Jyotsna Srikanth, Mats Edén, Dan Svensson, Pär Moberg Nordic Raga
Riverboat Records (www.worldmusic.net)
Review by Lee Blackstone
Nordic Raga is a cross-cultural project that joins together two musics from radically different climes: southern India, and the Nordic regions. This musical pollination is in accomplished hands. Jyotsna Srikanth, from Bangalore, is at the apex of southern Indian Carnatic violin players. Mats Edén has been a major figure in the Swedish folk revival ever since the 1970s, recognizable from his viola d’amore playing with such important groups like Groupa, Nordan, and on his own solo recordings. Via his musical studies, Dan Svensson (percussion and vocals) moved from pop and rock music, into folk and global music. Pär Moberg provides saxophone, flute, and didjeridoo playing; his work can also be heard with the enjoyable Eastern European-influenced group Tummel.
The Nordic Raga project provides an opportunity for these musicians to explore some common ground – the points of meeting become more apparent as the disc unfolds. First, Nordic music often has a gracefulness about it, with a sweep to the music that can feel magical as players (particularly those on stringed instruments) reach into the upper registers of their instruments. Second, slower forms of Nordic music open up spatially, moving toward the stately and mysterious. In that sense, one can speak of a calm that emerges in Nordic music; it can envelop the listener much like ambient music. Further, string players – such as Norwegian practitioners of the hardanger fiddle – are experienced in creating thrumming drones that underlie the music.
Placing Nordic folk alongside the southern Indian Carnatic tradition, a remarkable musical fusion occurs. One can almost imagine the fiddle lines serving as the fast runs on a sitar; certainly, Srikanth’s violin enhances this effect across the album. Also key to Nordic Raga’s experimentation is that the musicians are poised to improvise and to respond to one another, which provides a sense of ‘flow’ to the pieces. At times, the ensemble sounds like Groupa, but with a distinctly Indian influence.
The very first track, “Vildhonung (Wild Honey),” encompasses much of what makes this unusual combination work. The tune starts off with a light fiddle drone, and then Srikanth’s violin enters with an Indian melody; this is answered first by Edén, and then by Moberg’s saxophone. Srikanth’s playing responds with another flight of Carnatic violin. Edén then takes over, transitioning to the folk dance from the borders of Sweden and Norway. Svensson then kicks in on his drum and tambourine, providing a jangling and booming pulse. This all crashes down to give way to Srikanth’s improvisation; the group has remarkably transitioned from the slashing Nordic lines of the dance, to an Indian jam session. Moberg moves over to didjeridoo to provide additional bottom. Nordic Raga then re-group, to close with the Scandinavian melody. The joy and inventiveness of this track drew me back again and again.
"Polska från Eda"
“Polska från Eda,” a polska from the west of Sweden, is cut from the same mold. Here, though, the improvisation enters early, the scene being initially set by percussion and short bursts of flute that grow into the melody. Srikanth then answers with a flight of violin, before ecstatic percussion and deep cymbal crashes enter to punctuate the playing of the dance tune. Srikanth and Moberg then engage in a call-and-response, with rapid-fire percussion from Svensson.
“Finnskogspols” is another traditional tune arranged by Nordic Raga. Once more opening with more of an extended drone and some light playing by Srikanth, Svensson joins in on some wordless vocalizations. Oddly, this did not strike me as sounding Indian, per se, but strikingly akin to Hassidic singing. Srikanth spirals in; the underlying drone is still present, and Svensson begins to softly add percussion. The mood is certainly meditative, and with a few cymbal crashes and Moberg’s saxophone playing, the tune ends on an upbeat note.
“Balkan Waltz” provides for an interesting collision of sounds. Svensson composed this tune utilizing a Middle Eastern scale, and the music sounds more Ottoman than Balkan. However, the Ottoman Empire frequently ventured into Balkan territories, so the tune captures the sense of music once more traversing borders. “Balkan Waltz” is distinguished by close playing between Srikanth’s violin and Moberg’s saxophone playing closely together on the Eastern scale, and then swerving into a Nordic melody. The tune then opens up considerably, with Srikanth improvising over Svensson’s percussion and a pronounced droning foundation.
Other pieces on Nordic Raga also incorporate south Indian vocals known as Konnakol. “Folk Dreams” begins in this manner, and Moberg provides a consistent, minimalist pulse with Srikanth improvises over the top. Moberg takes a solo turn, and Srikanth returns to play while the Konnakol continues to underpin the tune. Edén then takes his spot, and the music grows with more pronounced percussion from Svensson. Throughout “Folk Dreams,” the vocalizations provide a constant, forward momentum.
"Slängpolska efter Munkberg"
“Slängpolska efter Munkberg” starts off like a morning raga, but adds in additional elements such as Moberg’s harmonica playing and Srikanth’s singing. Here, it sounds as if the Carnatic tradition is being applied to the contour of the polska, and the effect is surprising and quite beautiful. Nordic Raga then closes with “Vals efter Ola Lans,” an upbeat, playful piece girded by bass saxophone.
Nordic Raga succeeds on several levels. There is a clear respect between the musicians, so that the cross-cultural exchange never feels forced or jarring. One might even think of Shakti, and that seminal group’s meeting of jazz improvisation with Indian traditions. But most of all, Srikanth, Edén, Svensson, and Moberg create a new blend of sound and ideas that amounts to great music. – Lee Blackstone