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We are beginning to break this page down into regional pages (spring-summer1998) so there will be a little more order to this as time goes on. We know that some of these subdivisions, like the geographic borders they describe, are arbitrary and simplistic. We encourage you to explore further than one single country or region to get a fuller picture.

These regional sections are merely a guide, are usually somewhat out-of-date, and are not the only content on the site.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:

Regional sub-sections:
Reviews of recordings from or influenced by Asia:
Japan and Okinawa
Indonesia
Northern Asia (China)
Tibet
Central Asia and Russia
Asian Sub-Continent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, etc)
Middle East and Persia
South East Asia (Viet Nam, Thailand, Burma, Laos, etc...)


These reviews were contributed by many authors. Read the masthead to see who they are. All are copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by the authors.
There are always more recent reviews in our general review section


The following reviews are non-classifiable fusions or general compilations of music from Asia.


Ghazal (Kayhan Kalhor & Shujaat Husain Khan w/ Swapan Chaudhuri)
As Night Falls On The Silk Road
Shanachie Records (www.shanachie.com)

On this the second recording by Ghazal, the duo of Kalhor & Khan attest to some broken hearts on the Silk Road. Four pieces are presented, the first, second and fourth are based on brief texts pondering the pain of the lovelorn, while the third is an instrumental, the impressionistic "Snowy Mountains". The predominate mood is a south Asian court blues developed with extended improvisation on kamancheh or bowed spike fiddle (Kalhor) and sitar (Khan). The instrumental is the shortest clocking in at just under nine minutes while the three with fleeting vocals are never shorter than fifteen. Both men began music study at an early age and their fluency shows both in their respective classical idioms (Persian and North Indian) and the level at which they hold a dialogue with one another. The instrumentation of kamancheh and sitar are of congruent timbre and are finely supported by tabla, dholak and other percussion. Most notable of the percussionists is the performance of Swapan Chaudhuri, famed accompanist of Ali Akbar Khan in America. The album is sensibly paced, and minor keyed through the first three selections until we get to the majestic half-hour closing, "Traces of The Beloved," which makes a merciful request in major keys before accelerating into a blinding jhala. These men sound like brothers, and the fact that the listener never stops to consider that they are from non-contiguous cultures is impressive. While excellent musicianship abounds, the recording sound, while appropriately detailed and close for a chamber recital, could have used a little more ambience and space. - Steve Taylor


The Indica Project
Horn OK Please
Enja

Sessions recorded in Mumbai and NYC, Horn OK Please issues from a worldly gang of jazzmen and percussion players who stir it up in the interest of good feeling and new music. The typically 10+ minute length tracks display loose compositions where everybody speaks over a richly woven mat of handmade rhythm featuring more than 20 percussion objects. The opening track is exemplary and evokes a ragtag procession which subtly accelerates while the various players - brassmen, guitarist, violinist - discuss among themselves on the way. Far more metrically flexible than say, a Shadowfax, the vibe of The Indica Project is one of secular, pageant-like, but most importantly, emergent and unnamable ethnicity, only fleetingly touched on by other early jazz-leaning world music acts with the same earthiness evident here. Graceful and idiosyncratic, The Indica Project are an un-self-conscious tribe of patient, seemingly egoless musicians making music with an off-axis, drunken funkiness and little regard for terms like commodity, profit-margin and bohemianism. A poetic item that will likely outlive the proliferating, trendy, breakbeat-driven jazz fusion of the 90s. - Steve Taylor


Roots: Traditional Music on Love, Life and Nature
New Earth Records (800) 570-4074

This album is part of a collection of music from around the world recorded by Deben Bhattacharya in the mid-1950's and released as The Living Tradition on 12 CDs. Most are field recordings collected with state of the art mobile sound equipment of its day. Bhattacharya is one of the leading world authorities on folk music, song and dance in Europe and Asia. These recordings rival the Folkways recordings for historical accuracy and have better sound quality. The songs were recorded in the natural setting - under baobab trees, in an ancient temple, on the endless plains.

The use of music as more than entertainment becomes very clear in this album of traditional songs from Eastern Europe, Asia and Andalusia. Some of the recordings have an otherworldly quality to them. These songs have power over their performers. Drummers pound their hands raw. Singers hit notes way beyond their range. The performer gets lost in the music or invokes a very real trance upon themselves and their listeners. Along the Silk Route in the Takla Makan Desert, shepherd Abdul Karim plays his flute. His long held notes hold tight loneliness and courage. A gypsy family plays a Bulerias improvisation. The family is reminded of its strength based on love.

