India: World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music
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World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music
Volume VII - India
Rounder (

cd coverJawaharlal Nehru famously likened India to a palimpsest, a medieval manuscript on which multiple layers of text and illumination can be seen. He was referring to Indian culture's incorporation of past, present and future in a single temporal gestalt; anyone who has traveled or lived in India can attest to its wonderful juxtapositions of era; a turbaned peasant herding a flock of sheep past a cyber-cafe, a meditating holy man on a street corner accepting alms from a prosperous businessman with a cell phone.

This CD, reissued after a several-decade hiatus, is a good example. I'm looking at my original lp as I write; it's an eccentric package, offering a broad survey of Indian musical genres, arranged higgledy-piggledy. Some tracks are banded together, rendering individual selections unfindable without very careful eyeballing. It's reasonably well annotated, with examples in staff notation, some translations of varying quality, and annoyingly miniscule halftones. (In a rare reversal of the usual state of affairs, the photos in the CD booklet are significantly larger than those on the lp!). Various folk and tribal idioms are presented along with samples of Hindustani and Carnatic tradition in a loosely ordered variety show. All the music was collected in India between 1950 and 1958 by Alain Danielou, and released on vinyl by Columbia Records as part of its "Collection of Folk and Primitive Music," under the imprimatur of ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax.

This kind of programmatic hodge-podge has fallen out of favor; we no longer find itinerant Bengali minstrels nestled next to South Indian temple singers, or Hindustani instrumentalists back to back with tribal drumming. While this is surely a good thing, it should be noted that those charming and fortuitous juxtapositions of idiom catalyzed a style of music appreciation in which traditional structural imperatives were subverted in favor of a scattershot bricolagy which owed its overall shape (or lack thereof) to the artistic logic (or lack thereof) of Western record producers. Many important and influential contemporary musicians owe large parts of their aesthetic to this sort of patchwork programming; John Zorn's thirty-styles-in-thirty-seconds approach is just one of many examples.

Both Lomax and Danielou were giants in the field. Both were record producers of genius. Both propounded approaches to musical taxonomy which have received serious methodological and musicological criticism.

Lomax's contributions to world music are justly celebrated, and Rounder's gradual reissuing of his American folk collection is one of the best things to happen in years. Less well-known to lay listeners is Lomax's pioneering "Cantometrics" system, in which musical styles were correlated with cultural pattern. This material (which includes excerpts from the CD under scrutiny) is available in college libraries, but is not often consulted nowadays. While his choice of musical examples is brilliant and illuminating, and his taxonomy of stylistic features a significant aid to the understanding of unfamiliar musical idioms, Lomax's music/culture linkages have been criticized (by Stephen Jay Gould among others) for inadequate statistical procedures.

Danielou produced probably hundreds of recordings during his career, along with over a dozen books. Perhaps his most significant impact on Indian musical culture was his sponsorship and encouragement of the Dagar Brothers, the most significant exponents of Dhrupad, a song style which had fallen from popularity until Western interest provided support and new audiences. A theorist as well, Danielou propounded a system of pitch classification which is quite impressive at first encounter. The records he produced for UNESCO bristle with acoustical ratios and specialized notations, which, alas, turn out to have only the fuzziest correspondence with the music they attempt to represent. Danielou's intonational theories were first debunked by Nazir Jairazbhoy in the 1960s and later, more comprehensively, by Jairazbhoy's student and colleague Mark Levy in his essential "Intonation in North Indian Music." Jairazbhoy and his wife, ethnomusicologist Amy Caitlin, have written a second set of notes for this CD, in which they comment both on the music itself and on Danielou's interpretations of it.

From an Indian viewpoint in which multiple frames of reference are encouraged and valued, the choice of one of Danielou's most significant critics as commentator on his record is another welcome layer on the palimpsest. Jairazbhoy and Caitlin are erudite and thorough; with previous experience restoring and annotating the pioneering ethnomusicologist Arnold Bake's Indian recordings from the first half of the previous century, they bring a wealth of insight and perspective to their gloss on Danielou's work. That said, let's (finally!) look at the record and the music it contains.

