Fariduddin Dagar / Sadanand Naimpally / Live in Bombay, 1967, 68
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Classic recordings of Indian music, long locked away, are revealed - and revealing.

cd cover Zia Fariddudin Dagar and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar
Raag Malkauns, Bombay 1968

Sadanand Naimpally and Mohan Balvally
Live at Trinity Club, Bombay 1967
Country & Eastern (countryandeastern.se)

The performance culture of Hindustani music is rich in underexplored byways and arcane traditions. The music has its own subculture of tape traders, exploring treasure troves of ancient performances which have acquired a rich patina of hiss and static from hundreds of generations of transfers. There are a few artists who are under-represented: legendary singers or instrumentalists of whom only a few moments of recorded sound exist. There are the legends: musicians who lived during the era of recorded sound but for one or another reason didn't record. One, Ustad Alladiya Khan, never recorded commercially, but rumor has it that Azizuddin Khan, his grandson, owns an unlabeled cylinder record from the first years of the twentieth century which preserves the maestro's voice. But there is no player in Kolhapur, and until an archivist can get down there and figure out what to do with the cylinder, the man musicologists called "the Mount Everest of Hindustani Music" will remain unheard. Some wealthy music lovers in the forties and fifties actually went to the trouble to import record-cutting lathes in order to record private concerts by the reigning maestros of the day, and these recordings are still in private family collections, only to be heard by intimate circles of afficionadi. Occasionally one of these treasures will be released commercially, and it's always an important event for Hindustani listeners.

Similarly, there are genres of North Indian classical music which are vanishingly rare. Very few recordings exist, for example, of the nearly defunct sursringar, a bass version of the popular sarod. And, while there are a great many available recordings of the rudra veena (also called "been"), an ancient stringed instrument dating back hundreds of years, these have all featured the instrument in a solo setting. Listeners are told that the rudra veena was at one time the preferred instrument for accompanying the austere dhrupad vocal style, but no recordings of this combination existed, and the few living "beenkars" didn't want to be relegated to accompanying roles in order to satisfy the curious.

I have long been one of those listeners. I first heard dhrupad almost thirty years ago, from Moinuddin and Aminuddin, the senior Dagar brothers, and I've often wondered what it would sound like to have the grand and serene vocal arcs of this hereditary musical family accompanied by the been's resonant gliding tones. Now I know, and it was worth the wait. Country & Eastern has released a recording from 1968 in which two brothers, the vocalist Zia Fariduddin Dagar and the renowned beenkar Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, collaborate in a full-length exposition of the profound night raga Malkauns. This recording, which has remained in a private collection for almost forty years, is as close as we are likely to come to an understanding of the way voice and rudra veena interacted in earlier centuries. Fortunately, while its historical and musicological significance is enormous, it's also seventy minutes of exquisite music.

In front of a small but appreciative Bombay audience, the two men play off one another beautifully, the been and vocals presenting slow melodic lines with pure intonation and startling similarity of tone. In the beginning the two musicians trade phrases with minimal overlap; while the been plucks sporadic drone notes during the vocal passages, the relationship is much more that of the "jugalbandi" (a duet of equals) than the heterophonic "following" which marks the role of the sarangi or harmonium in the contemporary khyal style. Fariduddin renders the glacially slow "meends" (slides from note to note) with terrific control, exemplifying the acute intonation which is a hallmark of the Dagar family's approach to dhrupad. At times during the performance careful listening will reveal him meticulously pushing an interval slightly higher or lower, perhaps no more than ten or fifteen cents, and savoring the effect before returning to the intonational center. Fariduddin's student Ritwik Sanyal can be heard occasionally singing complementary lines in the background, at one point contributing a melodic line two octaves below the main singer (that's damn low). As the alap progresses, the musicians coincide more and more, and by the time we reach the concluding jhala, there are moments of serendipitous simultaneity, a melody from the been complementing a held vocal tone in a fortuitous harmony engendered by Malkauns' pentatonic resources. The recording fades out before we hear a metered composition; presumably there was a pakhawaj player waiting to enter and accompany the rhythmic variations on a traditional song. Perhaps the rest of this concert rests on flaking reels of tape, waiting to be heard, somewhere in the collection of a dedicated listener or the archives of the musicians themselves.

