This week on 1001 we’re looking to the East for some of the Asian entries on the list. We’re looking at the Near East for this week: not that it matters, as there’s no representation at all from the Middle East or Far East (not even Shonen Knife, Cornelius or Pizzicato Five). There’s no doubt that such a large area, containing billions of diverse people, will have a wide variety of fascinating music – there is, for example, an Iranian metal band. Yet Indian classical music especially, with its unusual scales and microtones and with its drones and ragas, can be a challenge for the uninitiated Western listener such as your humble hack. No surprise then that, even if we extend our invitation to include British born musicians of Asian descent, we’re short on numbers this week. We already covered RD Burman, MIA, Nitin Sawhney and Queen in previous editions, and I’d already heard (and own) Cornershop’s ‘When I Was Born For The Seventh Time’, so that only leaves us with five. Let’s have it.
Hariprasad Chaurasia, Brij Bhushan Kabra, and Shivkumar Sharma, ‘Call of the Valley’
A concept album from the 60s with a guitarist, a flautist and a santoor player: just another week in 1001 Albums, right? Guitarist Kabra feels like the most interesting character here, having to promise his family that he’d only play Hindustani classical music when he chose the distinctly untraditional guitar as his weapon of choice. Against all odds he manages it, adding sitar-ish drone strings and raga-ish bends as well as slipping slide guitar sounds in. Sharma’s santoor is a sort-of Iranian hammered dulcimer deal, which he plays dextrously. The sound is certainly evocative: you can imagine the sunrise over the Kashmiri mountains at the start of the day. There’s also some sophisticated interplay between the trio which is doubtless lost on a cloth-eared ignoramus like me.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party, ‘Devotional Songs’
Khan was a Pakistani singer who, along with his family (the Party credited), performed Qawwali music, a Sufi style based around chanting, harmonium and tablas and focused on, well, devotional songs. Khan is the most famous Qawwali singer, at least to a Western audience, and his fans included Jeff Buckley and Peter Gabriel. As my first listen to the genre, never mind the singer, it’s difficult to appraise the album from an informed standpoint. The bandleader’s powerful multi-octave voice is the most distinctive feature of the record, dominating proceedings as if in a religious ecstasy. Maybe he is. The songs on the album seem long (7-9 minutes), but I shouldn’t complain too much, as a standard Qawwali is 15-30 minutes and some of Khan’s back catalogue has single songs that last over an hour.
Ananda Shankar, ‘Ananda Shankar’
This album doesn’t seem too popular with purists, and I guess I can see why Shankar wielding his sitar and fronting a Western rock band with Moog synths might feel like a dumbing down of classical tradition, a DJ Otzification of Hindustani music. But I think this sounds great, opening with a twanging sitar-and-choir-and-synth jam version of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ that sounds iconoclastic and containing an equally quirky, space cadet take on ‘Light My Fire’. Clearly Shankar playing tit-for-tat with those acts’s co-opting of raga sounds, it’s an audacious pair of covers that sound hilariously awesome. Sanity prevails on the B-side, where Shankar proves his classical sitar chops on a 13-minute song (‘Sagar: The Ocean’) before finishing with a folk-rock take on an Indian classical piece called ‘Raghupati’. The peaks on this one are must-hear.
Ravi Shankar, ‘The Sounds of India’
Ananda’s uncle and, believe it or not, Norah Jones’s father is one of the most famous Indian musicians of all time, thanks to his association with George Harrison. Clearly an album aimed at a Western audience, Ravi does his best to explain Hindustani music to the uneducated ear with spoken-word intros, warning the audience not to expect harmony and counterpoint and to think of it more like Hindu jazz. I probably should have listened to this one first this week, in hindsight. Anyway, Shankar’s virtuosic playing showcases the sitar to its utmost while his rhythm section (a tamboura and a tabla player) keep up, the jams last over ten minutes and I still can’t find a handle on it despite his best efforts.
Talvin Singh, ‘OK’
Alright, thanks for coming everyone!
Well, I suppose I should write some more about this. The surprise winner of the 1999 Mercury Music Prize fuses traditional Indian sounds (sitar, vocals and of course his own tablas) with breakbeats and electronica without ever getting into the territory of being particularly gripping or engaging. The fusion seemed like a big deal at the time but now, it just feels like the sort of thing you’d’ve heard anyone do in the 90s: put some world music together with a breakbeat. Even Geri Halliwell did it! My favourite Singh appearance is as a guest: playing tablas and singing on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ immaculate late-career single ‘Kiss Them For Me’.
Next week: I’ll be drawing seven of the albums I’m most excited to listen to from the pile. Which will it be? Stay tuned!
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