Paban Das Baul: Music of the Honey Gatherers

Paban Das Baul
Music of the Honey Gatherers

A beautiful but frustrating album, this is. If the music weren’t so beautiful, then it wouldn’t be so frustrating. Some of the tracks fade out as if they’re being cut short artificially before they’ve come to a natural end, and the language of the publicity suggests that World Music Network doesn’t trust us to take our Paban Das Baul unadulterated. We have to be honeyed into it and the music is tougher than you think.

The Bauls of Bengal, in the northeastern area of the Indian subcontinent, have a minstrel reputation. The exact origin of the sect is a mystery, but there seem to be links to the Hindu Bhakti and Muslim Sufis. Ideally, Baul devotion manifests itself as a humanist ecstasy, the physical body on earth going in search of the ultimate Beloved. Baul music expresses this search, and so it tends to be longing and loving, asking the Beloved where it resides, how it may be found, explaining the singer’s devotion, his sorrows, his wandering life, and so on, much as mystic Islamic sects sing songs of vivid adoration with their beloved object being God. “[W]ithout desire, life is nothing,” says Paban Das Baul’s partner Mimlu Sen, whose book, Baulsphere, retitled The Honey Gatherers, gives this disc its name.

On Music of the Honey Gatherers, as with a classical raga or a qawwal, the listener is aware of an invisible cage of restrictions around the musicians, a certain structure they have accepted, and to which they adhere, but within that structure they roam freely with attentive sensitivity, always listening to other instruments or singers around them, ready to pick up on a cue, respond to it, or initiate a change. Initiating that change, they trust the people around them to follow it in turn. It’s a communal sound. “Prem Katha Ti Shaunte Bhalo” refreshes itself about three and a half minutes in with a slight rattle of percussion, and from there, everybody else in the group seems to draw in a fresh breath and throw themselves onward, as if that rattle has transformed the world.

So the music is delicate but robust, as each new risk on the part of one player is caught and upheld by the others — until the sound, if you reproduced it visually, might take the shape of a Koch snowflake that starts with one or two jags then spreads out from there, discovering new crenelations as it grows. One sound bounces back on another, and these constant surprises refocus your attention as Geoffrey Hill shocks the reader’s attention back to the page in Mercian Hymns when he follows “King Offa” with “car-dealers”.

The sparsest songs are the strongest. In “Guru To Dayal”, the thrum of Paban Das Baul’s voice is supported like the roof of a tent by the explicit placements of other sounds, the ting of a bell, the bump of a dhol. These noises occur and vibrate so that the implications of the sounds and the gradations of silence around them have a significance of their own. In other tracks, “Gopon Prem” for example, the open spaces have been filled in, and the song is plump next to its rangy neighbors. At moments like this, Honey Gatherers is closer to the crossover jams and collaborations that Paban has engaged in with other musicians, his psychedelic-fusion, or Tana Tani, the album he made with DJ Saifullah Zaman.

It’s this combination that makes the album frustrating: we’re given time to get used to a long sparse song, and then a plump one pulls us up short. A two-disc set would have been an improvement, one all-plump, one all-rangy. But even as it is, this is an excellent release.

RATING 8 / 10
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