[23 March 2009]
Ustad Shujaat Khan & Karsh Kale at Alice Tully Hall, New York City, 7 March 2009
While Shujaat Khan’s musical lineage dates back seven generations, performers of the raga have always been known to add their personal “color” to the song. Once in a while, such coloring is interpreted as evolving the tradition to invite other styles into the fold of this distinctly Indian sound.
With some 50 releases to date, Khan has taken his education in the Imdad Khan gharana numerous places—with the Iranian kemenche player Kayhan Kalhor in the band Ghazal; to various folk forms on Hawa Hawa; along the silk road—and this evening alongside New York-based artists Karsh Kale, Vijay Iyer, and Jonathan Maron proved no differently. All four offered masterful performances rooted in the raga as well as jazz.
Celebrating the opening week of the brand new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, the pin-drop acoustics with which Kale’s tablas and Iyer’s piano was offered proved superb. Khan’s sitar was airy and firm, as were his vocals; most impressively, Maron’s bass never over-extended itself, always in the groove and rumbling along the iridescent melodies surrounding him.
The tabla can be melodic as well, though Kale knows when to drop into the bayan for the deep, earthy pulse of this otherwise rapid instrument. Adding further to the credibility of both venue and performers, his drum kit, which aided the concert in two of five songs, stayed centered and controlled.
Khan has a generation on all three men, showing it in both temperament and humor. This was not the first time these men have taken stage together—a few years ago they put on an excellent show at Joe’s Pub—yet this was their most relaxed and calm, even if the material was new. The pressures were there: 1,000 tickets sold to capacity; kicking off a series in a brand new venue at one of New York’s most renowned venues; fusing the Indian tradition with jazz which, while in no way a new endeavor, can easily prove tragic.
There seemed none of the trappings of “fusion”, however: Maron complemented beautifully, never exhibiting signs of anxiousness or of being overly ambitious, as can happen with jazz bassists; Iyer is mature enough a player to handle most anything, with a long background in his native India’s music; and Kale has been flexible in so many musical situations for so many years, there was no concern he’d fall from the pocket.
Which leaves Khan, whose voice, although used little this night, was silken and strong as ever. Music for him is a duty and service, not only to the necessities of survival in an economical or social sense, but on a deeply personal and unquestionably devotional platform. The man’s music is superb: think of the wind on starry nights and prostrating riverside at dawn.
After the first piece, my friend leaned over and whispered that if you close your eyes, you are easily taken away. I joined in; it was true. There was nowhere to go physically, but a retreat to the imaginative recesses inside one’s own being was readily accessible, being taken by the images that sound offers one who is open for the journey. This is why the Indian musical tradition is sacred, for the possibilities it extends its players and listeners. Those willing to own up to the responsibilities can travel far, indeed.
The two halves of this West Coast singer’s last name reveal much: the first half, symbolic of the environmentally progressive state of mind; the latter, of natural landscapes and solidity. These two merge in his music as well—the organic and rootsy offerings of devotional lyrics and open-mindedness, tempered by a deeply produced album of bass and drums. The mountain is solid, firm. The organic appears spontaneous and of the moment. Devotion is the key word here.
What makes this an exceptional recording is the integrity of production where many others of similar ilk fall flat. Greenmountain, coming from a six-year sting with a band he co-founded, Hamsa Lila, continues his sonic exploration of Moroccan ritual music, which is governed by the bass lute, the sintir. The rituals do not stop in North Africa; every track is expressive of another culture. Greenmountain pulls this off without appropriating the culture (think New Age), a rare feat, indeed.
Part of this is intention: you can feel his music, inside out. The connective tissue he weaves between nations and songs is percussive; the drum, being a universal instrument, merges easily into his paradigm. Brazil street music appears (“Carnivao”); the mbira hint at Africa (“Atom’s Song”); intercultural messages are embedded into the Gnawa (“Salaam Shalom”). At heart, Greenmountain takes the musical structure of an acoustic singer/songwriter, distinguishing himself by feeding the melodies to the loas of bass.
Perhaps the most prevalent influence is reggae, appearing on the album’s two finest cuts, “Rock & Redeemer” and “Ancestar”. He begins in Jamaica and ends in India, making an important cultural connection: the word “Jah”, in island lingo the term for the supreme, is most likely a derivation of the Hindu chant “Jai”, imported when coolies sailed oceans to work cheaply on Jamaican coffee and banana plantations. This interesting cross-cultural meeting solidifies the idea that faith is universal, regardless of what or who the faith is offered “to”.
Which makes a track like “Save the Humans” interesting. It’s catchy, in a Michael Franti sort of way, and yet the idea that humans need to be “saved” on a devotion-based album brings up a paradox: if it is geared towards faith, why the clinging? Uncertainty grips; faith lets go.
Yet in these uncertain times, Greenmountain’s intentions remain pure. Where we’re going “to” is not as important as where we’re at; this is the basis of most ritual to begin with: presence. And throughout the entirety of Greenmountain’s dozen songs, you feel he is with you every step of the way, company you certainly enjoy having.
Years before the onslaught of tribute songs to Barack Obama overloaded Youtube and my inbox, Extra Golden recorded “Obama”, their eight-minute tribute to the then-senator. The group had rather spontaneously formed when Golden band members Ian Eagleson befriended a singer named Otieno Jagwasi while doing research in Nairobi.
They hit it off; Eagleson invited guitarist Alex Minoff to Kenya to play along; the newly formed band cut an album in a concrete room with a tin roof in under three hours. Two years later Thrill Jockey released the phenomenal Ok-Oyou System, and the mythology of the union erupted.
Along the way, however, Jagwasi died at 34 of liver cancer. Eagleson and Minoff pushed forward, securing a spot at the preeminent Chicago World Music Festival, an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. One problem: none of the Kenyans had passports.
A phone call to Obama’s office changed that, and the musicians were allowed entrance to perform. Today the quartet tours extensively and passionately. The first song mentioned was their thank you to the then-senator, now-president.
Passion is the perfect primer for their third release, Thank You Very Quickly, an ominous title if there ever was one laden with many connotations (although we hope not erotic). While “Obama” was a highlight of their sophomore attempt, Hera Ma Nono, the album was not nearly as rich and full as their debut. The irony, of course, is that they had much more time to cut that one; sometimes spontaneity wins out. Their latest trumps all.
Pulling from the African guitar traditions, this is a very danceable record. The synergy created between the six-string, bass, drums, and vocals—so simple, so effective—borders magical. In an NPR article, Minoff mentions that he must have had “400 cups of coffee” before calling Obama’s office; on this new album, I’d say drummer Onyango Wuod Omari had 800.
How one man could play drums that hard, and one guitarist could run through riffs that quickly, and there still be space, is unfounded. This, however, is long a secret of African music, clear to anyone with access to recordings from the ‘60s in Nigeria, Kenya, or the Congo. Sometimes less is more; sometimes a lot more is more too, and they make it work. Now a full-time band and no longer a side project, Extra Golden is certainly one of the funkiest and danceable convergences of culture to date.