The notes to this CD reveal that one Tau Moe, described as a Hawaiian guitar legend, played in Calcutta in 1929 and sparked a vogue which lasted into the 1940s. Debashish, born 1963, met Tau Moe in the year 2004, by which time he had himself come a very long way (or several very long ways).
His father had some time before accepted a Hawaiian lap guitar in settlement of a debt, and at a very early age Debashish started trying to play it. At the age of four he gave an infant prodigy concert on the instrument on All India Radio, and the story thereafter can’t be done justice to at the length permissible in a review. It would be necessary to talk not merely about Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, “founder of the Indian raga slide guitar”, but about the lessons Debashish had on orthodox Western guitar and on sitar; and about the considerable learning and apprenticeship which takes raga playing beyond questions of mere technical proficiency.
Debashish no doubt has the fingers for a lot of things. I can’t say exactly what music he might be playing at any time. It is clear that he had the option of proceeding into something called “World” music, which enthusiasts envisage as a combining of traditions into something ever richer and more complex — rather than wondering whether, having found affinities between one historically worked music and another, the result might just dissolve into things in common between two traditions; a sort of muddying like what happens to flavour when food’s severely over-spiced: mediocrity cum monotony. Mention of Tau Moe’s appearance in Calcutta all those years ago, and its reported effect, could at least stir some awareness that Debashish’s preference for other than the typically modern way represented depth rather than restriction of experience.
In any event, Debashish took to the high art of raga, which he does not identify with the culture of an upper class. Raga is of great musical and spiritual depth, not to be regarded as any longer — or ever — the prerogative of the moneyed, or the inheritors of title and privilege. There is also no question of watered down or halfway or mixed or chased raga as an alternative. In playing slide guitar, his concern is fundamentally to do the same thing, play raga, by different means: a difficult thing worth doing and very important. The art involves restoration, the music’s anything but stale, the performance is fresh.
Rather than plucking strings with some fingers and bending the same strings with other fingers, Debashish works with a three-finger plucking style and bends notes with the slide. In very rough terms the same way as Hawaiian guitarists, or for a notable case, B.K. Turner, “The Black Ace”, the Texas bluesman Paul Oliver rediscovered in 1960. Ace used a straightforward guitar, not the Hawaiian lap steel guitar (The little table with strings across it. For wild and African-Western use of that instrument, see or better hear the “Sacred Steel” [very, very] hot gospellers well represented on the Arhoolie label).
Debashish has moved from different standard sorts of guitar to create (I suppose design, since I shudder to think of his fingers doing carpentry) his own guitars. The ones he seems to use nowadays, and plays on this set, are three in number.
One of them is scarcely more than a ukelele, and he says playing it is ike holding a baby. It has four strings and he uses it here in playing a six-minute or so prelude based on a raga associated with (to paraphrase) romantic peace and pathos. Trying here to translate out of any specialised discussion, the point to be made is how far this gentle string music avoids sophistication, for all its breathtaking demonstration on a mechanically simple but sonically complex four-string instrument.
The first of the two ragas which follows uses a 14-string instrument, which sounds in the occasional short phrase almost like a 12-string, but in areas that even the Georgia bluesmen Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, and Charlie Lincoln did not investigate even with their own slides (although McTell played some amazing things). Mention of occasional resemblances between this instrument’s sounds and those of flamenco guitar or veena or sarangi or saz needn’t be taken as indicating that the 14-string Gandharvi (as this guitar is called) is somehow a bumper version of all of them put together in one package. You might be inspired to listen a little more to the 12e-string bluesmen, or Ramon Montoya, and hear where they are, once you’ve heard Debashish. This second item of his programme is an evening raga, noted for “peace, humour and amazement”.
The 22-string guitar with which the recital ends is a morning raga, and the increments of strings from four to 14 to 22 represent no great outward unfolding of bigger and better capacity. The physical and mechanical extensions amounted to a slow and careful build, and the big range of the many-stringed guitar has nothing to do with easy-to-play. Any increase in opportunity must be matched with increase in sensitivity and control and dexterity. The trinity of guitars, as Debashish calls them, are devoted to raga, and serve it in a real sense by presenting the music without the aspects of sitar sound which have been too easily parodied. The actual movement of the music forfeits nothing in significant colour, and the ear more attuned to the guitar as “normal” is spared confusion by echoes of the exotic.
John Abercrombie comes to mind as a guitarist who seems to have ventured into some of the sonic realm explored here. This is a remarkably satisfying recital, and a review essayed in a “for beginners” style should conclude by saying that while trying to sell the music is the last thing I’d expect of the performer here, well, this should strike outside ears as very approachable. Peace.