Look here for more music of Asia.
There are always more recent reviews in our general review section
These regional sections are merely a guide, are usually somewhat out-of-date, and are not the only content on the site. You will find much more by searching the site:
The Anthology of World Music: North Indian Classical
Anti-Gravity Boogie For Hanuman
The Chant of Tibet by Brian Grosjean
EastJazz; Adrienne Redd speaks with jazz musicians about the influences Indian music has had on their work.
Qawwali, an introduction to the music of Pakistan by John Cho
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook
Pakistan's grand papa receives a post-mortem facelift with the aid of England's elite Asian underground DJ's on "Star Rise." Skittering drum & bass and dub remixes of cuts from "Mustt Mustt" and "Night Song" triumph and fail, with the majority vote going to the latter. Remixes serve little artistic purpose unless they skew previous conceptions to the point of revaluation. Hence, with the exception of Asian Dub Foundation's rock/quawalli assault of "Taa Deem" and Talvin Singh's overhaul of "My Heart, My Life," little else rises as high as Pakistan's brightest star. - W. Todd Dominey
Pukar (Calling You)
Mondo Melodia/Ark 21 (email@example.com)
I want to give my unqualified adulation to Najma Akhtar, she of divine voice and innovative ideas. But again and again she comes so close to greatness and is held back by weird or gimmicky production. While her takes on film music and ghazal have always been intriguing, they just never seem to expand to a new and wondrous point in the way Sheila Chandra has been able to do. Her 1992 album Pukar (now released in the US) offers the same lustrous voice and the same strange and often frustrating mix, not surprising since the inspiration for this album came when she was asked to create a song for a Japanese bank advertisement. Never the less, I find myself listening through the music just to hear her voice, because it is still an instrument of remarkable soul and depth. - CF
Images of Nepal
Domo Records (firstname.lastname@example.org)
There's little a reviewer can say about Images of Nepal. It is a simple, beautiful album of instrumental music from the classical tradition of Nepal. A trio of flute, tabla and sitar (with tanpura on some tracks), Sur Sudha play the music pretty straight, with few traces of cultural crossover. They are playing music from the various traditions of Nepal, each one stands alone from the others, and each piece is an exercise in elegance and musicianship. - CF
Ghazal (Shanachie) is a recording by KAYHAN KALHOR, SHUJAAT HUSSAIN KHAN AND SWAPAN CHAUDHURI, a blending of Iranian dastgah and Indian raga by some of the better musicians in their fields. Iranian Kalhor in particular deserves a high level of praise for his passionate and innovative approaches to the kamancheh, a traditional spike fiddle that he pulls powerful melodies and subtle rhythms out of. Shujaat Khan offers sitar and the infamous Swapan Chaudhuri completes the circle on tablas. Some of it falls into a vague swirl of lost improvisational wandering, but when they click, and they most often do, they make some interesting new music. It's a relevant, solid exploration of two related cultures. - CF
Shri Amanda Ma Divine Bliss
Sounds True (www.soundstrue.com)
Shri Amanda Ma is deeply devoted to the Hindu gods and to her guru. In her album Divine Bliss she expresses her yearning to be close to god. Shri Amanda Ma (whose name means "Bringer of Divine Bliss") was considered a saint at a very early age. She composed these simple, repetitious songs to accompany her own yearning. This album collects eight of her devotional songs, most running 8 to 12 minutes, out of the hundreds she has composed. Although the beauty of these songs cannot be fully appreciated this side of the cultural barrier, anyone can appreciate her marvelous voice, accompanied by dholak drums, tala bells, the tamboura for the necessary drone, and harmonium for melody.
Devotion is one of the higher states of being for humanity. Beyond care, beyond allegiance, beyond dedication is the devotion of one to an ideal, another human, or to a god. The expression of one's devotion can take many forms. Prayer, work, and attention to a shrine or certain place are one of humanity's oldest urges. And very often, the devotion is accompanied by music. Music specifically written for devotion time is usually repetitious and trance-like, enabling the disciple to concentrate on the devotional. In the west, Gregorian Chants and Native American powwow songs lead to trance-like states of being. In the east, a long tradition of chanting includes Qawwali music in Pakistan, the drumming of Islamic Dirvishes, Tibetan prayer chants, and the bhajans and dhuns of India presented in this album. (For a good sampler of trance music, pick up Trance (Ellipsis Arts)).
