Shankar for Dummies?

Ravi Shankar has always been one of those musicians that I respect more than I listen to. A few musicians (Ornette Coleman, the Pop Group) as well as genres (opera, blues) fit into this category for me. I get what they’re doing, and I like what they’re doing. But I’m rarely in the mood to actually sit down and listen to an album from beginning to end. (Phillip Glass).

I was actually lucky enough to have seen Ravi Shankar perform with his daughter (Anoushka, the sitar player, not Norah Jones) on one of his last tours of the US. It was a tour-de-force- a snapshot of a virtuoso musician who had hit a peak and stayed strong for 50 years. That which goes up, evidently, must not necessarily come down. But as impressive as seeing the master perform was, I’m sure if I had access to a recording of that performance, I’d probably listen to about ten minutes of it, once a year. Somehow, the idea of listening to an entire raga evolve over the minutes or hours it might take has a tremendous artistic, intellectual and philosophical appeal, but is not exactly something you want to throw on while you wait for the subway. As a result, unfortunately, Shankar remained woefully under-appreciated in my music library.

Or at least he was, until a friend recommended me his 1964 album Portrait of Genius, which I could listen to every day. If I had to guess from the timing, this album corresponds to the first inklings of the neo-Orientalist fascination with India in hippie culture. It was two years before “Norwegian Wood,” three years before Monterey. It could be safely assumed that whichever marketing genius came up with the idea for this album, he was consciously trying to do a Shankar-for-dummies sort of thing.

But it totally works, and remains critically acclaimed nonetheless. Apart from the last track (which comprises a full raga), tracks are generally around the 3 minute mark. Shankar is teamed up with Ustad Alla Rakha, who is, more or less, the tabla’s answer to Ravi Shankar. As songs like “Tabla-Dhwani” and “Tala-Tabla Tarang” demonstrate, he is an accomplished virtuoso himself, filling each bar with percussion work so dense it makes blast-beats look anemic by comparison. Rakha has a masterful control not only over the percussive elements of the tabla but also over its melodic component- “Tala-Tabla Tarang” actually features no melodic instruments except the tabla (even Shankar himself is absent), and it takes you a few listens to even notice.

As satisfying as the solo-virtuoso stuff is, the album peaks when Rakha and Shankar, as well as jazz flautist Paul Horn coordinate their interplay- Indian music is not inherently harmonic, and any harmonies tend to be incidental. Nonetheless, when the three of them play in the pocket, it’s way, way more than the sum of its parts. My favorite track on the album, “Song from the Hills” (an original composition of Shankar’s posing as a folk song) highlights this brilliantly. In contrast to the relentless virtuosity displayed in some of the other pieces, the song is a masterwork of restraint: Horn introduces the sweetly wistful and unabashedly simple main theme in a non-rhythmic alap, Rakha introduces his tabla, followed by Shankar, and the three spend the rest of song repeating the theme, subtly varying the particulars of the performance with each repetition. The track ends after about three minutes with Horn playing solo again- he finishes the theme on the tonic, then ‘overshoots’ it with one last arpeggio, as if to say “we could keep going, but I guess that’s enough.”

That’s really the beauty of this album- it’s just enough.


The Rolling Stones of West Africa

Disclaimer: I don’t care where or how you get your music. But please keep listening.

As much as I don’t like the term world music (David Byrne explains it here better than I ever could), I’ve been steadily listening to more and more non-Western music over the past decade. I think this is a natural progression of going down the musical rabbit hole- as you keep exploring what musicians you listen to listen to themselves, you generally end up somewhere in the 30s, or halfway across the world. Perhaps one of my happiest musical discoveries has been (T.P.) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo (de Cotonou (Benin)). Yes, they do really go by all those variations, and sometimes even by the names of their individual band members.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou (fuck it, OPRC), have been around since the early 60s and continue to play- hence the title of the post. In as much as they are named at all, they are aptly named. Their name is a sort of pun- not only does it reflect their use of poly-rhythms common to all music of West Africa, but also their eclectic grab-bag of musical styles. While focusing broadly on funk, their musical style covers Afrobeat, psychedelic rock, salsa, jazz, soukous and others, all filled out with their self-designated voodoo rhythms.

OPRC are gods among men in West Africa, but they never made it to the level of cult popularity that Fela Kuti or even King Sunny Ade enjoyed outside West Africa. This could be chalked up to a couple of things: firstly, their original releases were so erratically named, released and pressed that it was tough to figure out whose albums they were or where to get them, let alone if they were any good. Fortunately, Analog Africa has put out a series of re-release compilations of their best material on four stellar albums in the past few years. Secondly- and this is one of their strengths- they were very much a group effort, and no single member commanded the audience’s attention in the same way that Fela’s gloriously hammy persona might. Thirdly, the closest they ever came to singing in English was singing in French, and that was rare- their music was most often in the Gen language. These last two points, I think, just help you to focus on the music, which is what matters most.

And the music really does command focus. This is not to say they’re showy- in fact, apart from singer Vincent Ahehehinnou’s occasional yelps, they show a collectivist tendency toward restraint that bring to mind the early 80s post-punk “just because we can doesn’t mean we should” philosophy more than anything. The vocals, while skillful, never overpower the arrangements. The horns provide a jaunty accent, but only show up when they have to. The restraint is a function of the music always being grounded by the stellar drumming of Léopold Yehouessi- seemingly a follower of Liebezeit’s axiom and the rest of the rhythm section. As should be the case for a West African band named Poly-Rythmo, the rhythms are the real star. And this really sets OPRC apart from almost every band I’ve ever heard- lest we forget, without African rhythms, we’d all still be listening to Greensleeves and fife-and-drum.

Minsato le, mi Dahomey: OPRC at the peak of their psychedelic period. I’m surprised this beat hasn’t been sampled on a breakdancing mix somewhere.
Ou c’est lui ou c’est moi: A cut off their debut, they seem to be very much on the Fela road here. Not that that makes it any worse of a song.
Gbeti madjro: For lack of a better term, OPRC’s Stairway.
Mille fois merci: A track from their Congolese-influenced soukous period. Unlike most OPRC tracks, guitarist Bernard “Papillon” Zoudegnon is the real star here.
Assibavi: OPRC at their funky best.