In a way, Wise and Otherwise, a very natural sounding expression of East meets West, has been waiting 40 years to be realized. While the music listener of the last decade is more accustomed and so perhaps more open now to such blends, it’s been a rather long journey as East Indian music slowly wended its course into Western music. As classical Indian music has been around for several thousand years, forty years must seem like a quick blink of the eye to some. This is not meant as a studied treatise, but just a sketched outline, a quick pop history traced back to the possible origins, where the timeline takes us back to several years before George Harrison had even heard of Ravi Shankar or the Beatles got their mantras.
In the very early 1960s, nearly unnoticed in the Berkeley music communes and rooming houses, Robbie Basho was rumored to eat woodrose and play his then strange guitar music all night, using his strings as drones to propel him into the interior of the OM. His roommates would try to sleep through the contact highs they got from him. Simultaneously, Sandy Bull was actively on a quest for his musical guru, and when the student was ready, the teacher appeared in the form of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, with whom Bull studied for the remainder of his life.
Then about 1965-1966, the Beach Boys, or maybe it was the Beatles, brushed the strings of “an Indian guitar” (a sitar) once or twice on a pop release. A few more such accents were placed on popular records here and there during that era. Jimi Hendrix was so genuinely enraptured with the idea of incorporating sitar into his music, he held a summit meeting with an Indian musician; Hendrix didn’t live long enough to pursue his ideas, but the other musician went off to record a brief exploration of Jimi’s music on his sitar.
There was an ongoing fascination, though some musicians were recognizably more dedicated in their pursuits. Many English and American musicians made the arduous trek to India in the ’70s to be introduced to some of the innumerable scales necessary to begin singing or playing an Indian instrument and learned there were really no shortcuts to this process. So it was the tabla slipped into occasional use in Western pop music before the stringed instruments did, and Ry Cooder slid his steel around tabla-powered rhythms on several early blues-based pieces (Performance, 1971 and Boomer’s Story, 1972.)
And then there was nothing too much until this world music thing started happening. Now, fusions of rock and sitar are regular offerings, and some (like those of Ashwin Batish) should probably be listened to.
This is a long way of saying there were plenty who have tried; some were more successful in their integration than others and those clearly were the more serious students. Of the musicians who dedicated themselves to years of respectful study, Harry Manx has emerged to offer an intriguing presentation.
Manx started out as a roadie for Willie Dixon and then traveled the world for twenty-five years as a one-man-band. While he was in Japan in the ’80s, he heard the music of Vishna Mohan Bhatt. That encounter eventually lured him to India to study for five years with Bhatt, the inventor of an instrument called the Mohan Veena. Bhatt is quite well known in India. Manx also toured with Bhatt, performing with him in concert in front of 8,000 people at the Taj Mahal. Soon, Bhatt became more famous to Westerners from his 1994 recording with Ry Cooder, Meeting By the River.
Yet, aside from Manx, the only other Westerner who ever played or owned a Veena was George Harrison. As both Manx and Harrison had an understanding and appreciation of his music, Bhatt presented each of those two disciples with an instrument. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about power rock and power sitar. But keep in mind that the strings of the Veena, which is like a 20-stringed lap slide guitar, are maintained at a tension of 500 lbs. total. So there is a lot of potential power even at rest.
What Manx manages to come up with on Wise and Otherwise is a combination of gentler folk forms. He’s a good singer and very adept on regular slide guitar, as shown on “Only Then Will Your House Be Blessed” which only made me want to hear him playing more of those very expressive blues.
If you’re antsy to hear him play the Veena, you have only to wait until the second track for “Death Have Mercy”. Manx also pays homage to the sixties, when sitar power was a popular experimentation if only an aspiration not fully realized then. Although Jimi Hendrix is remembered with “Foxy Lady”, the most evocative piece is a cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”. The unlikeliest segue is “The Gist of Madhuvanti” blending into an acoustic version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”, but that ends up as the sparkling centerpiece.
As an able songwriter, Manx also recounts the story of an old friend (“an honest man on the welfare line”) who slipped through the cracks of society on “Coat of Mail”. Wise and Otherwise gains with each listening, and that is always an intriguing phenomenon. Manx is not really, as so many seem to insist, playing “the blues” . . . at least not in my book. But this all seems to work together a little better than it by all rights should.
Great music for slowing down at the end of a day, and perfect for an intimate gathering of laid-back friends.