But devotional music is connected to the soul. It lifts the listener up. In the right frame of mind, it can lead toward one's own exploration and yearning to be close to the maker. Scaling the cultural boundaries is easier that it appears. All that is required is an open mind, no foregone conclusions, and a willingness to build a bridge and cross over to a new culture. This album affords the chance to expand and explore your own devotions – no matter what it is you are devoted to. - Brian Grosjean
The final saga in her trilogy of vocal incantations finds Sheila Chandra at the very creative edge. Herein are six simple works, really, that rather than depend on multi-culti references and broad slow melodies have been distilled to harmonic essence. The harmonic is the note formed by the notes themselves, those strange overtones you hear when a sustained sound builds with intensity in the space it is made, the second, unsung sound you hear in your own head when you chant or whistle. Chandra has always been fascinated by these sounds, and with each ensuing album has tried to come closer and closer to recreating the actual cranial noise a singer hears in her own head.
ABoneCroneDrone is six rooms of sound, each trying to find a different harmonic, but each so alike because the head that hears them is the same. This is a near impossible album to do anything other than listen to. It is, after all, completely antithetical to the idea of "idea." So we poor journalists (who take a bit of a hit in the liner notes) are twice put in our place, by the artist and the music. - Cliff Furnald
Weaving My Ancestors Voices
"Some people seem interested in analyzing the differences between cultures and traditions. I'm interested in comparing the similarities and weaving them together," says Sheila Chandra of her work. Weave she does, as she brings together the vocal traditions of the world into a distinctive new album. Gone are the lush instrumentation and the complex harmony of her previous work. She has stripped the music down to bare minimum, a solo or doubled voice with a drone instrument on some tracks. Weaving My Ancestors Voices is her experiment in performance, an album designed to explore the possibilities of the human voice in a solo context. She explores her won Indian roots, but also delves into the music of Muslim, Celtic, and other European traditions as well. The result is a vocal tapestry where the commonality of the human voice is displayed. In "Dhyana and Donalogue" she finds an amazing connection between a 1000 year old Celtic folk song and a Muslim chant, the embellishments of one style embracing the other. She further enhances her reputation for pyrotechnic ability in her vocal percussion works, two versions of "Speaking In Tongues." With each album she makes, Chandra has improved not only her incredible technique, her intricate harmonics and rhythms, but she has opened up to a broader palette, a world view that removes limitations. By using the simple drones of this record as a starting point, she has given herself a freedom that her more pop albums never offered her. While her solo work, and early music with Monsoon were daring, Weaving My Ancestors Voices goes beyond daring to simply beautiful. - CF
Karnataka College of Percussion
Music Of The World
Distant, soaring melodies and frenzied, tactile beats are woven together perfectly on the new album by the Karnataka College of Percussion. River Yamuna is a great collection of Carnatic or South Indian classical music presented in varied ensembles to feature different instruments. From trios of a single instrument to very full sounding octets, the album makes a nice sampler without ever disturbing the continuity for the listener.
Some highlights of River Yamuna include an absorbing, almost psychedelic
trio of jaw harps, a spastic quartet drumming on tonal clay pots and an
amazing trio singing in an onomatopoeic percussion language used to describe
rhythms. The larger ensembles include the vina, flute, violin and the
stunning vocal works of Mrs. R.A. Ramamani. The liner notes include a
description of all of the instruments and an explanation of each piece,
detailing the language, tonal and rhythmic systems used. The Karnataka
College of Percussion has put together not only a superb album for classical
Indian connoisseurs, but an album that can appeal to anyone ready to sink
into their stereo. - Paul Harding
IQBAL JOGI AND PARTY The Passion Of Pakistan
In the 50s and 60s the non-existent genre of world music was often marketed as "exotica" or other such phrases that mean about as much as the current moniker does. This album, originally released on the US Olympic label as "snake charmer music" (mostly due to the reed instrument at the core of these recordings) is neither music for luring serpents out of baskets, nor, as the new liner notes indicate, Sufi music. What it is is a strong recording of folk music from Pakistan, preserved in a time before marketing was changing the music towards bhangra and pop. These pieces are potent, a rich mix of murli (the aforementioned reed instrument) and lots of drums. They are short pieces, hardly the stuff of trance-induction, but powerful nonetheless in their conveyance of both the inspiration of the musicians and the depth of the music itself.
