums, the one from 1962 and the one from 1967. So I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, here.


I love live albums. That’s not a very fashionable thing to say—critics are supposed to decry live recordings, along the lines of “If you’re not actually there, there’s nothing to them, unless it’s by James Brown or Bob Dylan or Miles Davis, in which case it was cool.” But for me, live records don’t have to be perfect to be great, and don’t have to be well-recorded to rock; one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard was the worst-sounding, a piece of sludgy genius on a ROIR cassette catching Television at their pile-driving best. And let’s just be honest: a live album ain’t a live album unless it’s a double album.


So maybe I’m predisposed to liking this record on that basis, and maybe I’m on its case because of the concept: get together American multi-culti rhythm section studs Bill Laswell on bass and Karsh Kale on drums together with Indian master percussionist Zakir Hussain, throw in some of the greatest older world-beat musicians in the world with a couple up-and-coming stars, rehearse for a couple of days, and then go blow the hell up with all their styles coming together perfectly. These three did this with the Tala Matrix disc of 2000, roping in collaboraters from Trilok Gurtu to Talvin Singh, but would it work live?


I can go either way on Laswell—he makes about a bazillion records a year, and sometimes quality control is an issue—but as a big Karsh fan (his debut Realize was one of 2001’s best albums), and as someone who digs a lot of Indian and Pakistani dance/fusion stuff, it was almost as if someone went out and made an album just for me personally.


If that’s the case, then apparently I have no problem with starting a live album with a 16-minute instrumental duet between a tabla player and a sarangi player. This is not your usual raga-muffin stylee, however, but a true meditative duet, an improvised wail on the sarangi (sounds like a synthesized sitar, but not even plugged in) backed, and sometimes led, by Hussain’s amazing tabla pounding. The rhythm of “Taarul” speeds up and slows down at seemingly random interviews, making this sound just like an avant-garde drum’n'bass performance with a guest spot by Adrian Belew on guitar . . . except what it really is is a spontaneous jam between two guys who really know their shit. Hundreds of years in the making, this-but it’s vital.


And it turns even more vital when the real live drums and bass kick in at the 16:18 mark and everything turns into a bustingly brisk version of “Secret Channel” off the Tala Matrix album, now titled “Sacred Channel”. The ensemble, now expanded to four members, stomps and kicks its way through this track like Frankenstein’s Monster at the high school hop-Laswell’s bass sounds bigger than Tony Levin’s stick booms on Peter Gabriel’s Plays Live, Kale’s drum work shows snatches of everything from jazz fills to electronic-derived madness, and Khan and Hussain do some solo and ensemble work that just simply cannot be believed. It’s sick, it’s that good.


The next track is “Nafekeñ”, a piece written and sung by Ethiopian vocalist (deep breath now) Ejigayehu Shibabaw, also known as Gigi. Palm Pictures released her debut last year (heavy assistance from Karsh Kale on that one), but it didn’t really suggest that she’d be so amazing live. This piece is a duet with Khan; her pure clear voice is clear and pure, and works well against his rough devotional wail. At first you might find it strange how similar Ethiopian and Indian vocal styles can be, but there really shouldn’t be any mystery—these two cultures have been trading and borrowing traditions from each other for close to 3,000 years. (I’ve been watching the Discovery Channel.) The band cooks up a low-key stew behind them and lets them go, momentum building slowly all the while, for a glorious 7:42.


Gigi and Khan duet twice on this album’s second disc. The first is “Satellite”, a song that first saw the light of day on Kale’s album Realize but is now beefed up with some fiery stuff by Hussain and the fire that only a live band can bring. The second, the epic “Mengedegna,” is a jaw-dropping performance. Two minutes of tabla and sarangi are followed by 12 and a half minutes of international jam, with Laswell scorching the bottom of the earth on bass, SF turntablist DJ Disk (a founding member of Invisibl Skratch Picklz) cutting at just the right time and not too much, and some sweeping swooping synth lines from Fabian Alsultany. Khan really goes off here several times, jumping his intensity up into qawwali-style ululation, and stakes a strong claim as The Best Unknown Singer in the World. Not a lot of harmonic shifts, but at this point you’ve been listening for 75 minutes and you just don’t care.


I’d say the highlight of the album is probably “Tala Matrix”, DJ Disk’s feature. This is quite simply the most impressive live scratching display I’ve ever heard. It’s not “turntablism”, per se, but just plain simple master-class level scratchin’. But that is precisely what makes it so special; not only does Disk manage to construct an entire piece out of one harsh sound manipulated many different ways, but the whole thing turns into a double-barrelled Concerto for Manipulated Record and Curry-Flavored Funk Band. Disk’s interplay with the other musicians is startling, especially in the light of Laswell’s claims that there were no overdubs on this record. Seriously? Well, I guess I believe him—but everyone sounds so good, so tight, so perfect here that it’s hard to realize that they’re not even a regular band, and that this was kind of a one-off performance.


Who else is in the house? Why, Midival Punditz are, of course. These two guys are Bombay-based DJs, and they have one track per disc here. “Trajic”, off Disc Two, is probably the winner, as it incorporates more ideas and more of the rest of the band than Disc One’s “Ap Ke Baras”, but both are truly mighty and serve as a hell of a coming-out party for this electronic outfit. I don’t know how anyone can hear the slow burn of “Trajic”, punctuated as it is by car-crash synth lines and angry cowbell tabla and some spy-movie scratching and something that appears to be a tympani, without wanting to anoint these two as New Techno Outfit to Watch 2002. Their first album is supposed to be out on Six Degrees Records later this year, and I’ve already called dibs.


There are also two selections here where Laswell and his reggae obsession takes over. “Magnetic Dub” closes out Disc One in fine style, nearly 16 minutes of deep-end dirge that busts out every minute or so into free-form freak-out, with some of Khan’s most Hendrix-like sarangi work butting heads with the rhythm section, who can’t seem to decide if they’re Sly and Robbie or Squarepusher. There’s also what passes for a drum solo, Hussain giving us the fastest tabla exhibition I’ve ever heard. (Can’t be a double-live album without a drum solo, dude.)


But it is “Devotional Dub”, the last song of the concert, that makes this album my #2 live thing ever. It’s an old-fashioned new-fangled jam session, slow and intense, with everyone getting their chance to contribute to this new version of the Tala Matrix track. You hear everyone throwing ideas around like engineers at a brainstorming session, taking the song apart and building it back up, and going out in a blaze of glory. Jesus, it’s just majestic and pretty and cool—it’s also the most rock and roll thing I’ve heard this year. Could this concert, this band, be saving the idea of the true rock band? Listen and find out, man. Don’t get left behind.

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