This is just the merest sampling of the huge amount of music available east of NATO territory... I can hardly claim that this is a comprehensive, or even representative, sample of what's available. Nonetheless, these are some of the albums which have leapt out at me over the last few years -- hopefully you will find these records as striking as I have. And keep checking this site for more reviews-- it is sure to expand over time. This is the first page covering the letter "S"...
Punjabi-born flautist G. S. Sachdev is a master of the North Indian bamboo flute known as the bansuri, an ancient instrument that had fallen out of common use for several centuries before being reintroduced into the Indian classical community in the 1800s. The bansuri is a long, thin flute that has a deeper tone than those used in the South, and in the hands of Sachdev, it is a sublime, soft-toned lead instrument, with a lulling, purring quality. This record features Sachdev in collaboration with tabla master Zakir Hussain, a longtime associate in Marin County's close-knit Indian classical music community. The tone of this performance is uptempo and joyous -- Sachdev describes these songs as "dances" in the album's liner notes -- and yet even with the bouncy rhythm, there is an underlying elegance and calm. Nice record... recommended! [Includes "Kaushik Dhwani" (25:55) and "Purya-Kalyan" (25:26)]
G. S. Sachdev "Spirit" (Audiorec, 1995)
Another fine collaboration with Zakir Hussain, with three ragas of the utmost softness and delicacy. The measured, contemplative tone of these performances is similar to the shakuhachi flute playing of Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin (below), making the kind of album you can slowly, steadily settle deep down into. Nice! [Includes "Rag Bihag" "Rag Kalavati" and "Rag Chandrakauns"]
Stellar, transcendent Zen music played on the Japanese shakuhachi, a long bamboo flute. Seldin is an American master of the instrument, bringing out tones and movements which are alternately haunting, evocative, ethereal and contemplative. Despite its starkness of presentation, this is one of the most soulful and moving records I've heard in recent years. Highly recommended.
Fans of Kayhan Kalhor's work on the fab recent Ghazal albums will not be disappointed by this new collaboration with Iranian vocal legend, Mohammad Reza Shajarian. More purely in the Persian classical tradition, these songs open instrumentally and build slowly and steadily towards their moody, evocative lyrics. Best of all, Shajarian's vocals are much softer and more subtle than one might anticipate -- while much Middle Eastern music is relatively inaccessible to Western ears, you may find family and friends more willing to have this disc spin in the carosel for a while. Nice stuff -- highly recommended.
Master vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian evokes Iran's ancient classical tradition, as well as its deep love of poetry. This fluid performance wraps improvisational, exploratory musicianship around the mystical texts of several medieval Persian poets. Shajarian is once again joined by Kayhan Kalhor, of Ghazal, as well as tar virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh and percussionist and co-vocalist Homayoun Shajarian, Mohammad Reza's son. This album is a searching effort, at times a little formless, while at others haunting and incandescent. Worth checking out, particularly if you liked any of the earlier Kalhor/Shajarian collaborations.
A kooky kitsch classic, featuring sitarist Ananda Shankar -- a nephew of Ravi Shankar -- playing psychedelic rock-fusion covers of pop hits like "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones and the Doors' "Light My Fire," as well as several original tunes. The backing band is mainly made up of American pop studio pros, pumping out punchy, high-test muzak, with a monstrous Moog synthesizer competing with Shankar's energetic, boing-boing-boinging sitar. Obviously this isn't the most subtle or profound Indian music around, but it was a landmark album of sorts... There were zillions of sitar-laced rock songs that came before this in the late 'Sixties, with every hippie and their brother following the lead of George Harrison and the Beatles, but this was one of the first crossover records that was of full album length and that came at the music from the Eastern side of the East-West equation, rather than the other way around. I'm not sure it really transcends novelty status, but there's certainly a through-line from here to artists such as Ashwan Batish, Monsoon and Cornershop. Worth checking out, although it is pretty silly.
Only twenty years old at the time this album was released, Ravi Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, had become the clear standardbearer for his musical legacy. This live set (featuring three Ravi Shankar compositions recorded at Carnegie Hall, and one at a concert in England) is her third solo album and shows her a technically adept -- if unelectrifying -- performer and able bandleader... It didn't completely entrance me, but it was nice enough, solidly within the Indian classical tradition. Worth checking out, though other sitar-based albums may move you more deeply.
I have a terrible, terrible, terrible confession to make, one that make cause me to be drummed out of the League O' World Music Geeks... I... uh... (...let me take a breath here...) I, um... well... I've never really been all that big a fan of Ravi Shankar's music. Aaaagh! There...! I've said it!! Whew. That feels better. Whew. Okay, I mean, I know he's a big grandaddy of the "world music" scene, and that he's one of the greatest popularizers of Indian classical music that the world has ever known... He's a total mack-daddy show biz superstar, partied with the Beatles and thus brought the sitar into the international rock scene in the 1960s and is said to be the instrument's #1 virtuoso... That being said, I have still often found his perfromance style to be rigid-sounding and somewhat severe, and lacking in the sweet, sensuous side that I so deeply appreciate in Indian and Pakistani music. Anyway, there it is. I'm not with the program when it comes to Ravi. So, this 2-CD collection actually turned out to be a nice surprise... Disc One kicks off with an amusing historical curio: Shankar's 1957 monologue on how to best appreciate Indian music (in which he sternly warns that it is not "Indian jazz..."), and includes numerous tracks from early in his career, most of which fit into the rigid-sounding template I describe above. Disc Two is where the real surprises come in, arcing into his later work in the 1980s and '90s, where Shankar's rigorous musical purism gives way to a looser-sounding crosscultural experimentation, and the results of these raga-pop-world-jazz fusions are often quite delightful. This is a fine retrospective of his work, gathering material from a number of labels, presenting in in a brisk yet expansive format. Recommended!
Amid all the late-'80s flutter over Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it was nice -- and somewhat bold -- of Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label to put out such a calm, stately Indian classical album. Two longer ragas featuring sarod and violin, along with some understated percussion. Nice record; certainly worth tracking down!
Southern India's Carnatic musical tradition is a wellspring of rich melodic depth and improvisational virtuosity, particularly those performances that are built around the sweet violin style of the region. This record, however, spotlights the nagaswaram, an open-faced, oboe-like instrument similar to the Northern shenai but with a harder, more taxing tone. The nagaswaram is played here by Mr. Subramaniam with dazzling skill, but the somewhat harsh, shrill tone that may be offputting to the casual listener. The reed line is doubled by a violin, but not significantly softened, and with this harder edge, these recordings may be less accessible than the soft, elegant Carnatic styles that are often presented to the outside world. It's sort of like listening to bebop jazz: you can be floored by the technical aspects, though the music itself may be a bit rough on your ears. I have a pretty high tolerance for "otherly" music, but after a while I couldn't handle it... just too damn squeaky.
One of my favorite albums! Another gorgeous, lushly melodic album, this time from Nepal. Fans of Indian classical may find this familiar -- yet oddly dissimilar. Although the instruments are similar -- sitar, tabla and flute -- the music is not quite as langourous and deliberative; this has a more pronounced melodic drive which may actually make it more accessible to Western ears. Wonderful stuff. Highly recommended!
Asian & Islamic Albums: Letter "T"
Asian Music Index
World Music Index