This album is a journey of connections. It starts in southern Spain where the Moors met the Spaniards, and ends in the Chinese and Indian plains. The sensitive placement of songs on the CD allows one to notice the ribbons of melody and harmony interwoven between the notes. They connect the music from one country to the next. Flamenco blends with Andalusian Jewish music. Bosnian Islamic choral music has links to Turkish love songs.

These high quality recordings remind me of the fine recent recordings collected by Original Music. They evoke the performer's simple love for their culture and their people. This music will preserve this love for many generations of listeners. - Brian and Melissia Grosjean

Other recordings in this series:
Spirit - Classic Traditional Music from Asia
Devotion - Music and chants from the great religions
Dervish Ceremonies - Original Music from the howling and whirling Dervishes.
Zingari - Route of the Gypsies
Temple Music from Tibet


Glen Velez
Rhythms of the Chakras
Sounds True

With the exception of perhaps Zakir Hussain or Mickey Hart, no one has recorded more percussive music than Glen Velez. He has nine solo albums in print, and numerous contributions to other artists. He is a recognized master of the frame drum. With hand percussion, namely the Celtic bodhran and North African tar, Velez can sustain a seemingly indefinite stretch of complex rhythmic beats. Often he'll add chants or other instruments. On his previous release, Rhythmcolor Exotica (Ellipsis Arts), Velez included an ensemble of wind instruments, violin and other percussionists. His current project, Rhythms of the Chakras, is a solo one. It is simpler than Rhythmcolor. Yet it's textures are varied and complex.

Rhythms of the Chakras is a meditative work, supposedly created to stimulate energy centers within our body. Yet I have found equal enjoyment just by listening. Velez creates a machine-like rhythm on the bendir (a Moroccan frame drum) or bodhran, then adds caxixi (a Brazilian basket rattle) or maracas. Vocal chants are subtly mixed in like the rise and ebb of a tide. The sounds are simple, yet exotic. It is ambient, its musical color filling the dark spaces of a room. Yet it's rhythms are engrossing. I'm not a proponent of using this music as medicine. Nor does this album need that alternative marketing. Rhythms is a project that stands on its own merits. -Wayne Whitwam


Asiabeat
Monsoon
Domo Records (lugop@domo.com)

Asiabeat's mix of Asian traditional instruments with modern reflects a trend in World Music to combine portions of traditional rhythm and instruments such as the Er Hu, Pipa, Yang Chen with modern song structures to produce an easy to listen to hybrid.

Master musicians Ottmar Liebert on flamenco guitar, Samuel Dass on sitar and Lewis Pragasam on drums and percussion push the songs along surrounded by a host of other instruments. I was always a fan of Asiabeat's mix of traditional and modern music because they know how to do both without sacrificing either. Yes - tabla, sitar, electric bass and flute can flow together without sacrificing the special sounds of any one.

Unfortunately, the album is skimpy on driving rhythms and does not have enough surprises to let the musicians out of their 4/4 nests. So, like bands such as Shadowfax, the music circles dependably back on major chords and simple melodies. Even in "Taman Negara," when the band breaks into a great riff, the keyboards take over with a monotonous 1- 1 - 2 - 1 song cycle. "Mangroove" sounds more like Asiabeat's earlier album, which was more adventurous, but Monsoon is still a fine choice for an introduction to the sounds of Asia. Just don't expect to get wet. - Brain Grosjean


SHEILA CHANDRA
ABoneCroneDrone
RealWorld

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


Sheila Chandra
Quiet: The Indipop Recordings
Caroline

Chandra as grown into an artist of uncompromised talent and conviction. Her growth from London pop dance music to new music diva has been wonderful to listen to. Quiet was her second solo album, and the one that may have steered her towards her present place in the music world. Here she and musical partners Steve Coe and Martin Smith forged an album of wordless songs, loosely based on Indian tradition but flying out from there in all directions. It was a quantum leap past her more dance oriented debut album, daring to experiment with ambience, roots and electronics, but also daring to use her voice in ways that were then confined pretty much to the "avant garde" music of singers like Meredith Monk. While she has since wandered in and out of the pop music world, so years later this album stands the test of time as both a work of interesting traditions and new ideas. - CF


Warda Warda
Hemisphere

Not much Middle Eastern popular music gets released in the states, but when it does, it often makes a refreshing treat. The new album by Arabic star Warda is no exception. Her popularity has been understandably expanding for over 30 years, especially in Egypt.

