The Dawn of Indian Music

The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi
Peter Lavezzoli
Continuum hardback, no price listed.

In April 1955, Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and tabla player Chatur Lal gave the first full performance of Indian classical music in the USA at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For Peter Lavezzoli, the event, which was soon issued as the first ever LP of Indian classical music as Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas, marks The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin introduced the duo, John D. Rockefeller and a variety of socialites, classical music big names and others attended, the New York Times and New Yorker applauded. The recording would inspire La Monte Young and many others, setting off waves which, as Lavezzoli documents in this substantial book, later manifested in minimalism, fusion, world music, jam bands and a catalog of other late 20th C musical forms.

Lavezzoli sets out an impressively rich history, in a series of chapters focused on individuals, with extensive Q and A interviews and a broader historical narrative woven throughout. Khan, Ravi Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha emerge as the key figures, meeting up with an impressive and exhausting percentage of the key western musical performers of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a history of hybrid forms, as “Indian classical music” mutates in a rapidly shifting global political environment in which authenticity is revered, even as film, radio, western spiritual seekers, rock and jazz musicians tear it apart and repackage it for their own purposes.

The book’s strength – its attention to detail – is also its weakness. Lavezzoli’s musical worldview is rather mainstream. The most well known names are covered exhaustively: George Harrison, John McLaughlin, The Grateful Dead, Terry Riley and John Coltrane, with Cheb i Sabbah tossed in at the end. The focus on these names means that many of the more original interpreters and students of Indian classical music are ignored, including Henry Flynt, Charlemagne Palestine and Arthur Russell (who studied with Akbar Khan). The use of raga in folk music by musicians like Davey Graham, Sandy Bull and John Fahey in the 1960s (much of it predating its use in pop and rock) is absent – as are the new folk raga sounds of Matt Valentine or Pelt. Italian born dhrupad singer and student of the Dagar Brothers Amelia Cuni, to my mind the greatest Western master of Indian classical music performing today, is not mentioned at all. Nor for that matter are influential sarangi master Ram Narayan or hippie trickster Bhagavan Das. Bizarrely, Pandit Pran Nath is tucked into a chapter on Riley, while David Crosby and Roger McGuinn get 26 pages to themselves.

There are real questions about the historical focus too. While MoMA in 1955 was no doubt a key moment in the popularization of Indian classical music, surely reports of raga must have appeared somewhere in the long history of the British colonization of India. Certainly there were scholarly accounts: French Indologist Alain Danielou is brushed aside as a purveyor of substandard street musician recordings, yet Danielou spent 20 years in India beginning in 1932, wrote prolifically about Indian music from the 1930s on, was appointed director of a college of Indian music in Benares in 1949, and his Religious Music of India recordings were issued by Folkways in 1952. His recordings of the Dagar Brothers and others are among the jewels in the history of recorded sound. Which is all to say that the story is much more remarkable than Lavezzoli suggests. Nevertheless, omissions aside, Lavezzoli’s book remains a useful introduction to a key current in 20th C musical history.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

The Boredoms

The Boredoms
Seadrum/House of Sun
Vice (Vice 62309)
Seadrum comes from the now infamous recording sessions conducted by The Boredoms on a beach in Japan, in which they play with as well as in the sea, allowing the waves to reach the drums, placing mikes underwater and so on. If this conjures visions of surging, roaring surf, or swelling wave formations in the style of Nurse With Wound’s remarkable Salt Marie Celeste, the result is somewhat different. Building on the tribal drumming styles and psychedelic rhythms of their wonderful Vision Creation Newsun, Seadrum features speedy, shifting batucada style drum rhythms over which Yoshimi P-We sings in a freeform style that reminds me of Sun Ra’s June Tyson, while a harp-like piano improvises in a way that recalls Alice Coltrane. It’s exhilarating stuff, made for a dancefloor that doesn’t yet exist (but which surely will do soon!). And the sea? The sea is in the mix, a static-like spitting surge of sound that pushes up through the mix at irregular interviews, giving the music sudden highly focused pulses of noise-energy. After all that oceanic drive, “House of Sun” is a gentle tambura drone and strings driven mix of a thing composed by Yamataka Eye – sustained, repetitive: more like watching the ripples created by rain in an otherwise still lake.

originally published in Signal to Noise.