cd cover While we're on the subject of recordings drawn from the vaults of the performers and their most dedicated constituencies, another release from Country & Eastern deserves our attention. Recorded at the Trinity Club, Bombay in 1967, Sadanand Naimpalli and Mohan Balvally perform a tabla duet with harmonium accompaniment. So far, this does not sound like a particularly esoteric item; there are many recordings of tabla duet available commercially and in the collections of many listeners. On closer examination, however, the disc's significance becomes clear.

Both musicians are disciples of one of the greatest influences on contemporary tabla performance, the late Pandit Taranath. Never widely known as a performer, Taranath was a legendary teacher who trained dozens of superb tabla players in India and the west, imparting a rich repertoire of traditional tabla compositions along with secrets of tone, tempo and style. On this recording, the two students are accompanied by Taranath himself on harmonium, providing lehra, the endlessly repeated melody which is a sort of cantus firmus for drumming solos in Hindustani music.

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And it is in this relationship that some of this concert's fascination lies. Now, there is nothing inherently noteworthy about teachers and students performing together; many senior artists bring their students along to provide accompaniment of various types. But in these contexts the hierarchical relationship remains intact: the disciple is supporting the master. In this 1967 recording, the reverse is the case: the role of the lehra is essentially a subordinate one.

Under these circumstances, though, the tabla duet becomes a different and wonderfullly multi-dimensional presentation. Not only are Naimpally and Balvally showcasing their artistry and imagination, their teacher, supporting them on the concert platform, is showcasing his knowledge and pedagogical genius. In a sense, there are two separate performances going on. In one, two young virtuosi show their skills and artistry to a knowledgeable and responsive audience. In the other, a senior artist, by showing us two of his finest students, shows the strength and resilience of his pedagogical lineage, reaffirming his tradition while forging a link to the music's future.

The structure of tabla solo performance is highly formalized, beginning with slow-tempo development in which the drummer presents variations on the chosen rhythmic framework. In the case of a duet, the performers take turns showing their ideas, most often one cycle at a time. The overwhelming majority of tabla solos are in the sixteen-beat cycle known as teental, and this Trinity Club performance is no exception. Taranath's lehra is precise and stately, outlining the beat structure for players and audience alike. For a forty-year-old recording, the sound is surprisingly clear, with both Naimpally and Balvally heard clearly and separately (although no information is given about who's playing when). Contemporary audiences have become accustomed to tabla solo through the dazzling pyrotechnics of Zakir Hussain; these young men, playing for an audience of fellow musicians and connoisseurs, are subtle, reflective and melodic (a characteristic of many of Taranath's students).

After twenty minutes of slow "development," we hear the fast-tempo portion of the performance. Here the teenaged players are brilliant, handling astonishingly complex rhythmic passages with bravura and aplomb. They move through a variety of different types of tabla compositions, in many cases reciting the spoken mnemonics of a sequence before playing it. The material becomes more intricate and compelling, the tempo accelerates, and the excitement rises to a climax with the recitation and performance of a special repertoire that juxtaposes complex strings of drum syllables with the rhythmically ordered names of Hindu deities. Taranath and his students have created more than a lively forty-five minutes of drumming; they have evoked a richly nuanced mood in which virtuosity and speed serve a higher goal. No wonder the audience is enthusiastic.

The Country & Eastern releases are understated, with two or three short paragraphs of description and reminiscence from the musicians. No deep theoretical or musicological documentation is included, which could be frustrating to completeness fetishists like me, but isn't. These recordings seem like exactly what they are: prized archival recordings from hitherto inaccessible vaults, with a few words of introduction from one of the performers, letting you know that you're about to hear something special. - Warren Senders

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