Warda grew up in Paris above her father's Arabic night club, sneaking downstairs to listen to the bands and singing to herself. At the age of eleven she was discovered and put on French radio. Later she lived and performed in Lebanon, Egypt and eventually back to her father's home of Algeria.

Warda's self titled release is a collection of some of her works from the first half of the nineties. Her passionate vocals work as perfectly with the soaring orchestral strings as they do with upbeat synthesized accompaniment, between which the album carries a delicate balance. Known as "The Rose of Algeria," Warda at the same time coaxes emotions with her voice and compels physical response with her Arabic dance rhythms. - Paul Harding



KRONOS QUARTET AND WU MAN
Tan Dun: Ghost Opera
Nonesuch

Kronos have teamed up with a remarkable composer and a talented instrumentalist in their latest collaborative effort, Ghost Opera. Chinese composer Tan Dun is known for his spacial, ambient work and this piece is as spacial as it can get. The piece is composed for string quartet, pipa (the Chinese lute played by Wu Man), water, stones, paper and metal (often in the guise of bells, bowls and cymbals) and human voices. A "ghost opera" is a conversation with the past and the future lives of the performer, an eerie concept conveyed through the collective work of the performers, who are just as often rattling sheets of paper, clicking rocks together and making utterances as they are bowing and plucking strings. When they are doing their more traditional instruments, it is as likely they are playing bach as the original compositions or the ancient Chinese folks songs that are their root.

All this said, this is a complex, complicated and subtle work, one that is going to be hard to excerpt for radio. It needs to be taken as a whole, and few radio programs will allow for such an exercise. But having done it myself, the rewards are enormous. This single work gathered as many phone calls as anything I have every broadcast, and even those listeners who had to move in and out of the piece found it exhilarating. If you have to try a shorter segment, make it "Earth Dance," a seven minute section that highlights the melodies of the work, and the energy and skill of the performers. - CF


CHOYING DROLMA AND STEVE TIBBETTS Chö
Hannibal/Ryko
Steve Tibbetts has never been one to avoid the precipice. He has been pushing the limits of the guitar for a long time, and as a composer has done some daring work. To take on a project like Chö is certainly one of the bigger risks. Most musicians enter into these "cultural exchanges" with egos the size of Nebraska or some happy-flappy new age goals of "harmony and peace" (the cereal box kind). Most fail miserably. Choying Drolma and the nuns of Nagi Gompa, a Tibetan nunnery in the Himalayan foothills have entered into a unique pact with a foreign artist here. They neither abused or altered their music for Tibbetts, nor did he demand or concede to concessions their music might have demanded. Instead, Tibbetts recorded the sacred singing of the nuns, then went home and created a soundtrack of sorts, incorporating his ideas and musicians into a very subtle sub-flooring for the singing. I honestly don't know how to describe what they have done here. At times it is so subtle as to be almost missed by the conscious ear, at others so obvious that it just seems like it belongs there already. There's only one way to describe this record, and that is to tell you to listen. Closely. There is a wealth of minute detail, surprising musical turns, and above all, the beauty of tradition unbound and untouched.


Ry Cooder And Viswa Mohan Bhatt met a half hour before beginning to record A Meeting By The River (Water Lily Acoustics) in a chapel in Santa Barbara, California. Using only a poem by Sufi mystic Jelauddin Rumi as a guide to their work, and adding the percussion of Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari (tabla) and Joachim Cooder (dumbek), they wove together the glass and steel of Cooder's slide with the unique of Bhatt. His instrument is his own creation, a mix of American jazz and Hawai'ian lap guitars, but with the drone and sympathetic strings typical of the North Indian classical vina, one of the original "slide" instruments. These improvisations are richly colored by many contrasting and merging traditions, Mississippi blues merging with Hindustani rags with amazing grace and clarity. There is no acoustic guitarist to compare with Cooder for sensitivity to tradition or the ability to defy it. Bhatt is a superb player, passionate and precise. Together they seem to have found an untapped well of new music. The near perfect example of this fusion is "Ganges Delta Blues," rife with the funk of the blues and the spiritual glow of musical redemption. All four extensive pieces on this album reveal and expand the worlds of both artists. I hope this isn't their last Meeting.


