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New Ways to Breathe

Anoushka Shankar - photo by Pamela Springsteen

Breathing Under Water, a collaboration between sitarist Anoushka Shankar and tablist Karsh Kale, is not only where music is going, it's where it's at.

Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale

Breathing Under Water

Label: Manhattan
US Release Date: 2007-08-28
UK Release Date: 2007-09-10

The Dawn of Indian Music in the West

Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 0826428193
Author: Peter Lavezzoli
Price: $29.95
Length: 480
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-04-01

In his excellent and comprehensive look at Indian music's worldwide journey, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West (Continuum), Peter Lavezzoli takes a microscopic view of the performers, albums, and concerts that launched a global awareness of this country's classical forms. The sketch starts with Ali Akbar Khan's Music of India (as well as a wonderful capitulation of his father's legacy) right into recent efforts by Tabla Beat Science, Cheb i Sabbah, and Anoushka Shankar, where tender and respectful strains of electronica are married to the raga, bhajan, and bhakti folklore. Most insightful is Lavezzoli's precise and patient eye for details, weaving a story that -- as is often the case with Indian philosophy and music -- is not exactly clean-cut.

Such is the case with a culture whose theories of time prove much different than our own; specifically, that existence is a circle, not linear line. In a particularly enlightening interview with Mickey Hart, Lavezzoli describes how the former Grateful Dead drummer was astounded to learn that the flurry of rhythms being played by the tabla -- an instrument that bass player Bill Laswell once told me was the most diverse drum on the planet -- was being produced by one man. Hart began playing rhythm games with Allah Rahka, one of sitarist Ravi Shankar's primary accompanists, in a New York City hotel room in the early '70s, to find common ground between their lineages. It took Hart some time to understand that music, and consequently life, can be lived outside of 4/4.

As a DJ I've found this to remain the case to this day. If I happen to move away from the four-on-the-floor or hip-hop-based beats that Americans are accustomed to -- the likes of, say, Egyptian percussionist Ali Hassan Kuban and ritual tracks from the Puerto Rican bomba tradition -- dancers look up like I'm from another planet. And indeed, when violin extraordinaire Yehudi Menuhin became the first Westerner to present, and eventually accompany, Shankar and Khan, thus began a long history of fetishizing Indian music. It is still glamorized as exotic, and lazy producers paste snippets of ragas above boring beats in hopes of landing a licensing deal for the next Buddha Bar installment. As much as exoticism lasts, however, so does a growing awareness of the depth and textures of this amazingly diverse musical, and spiritual, tradition.

I appreciate Lavezzoli's work greatly because he keeps wrapping it back to this fact. To many, if not all of the artists he discusses, music is the soul of the Indian spirit: Nada Brahma, sound is the Creator. By extension, music is the root and heart of every sonic tradition. The raga is the perfect expression of this idea. It begins with a musical foundation, and is then embellished and given voice to by the players that perform it. It evolves over time precisely because humans evolve within time. To play this tradition, every artist must express his or her voice; in this way, the foundation of the raga is not a constraint, but a call to exhibit freedom, and improvise spontaneously. Some would consider life within the "confines" of skin to be the same thing, which is why music is an offering to something beyond the players.

Just as Mehudin and Khan and Shankar and Hart evolved the Indian music pantheon to what it is today, it continues through the next generation, symbolically and literally. There is no greater example than Breathing Under Water (Manhattan), a magnificent collaboration between sitarist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of aforementioned Ravi, and tablist/drummer/producer Karsh Kale. Both musicians have been heading in this direction for some time. Shankar, after releasing three traditional albums, started tinkering with the digital world alongside producers the MIDIval PunditZ on Rise, while Kale toyed with electronics over a decade ago in a cramped NYU dorm room on a PC that couldn't contain the massive ideas in his head. Both are trained classically, and both are taking Indian music into the 22nd century.