Sandro Perri

Sandro Perri
Plays Polmo Polpo

Marcus Boon

Sandro Perri’s music navigates a unique path between several of Toronto’s musical communities: the folk/jazz/improv of the various Rat-Drifting ensembles (many of whom appear on this disk), the experimental end of the dance music scene (Perri’s Polmo Polpo project often DJs or performs on techno lineups around the city, and his label Audi Sensa puts out adventurous slabs of beat driven sound), and the city’s ever-expanding indie rock scene (Perri also plays guitar on occasion in The Great Lake Swimmers).

This disk, which features reworkings of songs from Polmo Polpo’s Like Hearts Swelling is something like Polmo Polpo unplugged, with the former disk’s bubbling electronica transformed into guitar driven songs. Perri has a sweet but strong voice and the mixing of his falsetto with folky guitar strumming, quirky brass and electronics and occasional beats brings to mind John Martyn’s folk fusions. Another reference point is Arthur Russell: Polmo Polpo’s finest moment remains a twenty minute plus instrumental reworking of Russell’s dancefloor opus Kiss Me Again, and Perri’s synthesizing, expansive vision of dance music, displayed to good effect on this year’s Glissandro 70 disk, marks a refreshing continuation of the early 1980s avant dance scene’s explorations – and one that is not just nostalgic or retro in orientation.

On this disk it’s “World of Echo” period Russell that’s relevant as on the gorgeous, acoustic “Dreaming” and “Circles”, which Perri has recently been performing around Toronto in Double Suicide, a remarkable guitar/synth duo with improvisor Ryan Driver. The serenity in these songs feels hard-won, and their delicate but determined emotional precision constitutes a quiet triumph.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Sam Shalabi

Sam Shalabi — Eid (Alien8 CD)

Eid (Arabic for “festival”) is Montreal-based Sam Shalabi’s strongest work since his jaw-dropping Osama — a facetious, fiery and poignant reflection on what it means to be “an Arab” in North America post-0911 (“Sam” is short for “Osama” reflecting Shalabi’s Libyan/Egyptian background). Shalabi has explored lines between Arabic and other middle Eastern musics, psychedelia and folk with his touring band The Shalabi Effect for a number of years to considerable effect. Eid was composed during a year recently spent by Shalabi living in Cairo, but recorded in Montreal with contributions from many key figures in Montreal’s alt music scene. Although there are important traces of various musical forms heard in Cairo today, from Arabic classical music through to Egyptian pop and various rock mutations, woven into the complex sound-tapestry of the disk, the sound is experimental and modern, and Shalabi insists that the record is as much a meditation on North America, made by a foreigner living in Cairo, as it “about” Egypt today or “Egyptian music”. The exception that proves the rules here is the opening track, a strong, traditional sounding rumination on the oud, that gives little hint of the uproarious psych freakout of “Jessica Simpson” which follows, complete with a scorching guitar solo from Shalabi. The remarkable “Eid” mixes Arabic strings with a variety of unidentifiable voice recordings of people in varying states of distress and fervor, some recordings from films, others improvised within the studio, conjuring up both a sense of tradition and its violent distortion. There are a number of fine guest vocals too, including a fiery Evangelista style ballad “Billy the Kid” from Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, and strong appearances by Katie Moore and Nick Cave collaborator Lhasa de Sela. Shalabi does not indulge in any easy or obvious position taking when it comes to “ethnic music” or “East and West” — the distortion and collision of musical forms here is both exhilarating and frightening, rendering everything foreign and at the same time a monster entirely of our own making. Diplomacy is replaced by intelligence and the joy of sound: one minute, popular, alternative and classical musical traditions are treated respectfully, the next minute with a great big sonic fart.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

sad hits

Various Artists: International Sad Hits. Volume One: Altaic Language Group.
Damon and Naomi, themselves no slouches when it comes to singing a sad song, are the curators of this brilliantly themed collection. At one and the same time a parody of the seriousness of ethnomusicological labelling of music from the non-western world in the West, and a homage to the kitsch marketing tactics used to package the CDs of local popular musics available in markets and on the street in many non-western countries, “International Sad Hits” compiles the sad songs of Fikret Kizilok (Turkey), Kim Doo Soo (Korea), Tomokawa Kazuki and Mikami Kan (Japan). Purportedly linked by a common linguistic family, the curators observe that “what truly links them is a love of melancholy”. Spanning 1971 to 2003, there are four songs from each singer, all of them brooding guitar led pieces in the mold, according to the curators, of Dylan, Tim Buckley or Nick Drake. All four are singer-songwriters with considerable followings in their own countries, but little known by the rest of the world. While I admire the revealing of a genre of music that doesn’t fit into conventional categories of traditional or popular ethnic music, I find myself slightly disappointed by the results. Undoubtedly powerful and serious, there’s a particular male kind of swagger and self-pity at work in many of the selections here that feels quite familiar (maybe from looking at ads for whisky in different parts of the world), and I’m only intermittently moved, let alone heart-broken, by the sad singing here. With the notable exception of Kim Doo Soo, the femininity of Drake or Buckley, the multiple layers of irony and vision of Dylan feel a long way away. The songs are sad, but this is not the saddest music in the world. Still, I await the selections from other Language Groups with great hope.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson – Partick Rain Dance

Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson – Partick Rain Dance

Partick Rain Dance is the third collaboration between Richard Youngs and drummer Alex Neilson, following on from 2004’s Beating Stars and Ourselves. Youngs and Neilson also worked together as the rhythm section for Jandek’s recent visit to Glasgow, issued as Glasgow Sunday. Partick Rain Dance starts off with nearly ten minutes of freeform noise that makes the sweet folk melody that emerges five minutes into “Music of the Last Sun” all the more poignant. Then the track morphs into a magical echo-laden trance of drums and fluttering tones, like one of the Dead’s freeform beatless acid interludes. After that there’s a wordless almost acappella lament called “Noatak Beacon”, followed by fifteen minutes of electrified gongs and feedback on “Mountain” and three minutes of spliced psychedelia on “Big Aero Planet”. Youngs’ music achieves its poignancy from the fusion of various methods of production of sublime vastness, such as drones (see Advent and Festival), free form psych freakouts (see Ilk’s Ceaucescu) and repetitive, intense balladry (see Sapphie), all mixed with a lofi, DIY aesthetic and humility that is charmingly at odds with the epic sound forms. Less than a masterpiece but always interesting, Partick Rain Dance, the newest addition to a vast and ever expanding Youngs discography is something of a blend of the various techniques and styles that Youngs has made his trademark, especially in his collaborations. I prefer to take my Youngs straight, but the energy and invention here remains undeniable.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.


Various – Big Apple Rappin’
Soul Jazz 2CD (SJR CD 125)

The birth of hip has taken on the status of a cultural big bang as enigmatic as the Eleusinian rites or Shakespeare’s England, even though it happened less than thirty years ago. Recent years have seen impressive contributions to an archeology of this remarkable moment: Experience Music Project’s oral history of hip-hop; the 2 DVD reissue of the pioneering 1982 graffiti doc Style Wars and ear-opening microhistorical CD collections like The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop, 1979-1983. Soul Jazz’s Big Apple Rappin’ doesn’t quite live up to that level of detail despite the 64 page booklet that accompanies it. Instead, it is another in a long line of extremely classy, tastefully selected dancefloor gems from particular times and places on the planet, post-punk Brazil and the UK; mid seventies Latino New York, early eighties downtown New York; various times in Jamaica. Still, for anyone other than total headz, most of these tracks, which go way beyond the usual Kurtis Blow, Sugarhill and Enjoy staples, will be news. Most remarkable here is Brother D and the Collective Effort’s “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” – a glorious throwdown over the “Got To Be Real” rhythm and arguably the first full on political rap (an accompanying interview with Lister Hewan-Lowe, who was responsible for the record’s original release points out that he took a “Maoist point of view towards music” and it shows!). Old Skool founding fathers like Cold Crush Brothers and TJ Swann are on hand (but where’s Grand Wizard Theodore?). And surprises like General Echo’s dub take on “Rapper’s Delight”, “Rapping Dub Style”. Highly recommended.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Pandit Pran Nath – Midnight

Pandit Pran Nath – Midnight (Raga Malkauns) (Just Dreams, 2003)

Kirana Hindustani classical vocal master Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan was once asked why he only ever sang two ragas. The Ustad replied that if only the morning would last for ever, he would be happy to sing just one. A raga is not a song per se, but a specific matrix of notes and ways of combining and moving between notes, to be performed at a particular time of day or season. Within this framework, thousands of individual songs or compositions can be constructed. In this 1976 New York studio recording, minimalist composer La Monte Young cranks up the tambouras to Theater of Eternal Music levels of intensity while Pran Nath, at the height of his powers, conjures up Raga Malkauns’ sonic matrix and tale, that of a yogi meditating at midnight, beset by Asuras (evil spirits), which he is tempted by before banishing them and returning to his state of illuminated calm. What’s remarkable here is the sheer vastness of scale in this “song”: for a little over an hour, Pran Nath sings “He Krishna Govind Raam”, repeating the vilambit (mid-tempo) composition’s invocation of the Hindu deity, slowly moving up the scales to the higher notes, taking the listener through the various parts of the composition, into ever more intense and ecstatic realms of sound. As one listens, one comes to identify with these sound realms more than one’s own body and mind. One wants to stay there forever. If it weren’t for the morning …
Marcus Boon

originally published in The Wire.


Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes – Os Afro Sambas/A Vontade
Él/Cherry Red

Poet, career diplomat and bossa nova lyricist Vinicius de Moraes jokingly referred to himself as the blackest white man in Brazil. In the early 1960s, Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell began exploring the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religious tradition centered around Salvador de Bahia, and the various musical forms that are part of it. The two holed up for months with an endless supply of Haig whisky and a bunch of ethnic recordings, to produce 50 or more of Brazil’s best loved songs, which were called Afro-sambas because of their fusion of Rio samba and bossa nova with Bahian “folk” sounds. Their earliest productions can be heard on Powell’s solo guitar plus percussion A Vontade of 1963. It’s a gorgeous, minimal record – Powell is a more expressive, romantic guitarist than say John Fahey’s favorite, Bola Sete, and some of the flourishes border on kitsch, but there’s also a ferocious percussive funk to his sound that is mesmerizing. This last word applies doubly to 1966’s Os Afro Sambas, which consists of a series of songs devoted to various Orixas (deities) of Candomblé. Reacting against the international slickness of bossa nova, Moraes and Powell took a lo-fi approach, with Afro-Brazilian percussionists, horns, the soon to be famous Quarteto Em Cy and a crew of friends and partners providing an impromptu chorus. The sound is gloriously chaotic. Powell and the percussionists face off against each other like drunken snakes writhing in a pit, with the percussionists winning out almost every time. Moraes is a very low key vocalist, but his phrasing is utterly charming as he intones songs of praise to Iemenja, Xango and the other deities, backed by a choir sound that’s part Brazilian church, part jug band and part Gregorian chant. A key precursor to Tropicalia and in its own quiet way as experimental and spiritualized as other key sounds of 1966 like early Velvets or Coltrane’s Ascension: a sacred noise indeed.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Orchestre Poly

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou
The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sata From Benin’s Obscure Labels 1973-1975
Analog Africa CD

The TP “tout puissant – all powerful” Orchestre Poly-Rythmo were one of the standouts on the excellent recent compilation African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Music from Benin and Togo 70s. A highly prolific and popular group operating in Cotonou, the nation’s seat of government, Poly-Rythmo’s heyday lasted through the 1970s and early 1980s, when two key members died. The group recorded huge amounts of material, some at the EMI studio in Lagos for the Albarika Store label (from which the recent Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 on Soundway was compiled, with more to be released on Analog Africa) and some for a local studio in Cotonou, for various local labels such as Echos Sonores du Dahomey, from which this record comes.

The sound is rough, vibrant and supremely funky. As the excellent sleevenotes explain, Poly-Rythmo’s sound was the result of a lot of creative copying, absorbing elements from: various traditional tribal musics including rhythms from West African vodoun, (which were dispersed across the Americas by the slave trade, much of which operated via Benin, then known as Dahomey); Afro-Cuban music, jazz and West African highlife, all of which also owe a debt to Vodoun; Congolese rhumba, a response to Afro-Cuban sounds; Nigerian juju and Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat; James Brown, who visited West Africa in the early 1970s, Ray Barretto style prog Latin and some psych rock jamming. The circulation of vodoun sounds back and forth between Africa and New World continues to this day – dynamic, appropriating whatever it encounters, and in the case of Poly-Rythmo, spitting it back out as modern dance music for weddings, radio and vinyl in response to local conditions. And there’s plenty that doesn’t fit into any tidy categorization of the sound – for example drummer Yehoussi Leopold who unleashes most unfunk-like snare volleys at key moments.

The sleevenotes also tell another remarkable story about the recording and production of the original Poly-Rhythmo disks that offer a reality check to any fantasies about the conditions in which this music was produced. We learn for example that the master tapes for most of these recordings were burned by the engineer’s father, after the engineer was put in jail and tortured, having recently taken a trip to Zaire to learn recording studio techniques. It’s a sobering story, but an important one – and it’s great to see such remarkable sounds being presented with such care and honesty.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.