Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: Saltanah

This summit of two musical masters from traditions that have common roots but also noted differences is aptly subtitled in the very helpful notes by Dr. Habib Hassan Touma of the International Institute for Traditional Music in Berlin as where "The rag and the maqam meet."

In other words, Bhatt comes from the Indian world of the rag, or raga, while Shaheen is from that of the Arabic maqam.  Both forms of music rely on a modal system and are heavily improvisatory after the performing of a melody line from which to develop the improvisation.

The word saltanah essentially refers to the mastery with which the two men play their instruments.  Bhatt, actually, plays something unique--a mohan vina, which a guitar-like instrument of his design which has sixteen strings, four of which play, by strumming, the drone so typical of Indian music and the remaining constituting the melody strings, which are struck with a pick.  Moreover, this instrument is played on the lap much like a steel guitar.  As explained by Dr. Touman, the mohan vina matches the tonal dimensions of the sitar, one of the mainstays of the raga.

As for Shaheen, he has been highlighted in this blog already through his amazing duet album with Ali Jihad Racy called Taqasim and is a virtuoso on the violin and the oud, the lute that is the core of much of Arabic music.  Shaheen has helped to popularize the oud and the maqam in the West.

This remarkable album consists of five pieces that bring together a rag and a maqam with the players alternating in a stunning display of technique, but also of feeling.  They are given simple titles like "Dawn," ""Dusk," and "Mists,"as well as "Saltanah" and "Ghazal."  The leaders are joined by Ronu Majumdar on two tracks playing the bansuri and Sangeeta Shankar on the violin on "Ghazal."

Dr. Touma explained the structure and performance of the pieces, while producer Kavichandran Alexander penned a concise but useful essay on the history of these musics and short biographical sketches of Bhatt and Shaheen.

These kinds of records tend to get labeled as "fusion," which calls to mind electric jazz or really disparate blending of musics, but there is actually a great deal here which is intricately tied to common historical roots, the use of modal system, and a reliance on improvisation. 

To this listener, this isn't so much as "fusion" as it is a melding of complementary musical forms played by two stellar musicians.  Saltanah is a great work and is an interest comparative record to Shaheen and Racy's Taqasim.

Anyone interested in or curious about the music of India and the Arab world would do well to search out this fantastic 1996 release on Water Lily Acoustics, a small Santa Barbara, California label.

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt:  Saltanah (Water Lily Acoustics, 1996)

1.  Dawn (Rag Kirwani/Maqam Nahawand)  15:24
2.  Ghazal (Rag Vasant Mukhari/Maqam Hijaz)  16:05
3.  Saltanah (Rag Bagashri/Maqam 'Ajam Mu'addal)  8:23
4.  Mists (Rag Pahari/Maqam 'Ajam)  12:34
5.  Dusk (Rag Bhairavi/Maqam Kurd)  15:23

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