Music

Debashish Bhattacharya: Hawaii to Calcutta

Classical Indian ragas meet Hawaiian roots music on Hawaii to Calcutta, an impassioned tribute to trailblazer Tau Moe.


Debashish Bhattacharya

Hawaii to Calcutta

Subtitle: A Tribute To Tau Moe
Label: Riverboat
US Release Date: 2017-01-27
UK Release Date: 2017-01-27
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In the 1920s and 1930s, when guitar player Tau Moe came from Hawaii to Asia on tour riding a wave of fascination in exoticized Polynesian culture, he found a particularly avid following in India. His lap steel caught on quickly there as an instrument well suited to intricate Indian ragas. Decades later, classical musician Debashish Bhattacharya (who received his first Hawaiian lap steel guitar at the age of three) pays him back with Hawaii to Calcutta: A Tribute to Tau Moe, a seamless intercontinental showcase.

By now, it should go without saying that there are few classical Indian musicians as rightfully revered as Debashish Bhattacharya, who plucks out vivid melodies with unstoppable, nimble fingers to create vastly immersive pieces, wordless epics, and instrumental poetry. On Hawaii to Calcutta, he lends his considerable skills to Hawaiian classics and draws inspiration from the South Pacific in creating original ragas less in the style than in the spirit of Papa Tau.

Though Hawaii to Calcutta is billed as a tribute album, only a handful of the twelve tracks are not original numbers. The familiar "Aloha 'Oe" is played slowly, with its recognizable melody intact; Bhattacharya adds minimal adornment, but the subtle grace notes he plucks out in the background add melancholy romance to the bittersweet farewell. Eddie Kamae's "E Ku'u Morning Dew", meanwhile, stretches to let Bhattacharya add much more of his own flavor to the piece, and the ethereal combination rises up on tropical trade winds.

Bhattacharya's arrangements of Hawaiian songs are moving, but his compositions are where the real magic happens, as they are where worlds are built and atmospheres are thick with color and life. "Aloha-Alaap" is subtitled "Hawaiian Sunrise", and that's what it sounds like, though on a more remote point than the tourist-lined beaches of Oahu or Maui. Bhattacharya's winding notes take us instead up into the mountains, to daybreak at the brink of a resting volcano to anticipate the day. "Playful Melina On Diamond Head" and "The Dance Of Nai'a At Oahu Shore" both usher in wild nights near bustling Honolulu, with tablas blazing and strings at their quickest. "The Island Romance" delivers exactly what the title promises: an ardent dance song full of fire, water, and rising plumes of smoke. The more typical Hawaiian sounds common to each of the cover tracks are nowhere to be found on these, but the spirit and physical landscape of the archipelago remain in Bhattacharya's mind as he plays.

More well-blended tributes pepper the album as well. Bhattacharya pares down his melodies on heartfelt tribute "Papa Tau", opting for a more spacious but no less impassioned piece that takes a refreshing step toward simplicity appropriate for a song meant for Moe. By far the most effective fusion, though, is "Anandi on the Loose", where the twang of rootsy Hawaiian guitar music starts slow and builds to a frenzy, blurring the lines between continental plates and letting Bhattacharya's lap steel lace the styles together with carefree abandon.

Tau Moe's legacy runs so deep that at times, it's hard to see how Hawaii to Calcutta honors the late, great Papa Tau when taken on a superficial level. Without Moe, though, Bhattacharya would be an entirely different musician, perhaps one who never would have had the chance to pick up a Hawaiian lap steel guitar at such a young age, but who instead would have gone in another direction entirely. Shortly before his death at 95-years-old, Moe gave a performing Bhattacharya his blessing. Bhattacharya has taken that gift and run with it in a way Moe would doubtless be thrilled about, and on Hawaii to Calcutta, his love for Hawaii, Moe, and music is unquestionable.

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