You cannot talk about music without the question of identity. While deeply rooted in their native cultures, Kale was born in London and bred in New York City, where he still lives, and Shankar splits her time between India and San Diego. They grew up watching MTV as much as studying scales and tals. They were influenced by the elder Shankar and tablist Zakir Hussain (whom Kale collaborates with in Tabla Beat Science), as much as Massive Attack, Radiohead, and Bjork. Kale, in many ways, and more so than Shankar, has been plagued by this nagging insistence of pigeonholing his music as confidentially and strictly Indian, a comparison he has never wanted. If ever he has produced an album to blow asunder all such assumptions, it is this one.

On Breathing Under Water, there is as much history as future. The duo has handpicked a host of collaborators from their individual careers to create something that cannot be defined. There is simply no overarching definition of an album that contains gorgeous sitar-backed ballads featuring Sting and Norah Jones, as well as the haunting, dark, and deep minimal electronica track, "Ghost Story", with Sunidhi Chauhan on vocals. Nor can we compare two astoundingly soulful songs -- the sarangi- and acoustic guitar-led "A Perfect Rain", with a heartfelt lyrical contribution by Shankar Mahadevan, and "Abyss", which features santoor, bansuri, and Kale on vocals alongside longtime bandmate Vishal Vaid -- with classical compositions by Ravi alongside the youngsters. When they throw in a delightful stab at Chinese folk music, we realize that their boundaries know no bounds.

The young Shankar, long heralded as the continuation of her father's amazing legend, is doing exactly what her father did, albeit in different formats. If not for Ravi, tabla players may not have been soloists; he also successfully introduced having two tablists perform at once (on a tour with Anoushka, no less). When you listen to her careful and impassioned playing underneath Sting's gorgeous vocal effort on "Sea Dreamer", you hear the merging of classical and pop in a way that has not been done since the Beatles and the Byrds were creating fascinating studio specimens of colliding worlds. Her playing throughout is nothing short of extraordinary.

Kale, on the other hand, has always been intrigued with the two worlds that are really different expressions of the one world we live in. Perhaps "Slither", where Shankar's sitar is put on a delay pedal and his tablas are run through similar effects (reminding one of his "GK2" from Liberation), is a prime example of how mature his production acumen has become. Of course, when Ravi joins in for the closing songs, Kale keeps his fingers off the trigger and on the tals. His vocabulary is among the broadest in any form of music today.

Shankar and Kale - photo by Smallz and Raskind

I'll never forget sitting in Laswell's Chelsea home when he told me this: "Our three-minute songs are not part of tradition or culture, [they're] part of a manipulation of business. Our history wasn't made; it was manufactured. Their [classical Indian musicians] history was made. That comes from a long lineage of passing down sound, music and song, for the most part rooted in a spiritual base as opposed to a musical or technical base. This is a devotional and spiritual tradition. Our concept of three-minute songs, we didn't invent that in the street, we didn't say 'Let's make it like that.' That's been put on us by convenience of business or how you get something done as quickly and easily as possible to make as much money as possible. It has nothing to do with music."

The 4/4 is a psychology: a form of thinking, not the totality of thought. It is a basic, and very useful, rhythm, just as it makes logical sense. Unfortunately, we don't live in a logical world. We draft maps to give a general sense of our surroundings; the map is never the terrain, nor should it be confused with it. The inability to explore the sounds and ideas of the world can sometimes be preferential, though often it is simple bias, or avidya, which in yogic philosophy is a form of ignorance that prohibits you from seeing the connectedness of everything.

Breathing Under Water is not only where music is going, it's where it's at. This the precipice of numerous cultures and countries and ideas, finding rhythms within rhythms and making songs from them. It is a fierce and beautiful album, built with a deep passion for pushing things forward, and total devotion of the ancestral heritage that has gotten it to this point. My feeling is that in 20 years it will be written about as a turning point in these cultural artistic convergences, and future journalists will recognize its importance and relevance in not only the construction of new musical forms, but of a new global identity.

But why wait two decades to understand that? These artists are revealing these patterns now, the same way hieroglyph painters stenciled gods as dogs and tigers and humans telling one continuous story. That story is the mythology of our times. Just because you can download it instead of traveling to the town square to hear it does not change its importance. The time, as always, is now.

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