Thursday, May 17, 2018

India beyond the sitar


Among Indian musical instruments the short-necked fiddle known as a sarangi is the Cinderella. Because it was closely associated with popular folk music the sarangi fell out of favour at the turn of the last century, and the harmonium and violin began to replace it in classical performances. Later, the flowering of Indian music in the West was led by the sitar, which shares with the now-ubiquitous Malian kora a beguiling mellifluousness. By contrast the sarangi closely approximates the Indian classical vocal style, and is therefore more challenging to Western ears.

Despite its eclipse and relative inaccessibility to Western ears there are many distinguished sarangi masters, and my recent listening has included Indian recordings of ragas played by Ustad Sultan Khan with his longtime accompanist tabla virtuoso sans frontières Zakir Hussain. Overgrown paths converge here as Zakir Hussain was a member of John McLaughlin's Shakti, a band featured in another post sparked by recent travels in India. My photos were taken in the Patanjali district of Delhi - yes, that magnificent creature below is a champion fighting gamecock - and while in Varanasi I bought in Harmony Books at Assi Ghat, one of the great independent bookshops of the world, the new Zakar Hussain: A Life in Music, based on Nasreen Munni Kabir's interviews with the tabla master.



A just-released album is notable for, among other things, porting the sarangi into contemporary Western music. The acoustic exploits of the French gypsy-influenced composer and guitarist Titi Robin have featured many times here over the years, including his notable Les Rives [River Banks] project which featured the scion of a celebrated sarangi dynasty Murad Ali Khan. Now, more than half a century after Dylan, in a radical stylistic departure Titi Robin has gone electric with his trans-cultural homage to desert blues Rebel Diwana, again with Murad Ali Khan contributing on sarangi. In yet another post sparked by my Indian travels I described the rise of curated newsletters that share music discoveries that have moved and inspired their writers. Which is precisely what this post is trying to do. Primum Vivere [Prelude], the opening track from Titi Robin's Rebel Diwana, can be seen and heard via this link.


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