This is one of a series of recordings from the 50s and 60s being reissued on the Tradition label. Other international records in the series include Carlos Montoya's Flamenco!, the amazing Toraia Orchestra of Algiers and a strange collection of African theater pieces by Sonar Senghor And His Troupe. There are also jazz, folk and blues recordings in this reissue by Earl Hines, Ewan MacColl, Fred McDowell, Stan Getz and Lead Belly that are all well worth watching for. - CF
Iqbal Jogi & Party
The Passion Of Pakistan
Imagine some 40 years ago in a record store, next to Martin Denny's "Exotica" or perhaps Yma Sumac's "Legend of the Sun Virgin," a record marketed simply as snake charming music. Now imagine this same record today in the world music section of your local record store as Iqbal Jogi and Party, The Passion of Pakistan, an album of traditional, sacred Sufi music recorded in the 50s. The bouncy instrumental music is certainly intended to put someone in a trance state, but not a basket dwelling cobra.
The songs mostly consist of one of the oldest instruments in existence, called the murli, made of a gourd and two pipes, one playing a drone and the other for melody. The murli is actually the same instrument used by snake charmers in the region and requires circular breathing to play. The sound of the murli is a reedy drone and sharp, nearly piercing tone for the melody. These are laid over the pulsations of rapid, danceable beats on The Passion of Pakistan. Besides the music being a great treat for traditional world music lovers and Exotica fans alike, the remastered recordings are much more full and brilliant than the original marketing plan would imply. - Paul Harding
SIMON SHAHEEN AND VISHWA MOHAN BHATT
While there are lots of artists out there "fusing" their particular mode of expertise with that of another musician or culture, it usually implies an East-meets-West kind of approach, usually with an unskilled or uninformed western musician trying desperately to understand another realm by studying the culture for a few weeks-months-years. But the collaboration of Bhatt and Shaheen offers something unique and musically obvious. Shaheen is a recognized master of the Arab music world. He has worked with classical orchestras and pop stars in his career, but he has always held high standards for any of his work. His oud playing is respected throughout the world. Bhatt is the innovator. His deep understanding and respect for Hindustani classical and religious music did not prevent him from creating his own instrument to work out his music, the mohan vina, a hybrid guitar that incorporates the musical inflections of the Indian vina.
Saltanah brings together two distinct musical modes, the Indian raq and the Arabic maqam. Both are complex modal styles that depend greatly on the innovation and understanding of the performer. (I'll leave the precise details to the excellent liner notes by producer-poet Kavi Alexander.) What they search for and find together is common ground in the complex melodies and rhythms of Indian and Arabic music. They push each other to interpret these modes in ways impossible within the confines of each artist's individual traditions. This is intricate, moody music, full of passion and power, subtlety and grace. - CF
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
In cahoots with producer Michael Brook, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has given us a masterpiece of international pop music. It's built on a firm foundation of history, the music of the Sufi's of Pakistan. The diverse elements that this people have brought together has produced one of the world's most entrancing musical forms, and these two men have translated that to tape as a lively and interesting experiment. The Euro-American elements they choose to mix with the drums, accordion and soaring vocals are sometimes surprising. There's a country folk flair to the rhythm of "Nothing Without You." Even the title sounds like modern Nashville, and the twangy guitar in the back of the mix is right out of the American hills. "Taa Deem" is closer to Sufi roots, but some throbbing bass and sinewy guitar work keeps it slightly off kilter. It doesn't always work, and cuts like "Tracery" sound like new age meets the Incredible String Band. But Ali Khan's voice is priceless and unalterable by machine or producer's whim, and makes its mark in every cut. This is really NOT a Pakistani record, but more in keeping with the likes of Najma Ahktar's work, it is a fusion that is as much British as Asian. Brook's production and guitar work are fine tuned to the job at hand, and mesh tightly, with only one or two jerks where a tooth in the gear is missing. With the fervent hope that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is back with his qawwal party next time, I highly recommend this one. - CF
Padmabhushan Pandit Jasraj
Ustad Salamat Ali Khan
Breath Of The Rose
(both Water Lily Acoustics)
Here are two more beautifully recorded, magnificent performances from Water Lily. Pandit Jasraj is an Indian khyal singer, and here accompanied only by the drone of the tanpura and the glissando of a zither, he delivers two emotional ragas. Unlike the pyrotechnics of many Indian vocal recordings, these are slow, solemn works, truly innvocations to a higher spirit. On a more complex plane is the work of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. Joined by his sons on the vocals, plus tablas and droning strings, he performs two khyals and a Pakistani thumri, slightly more uptempo, with rich interplay between the singers. Both of these (and all the Water Lily recordings I've heard) are recorded live in great sounding spaces, technically flawless in both recording and reproduction. While there is a page of tech notes (microphones, type of tape, pre-amps, vacuum tube designer), there is a total lack of notes on the music included.