SIMON SHAHEEN AND VISHWA MOHAN BHATT
Saltanah
Water Lily

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


JIE-BING CHEN, V.M. BHATT, BELA FLECK Tabula Rasa
Water Lily Acoustics
The pluck of the banjo, the scrape of the bow, the slide of steel on a guitar string; sounds like a bluegrass band coming down the line, right? Well, on this train there's also a bansuri flute (Ronu Majumdar), an hour glass drum called the mridangam (Poovalur Srinivasan), the guitar is actually modified to play like the Indian vina (Bhatt) and the bow is scraping an erh-hu (Jie-Bing Chen) and Indian violinist Sangeeta Shankar. Poet-producer Kavi Alexander has pulled off another coup with his latest east-west jam session, Tabula Rasa. The west is ably represented by Bela Fleck, the bluegrass having long been hybridized by his many excursions into pop, jazz, rock and eastern music over the last decade or two. These six musicians joined together for a few nights of unrehearsed recording at a church in Santa Barbara, and they found in each other the magic that is at the core of all good improvisation, an open ear to each others music that led them into new territory. Both original compositions and traditional material spanned the globe from Chinese understatement to Tennessee flash. Perhaps the title cut is a good place to focus, because it's gentle mix of erh-hu, minimalist banjo and melodic yet minimal drum is exquisite. For fun there's a smooth version of the American classic "John Hardy" and for Flecktone fans there are some marvelous new Bela tunes. Once again a Water Lily team has created something new-old, muted-bright and altogether original. Highly recommended!


ESTA

Mediterranean Crossroads
Newance

I have been hearing about, but never actually hearing this Israeli/NYC quartet for over a year now. Finally, CD in hand I can report that the good news is they live up to most of their hype. Playing an assortment of klezmer, jazz, rock and folk instruments, they have delved into old songs from their middle eastern and Jewish roots to develop a manic, energized blend that will sit well with fans of both pop and rock. Traditionalists will find them abhorrent, to be sure, but that seems to be part of the point here, pulling on the roots to see if the come out. Sometimes, they do. They are all skilled musicians, and at the core of the unit is bagpiper/reedist Amir Gwirtzman, who adds a wheeziness to the proceedings that gives it an almost lunatic edge at times. They do drop into some well-travelled turf, and worn out cliches seem to have indelibly marked a few of what would otherwise be stellar performances. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but for a first effort, this band shows a lot of sparks, and given a lot of freedom, they could really go over the top. - CF


The two disk compilation Asia Music (Celestial Harmonies) cuts a wide swath through the continent, from solo koto through new acoustic fusion and into large electric pop and electronic experiments. All tracks are from labels affiliated with Celestial Harmonies, and prove to be excellent references for what the catalog has to offer. A large number of the traditional works are from the three volume Hugo Masters series, featuring "Plucked Strings" like pipa (zither), "Wind Instruments" like the elegant hsiao flute, and erh-hu and other "Bowed Strings." Some of the most interesting work comes from Asiabeat, whose album Spirit Of The People tries not only to bring modern technology into play, but creates a pan-Asian music that incorporates Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian roots with a clear interest in American pop and rock. Formed by Malaysian artist Lewis Pragasam, they manage to avoid the dance-hit pitfalls so common to this sort of thing, and convey a sense of place while being thoroughly innovative. On the other hand, David Parsons, one of the few non-Asians in the set, offers an electronic version of Tibetan monks overlayed with the real thing, not particularly exciting or enlightening. Better to go to the first track of the set, the monks of Dharmasala playing their incredible long horns in a throbbing chant that devours the listener. There couldn't be a broader palette offered, and the notes are interesting and informative about the roots of the music.


The Court Musicians
At The Court Of The Chera King
Water Lily Acoustics

If you were charmed by Ry Cooder and K.V. Bhatt's Meeting By The River, and awed by the wordless wonders of Sheila Chandra, then this album will certainly be a must for you. The Court Musicians are as "multi-cultural" as you get, with musicians from classical western and Indian backgrounds joined by bluegrass dobro players, a former violinist for Shadowfax, and middle eastern drummers. The album was the musical child of Kavi Alexander, who wanted to bring together a diverse group to play music in homage to the golden age of the southwestern Indian region of Kerala, known as a cultural crossroads for Europe, Africa and Asia. In two days of unrehearsed recording, the eight artists improvised a sound poem of amazing breadth. Hindustani singing meshes seamlessly with Stephen Foster on a slide guitar. Cello drifts about among the thumb piano and vocals. The music ranges from the dramatic to the peacefully sublime. Jewish, Christian and Hindu tonalities all coexist harmoniously, and popular western sounds creep in everywhere. The spontaneity of the performances set them apart, and as an added bonus, they are recorded in Water Lily's usual perfect way. - CF


See also: More Asian Music
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