Friday, April 2, 2010

In review--Sliding into the 21st Century

V.M. Bhatt and Matt Malley
Sleepless Nights
World Village

When I first saw that Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was releasing a recording on World Village, I got excited, but then after I saw that the master Indian slide-guitarist had teamed up with a rock musician, Matt Malley (Counting Crows), I felt somewhat reluctant to review the CD, Sleepless Nights. While the concept of East meets West, musically speaking, intrigues me, some of those collaborations come off as hyperkinetic Bollywood soundtracks. I know some music fans love that type of music, but at this stage of the game, I desperately need music that soothes, not jars my nerves.  I'm not the average music listener and music is my medicine for healing tension and sensitivities.

However, I’m a great admirer of V.M. Bhatt and I have several of his Sense World Music recordings in my collection. He’s well-respected in his homeland, India, for good reason, and here in the West, where he came onto the radar after collaborating with Ry Cooder, another musician I admire, on the Grammy Award winning album, A Meeting by the River. I also have enjoyed Bhatt’s collaboration with Rajasthani gypsy musicians, Desert Slide (Sense World Music).

But how would I feel about Bhatt’s collaboration with a rock bassist/keyboard player? I find synthesizers cold and plastic sounding. If it were possible I would pluck synthesizer tracks out of otherwise acoustic music. Other sensitives (people who are hypersensitive to sound, environmental stress, etc), have also complained about the effects of electronic instruments on their nerves. (The odd thing is electronic music only started grating on my nerves a few years ago. Up until that point, I liked it).

The musicians, also includes table player Subhen Chatterjee who bridges the gap between East and West, pull off a modern sound that gives off the exotic fragrance of Indian classical music. Bhatt’s playing, which was recorded in single takes and heavily improvised, sparkles here, as it should. This is the musician who invented the Indian slide-guitar, also known as a Mohan veena and he’s certainly the musician accredited for taking the instrument beyond Indian classical music. On the opener, Rainbow in My Heart, Bhatt takes the lead and plays melodic passages that would easily roll off of a singer’s tongue. And true to the singing-style of playing of Indian classical music, on Languid with Longing and the final track, Silent Footsteps, the slide guitar takes on a vocal quality. I can almost hear a vocalist stepping in and singing the melodic lines.  Bhatt lends his vocal talent on the titular track.

I have enjoyed listening to most of the selections on the album with the exception of The Scalding Rain in which the keyboard distracts me and leaves me feeling overly tense. The song would sound better in my opinion without the keyboard. Perhaps, piano or a xylophone would sound better to my ears. I also find the keyboard invasive on tracks 5 and 6, though the masterful musicianship of Bhatt lifts those songs to a blissful place. Thankfully, Malley is a wise musician and producer who knows when to step out of the way and allow Bhatt to do his thing. A musician not steeped in yoga or a fan of Indian classical music, like Malley, would have overpowered the delicate Indian slide-guitar.

On one hand, this type of collaboration opens new ears to classical Indian music and its players. But on the other hand, I hope it doesn’t open the door to Indian classical music playing second fiddle to fusion projects. The music provides a blissful cadence and the closing track works nicely as a piece for practicing yoga or meditating. I’m reminded of George Harrison’s collaborations with Indian musicians and his commitment to Indian spirituality. It’s better to approach other cultures with open minds and open hearts, to embrace the other, but to never let a dominant pop culture take the lead. This creates a fragile situation, but one that with the right amount of reverence and respect, can provide us with new types of music genres.

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