South Indian Instrumental Ensemble
Music Of The World
This is what music is all about; deeply held musical beliefs and structures given new meaning and new breadth. Indian violinist K. Kanyakumari has taken the possibilities inherent in modern performance (microphones, recording studios, etc.) to bring together instruments from the ancient well of Indian music not traditionally accepted. The gentle quietude of the vina, a fretted, stringed instrument that dominates much of the solo repertoire of south India, is given a new context next to the reedy rasp of the nadaswaram, a powerful wind instrument normally reserved for outside ceremonies. Without the levelling capabilities of the twentieth century, the contrasts between these and the violins and drums would be lost to the listener. The results of this experiment are startling, creating a sound that comes closer to eastern Europe's gypsy ensembles in many ways, yet strictly adhering to the modes and structures of Karnatic tradition. The demands of this music are amply met by the ensemble, and stellar performances are handed out by all five members, trading complex melodies for brash improvisations with breathtaking speed. For those of you who have a hard time approaching classical Indian music, give nine minutes of your ear time to "Tarangam: Sharambhava," as hot a set of licks as anything you've heard in any musical medium. Both classical fanatic and intimidated newcomer will find the music here to be vital exciting and refreshing. - CF
Music Of The World (www.musicoftheworld.com)
This album centers around the music of the santur. The santur is the instruments the gypsies brought across Europe with names like cymbalom, and eventually it made it's way to the Americas as the hammer dulcimer. Tarun is noted as one of India's best players, and he certainly displays his virtuosity on this series of ragas and folk songs. But the real gem of this album is its pairing with the shenai, a raspy double reed instrument that is rarely used in an ensemble with strings because of its ability to overpower them. Thanks to the wonders of modern microphones, this is less of a problem, and offers a wide range of emotional collaborations. The ensemble is filled out by tablas and tamboura. The arrangements are at turns wispy, wild and ecstatic. - CF
N. Ravikiran, Taj Mahal, V.M. Bhatt
Water Lily Acoustics
Coming on the heels of Bhatt's collaboration with Ry Cooder, this album certainly has a legacy to live up to. Given that the only Taj Mahal Bhatt knew before this recording was proposed was the building back home, and Taj's only contact with Indian music was in his love of Caribbean curry, there was certainly the possibility of disaster. Disaster allayed! This is the best album Taj Mahal has made in years, an honest, rootsy blues album that never compromises and never panders. Once again the connections between musicians takes precedence over the connections between cultures, and once again the results are fresh, energetic and occasionally surprising.
It should really be no surprise that these blues fusions work for Bhatt. His axe, a modification of a traditional Indian instrument that he calls the mohan vina is pretty much a slide guitar modified for Indian modalities. His Hindustani traditions make plenty of room for improvisation. More importantly, his alliance with Kavi Alexander,the owner/poet/recording engineer of Water Lily Acoustics makes him a target for many an inspirational idea. In some ways, the poetry and excitement of Alexander are as much the heart of this music as the artists themselves. Mumtaz Mahal takes three dynamic players with roots in Karnatic, Hindustani and Afro-Caribbean music and turns then loose in a way few artists (or record labels) would ever allow, and the results are wondrous. - CF
See also: Asia
These reviews were contributed by many authors. Read the masthead to see who they are. All are copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by the authors. Web site copyright 1998 RootsWorld/Cliff Furnald