Indians consider the sound of the double-reed shehnai auspicious, and it's fitting that Ragunath Prasanna and his ensemble lead off with a lilting dhun (literally "tune") in the morning raga Bhairavi. It's a lovely melody, and Prassana's improvisations are appealingly crafted, but the exigencies of lp programming keep it to a mere three-and-a-half minutes, barely enough time to get into the mood. In a rather abrupt transition, the next track is village-style group singing on a seasonal theme: Krishna and Radha celebrating the coming of spring. The following two items present music from the Ahir community of cowherds -- first a traditional milkman's song, or "viraha." More of a chanted epic poem than a song per se, the Viraha sets scenes from Hindu mythology to an inscrutable chromatic melody which will challenge many listeners' preconceptions of Indian music. This is followed by some energetic dance drumming which is barely described in Danielou's original notes.

The next three tracks highlight various types of religious music, beginning with Muhammad Usman and his qawwali ensemble. Usman's lead vocals are ecstatic and driving, building energy as he sings the story of Husain's decapitation (a disconcerting theme). Jairazbhoy and Caitlin collaborated with Mushtaq Jeevanji on a full transliteration and translation of the original Urdu, making it possible to follow the performance exactly (very satisfying!). From one mystical idiom to another, we move to a Baul song, in which Haripada Devanatha accompanies himself on a four-stringed dotar while singing lyrically in Bengali of the illusions of consciousness and belief. Next up is a Hindu bhajan, a lovely and typical devotional song whose lilting melody carries a text extolling Shiva, God of Destruction and Lord of the Dance.

In a programmatic non-sequitur, the next track is a fascinating sample of the still rarely-heard music of India's tribal cultures. This "Gond" song sounds utterly unlike most Indian music; Jairazbhoy and Catlin note that these aboriginal populations may be related to the peoples of Australia, New Guinea and conceivably Africa, and the differences in melodic structure, vocal quality and rhythmic framework would bear this out.

The following five items represent different by-ways of India's rich classical traditions. Ragunath Prasanna's flute rendition of a "thumri" (romantic song), a tantalizingly brief performance by Carnatic vina master S.M. Rao, and Narayan Das Mishra's quick feature for the bowed sarangi are followed by one of those bonuses which occasionally accrue to the alert listener: Swami Parvatikar, a wandering renunciate performed his own interpretations of the Hindustani ragas on swarmandal, the zither often used by vocalists as a source of lush tonal strumming. Parvatikar recorded at least one album , which featured wild melodic extemporizations on both swarmandal and Dattatreya Vina, a mutant stringed instrument of his own invention. An avatar of Indian musical eccentricity, the Swami deserves our attention and enjoyment more because he is such an unusual and interesting character than for his (hardly earth-shaking) rendition of the popular raga Bhoopali. A devotional song in the Tamil language follows, beautifully sung in the Carnatic style by T.M. Krishnaswamy Iyer and P.R. Balasubramanyam. The liner notes are a little confusing here, and it's not clear which man is the lead vocalist; the track annotation and photograph identify Krishnaswamy as the senior singer (as do the original lp notes), while the commentary suggests the opposite.

We remain in the South Indian cultural universe for the next four tracks, which present music for dance and dramatic performances. The first two of these are extracts from the Kathakali drama: a minute's introductory drumming, then a short snippet from an hours-long performance. The singer and his ensemble are clearly virtuosi, but it's hard to get a sense of the music from such a brief excerpt (a problem created by the requirements of the phonograph on one hand, and the obligation to give a musical tour of the entire Indian subcontinent on the other). The two items which follow are rare and fascinating gems, excerpts from a drama composed and performed by members of a Tamilian fishing community, sung by four men with drone and percussion accompaniment. The final track is a short drum improvisation on the North Indian dholak. While the rhythms are pleasing and kinetic, the placement of this item after a series of South Indian performances makes it seem like an afterthought.

The entire collection is one of those vastly-more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomena, an essential audio survey of India collected and arranged by two of the twentieth century's most influential ethnomusicologists, reissued with annotations by two of the discipline's most significant scholars. The separate layers of the palimpsest are clearly decipherable; careful study of the CD yields a wealth of information about changes in Western musical perceptions of India over the past half century. But none of that is necessary for those who just want to listen; Danielou was a collector of extraordinary merits. This CD is full of unusual, challenging, and powerful music, as joyous and beautiful now as it was when it was recorded, half a century ago. - Warren Senders

CD is available from cdRoots

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