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Archive for October, 2013

Instruments from India ― 14/ The jugalbandis


IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I have not gone into too many technicalities and playing styles. I have focused on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mentioned the leading performers in each style. So far, I have focused on melody instruments, and shall begin another series on Indian percussion instruments next month, with the tabla.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram, harmonium, Indian adaptations of the guitar, Indian adaptations of other western instruments, other instruments used in Indian classical music, and instruments used in folk and devotional music.

In the concluding part of this series, I shall talk of combinations of melody instruments in classical and fusion music.

BY and large, Indian classical music is a solo art, where one vocalist or instrumentalist unfolds a raga or a light composition. However, there have been several times when two, and sometimes three, instruments have been played together in a concert or recording.

The simultaneous use of two instruments is known as a ‘jugalbandi’. Such a combination also exists in vocal music, popular artistes being Ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan, and Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra in the khayal form of music, and the Dagar brothers and Gundecha brothers in the older dhrupad.

In instrumental music, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and sarod genius Ustad Ali Akbar Khan came together in the 1960s and did a few such concerts. One of the most successful early collaborations was between santoor master Shivkumar Sharma, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and Indian-style guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra, who recorded the album ‘Call of the Valley’ in 1967.

While jugalbandis were initially done between Hindustani classical musicians, they were later used in Carnatic music too. Over the years, there were also instances when Hindustani and Carnatic musicians played together.

There have also been instances when two or more musicians, mostly from the same family, played the same instrument in a concert ― like Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka on sitar, Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan on sarod, and Shivkumar Sharma and his son Rahul on santoor. In Carnatic music, brothers Ganesh and Kumaresh have excelled as a violin duo, and these days violinist L Subramaniam is often accompanied by his son Ambi.

Though such jugalbandis have been popular among the masses, they have been criticised by purists, who believe Indian classical music is a solo art. Thus, people conducting such a practice have been accused of selling out or gimmickry.

However, what needs to be noted is that all musicians who have done jugalbandis have essentially concentrated on solo performances, and (barring probably Ganesh and Kumaresh) worked as a duo only occasionally, often on public demand. Some of these recordings have been pathbreaking. But in comparison to the overall number of solo recordings and concerts, the number of jugalbandis has been only a small fraction.

Here, we shall look at some of the combinations of instruments that have been successful.

Sitar and sarod: The best-known examples are Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, on their recording of ragas Sindhu Bhairavi, Manj Khamaj and Hem Bihag in the double live album ‘In Concert 1972’. With accompaniment from tabla legend Allarakha, the concert was recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, New York, as a dedication to Baba Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan’s father and guru, and Ravi Shankar’s guru.

The duo has also recorded ragas Khamaj, Durga and Bilaskhani Todi.


Sitar and shehnai: Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan and shehnai legend Bismillah Khan got together in many recordings and concerts. Their famous album ‘A Rare Jugalbandi’ features ragas Yaman and Nand Kalyan, and a mishra dhun (light piece in a mixed raga). Their recordings of ragini Yamani and a light-classical thumri in Bhairavi are also outstanding.


Santoor and bansuri: As mentioned earlier, Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia got together with guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra in 1967 on the album ‘Call of the Valley’, where they recorded Ahir Bhairav, Nat Bhairav, Piloo, Des and Pahadi, besides some light compositions. Later, Sharma and Chaurasia also recorded two volumes of ‘The Valley Recalls’, including an elaborate rendition of Bhoopali. They have done numerous concerts as a duo.

In the late 1990s, flautist Ronu Majumdar and santoor player Satish Vyas also did a few concerts together.

Shehnai and violin: Bismillah Khan and violinist VG Jog used this combination successfully, recording ragas Todi and Durga. Bismilllah Khan also combined with Carnatic violinist L Subramaniam on the album ‘Live in Geneva’, featuring raga Yaman.

Carnatic saxophone and bansuri: Veteran saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath has done jugalbandis with flautists Ronu Majumdar and Pravin Godkhindi. Their combination has had an overwhelming response.


Fusion collaborations: Though they aren’t jugalbandis in the real sense, Indian melody instruments have often been combined with western ones in experimental music and Indo-jazz fusion.

In the 1960s, Ravi Shankar’s sitar joined Yehudi Menuhin’s violin. In the following decade, violinist L Shamkar and guitarist John McLaughlin were together in the band Shakti, and these days, McLaughlin is accompanied by mandolin wiz U Shrinivas in Remember Shakti. The ace guitarist has played only one piece with santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma ― ‘Shringar’, based on raga Kirwani, which was like an actual jugalbandi.

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek has played with violinist L Shankar and flautist Chaurasia, and saxophonist George Brooks has teamed up with Chaurasia and harp player Gwyneth Wentink. Jazz guitarist Larry Coryell was joined by flautist Ronu Majumdar on the album ‘Moonlight Whispers’.

Among same or similar instruments, violinist L Subramaniam released the classic album ‘Conversations’ with violinist Stephane Grappelli, and has also played with Menuhin. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays the modified guitar Mohan veena, released the Grammy-winning album ‘A Meeting By The River’ with American guitarist Ry Cooder.

The examples in fusion abound, and are much larger in number as compared to classical jugalbandis. In both cases, they have been successful, despite opposition from the purists. In many ways, they have helped in attracting newer and younger audiences. For that singular reason, they have played a role in spreading the reach of Indian classical music.


Memories of Manna Dey


THOSE were the early 1970s, when I first got exposed to Hindi film songs. At the age of seven or eight, I didn’t know what a music director or a lyricist did. But the names of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh were mentioned regularly on Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon, and as such, they were the first playback singers I knew of.

No, I wasn’t aware who Manna Dey was. I would run to the radio set each time they played ‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ (from ‘Mera Naam Joker’), ‘Tujhe suraj kahoon ya chanda’ (‘Ek Phool Do Mali’) and ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ (‘Anand’), but I never knew or cared about who sang them. It didn’t matter, as long as I loved the songs.

The legendary singer’s name was registered in my mind only a couple of years later, when ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ (‘Zanjeer’) became a rage. Even then, I never realised the same person had sang my three early favourites. Or that he had actually sung ‘Pyaar hua ikrar hua’ (‘Shree 420’) and ‘Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum’ (‘Chori Chori’), tunes which I then erroneously felt Mukesh had rendered because I thought Mukesh sang all Raj Kapoor songs. In the same year, 1973, Manna also featured on ‘Na maangoon sona chandi’ in ‘Bobby’, but I was more familiar with the name of the new find Shailendra Singh.

CUT to October 24, 2013, and these memories came immediately to mind when I heard of Manna Dey’s demise. I was in the middle of a family holiday in Nepal, and was just about to board a bus to visit the famous Fewa Lake at the picturesque town of Pokhara for a boat ride, when one of our tour members announced the news. My first thought was, “An era has ended.”

Truly, Manna Dey was the longest-living and last representative of the golden age of male playback singing. Despite competition from the likes of Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and Mahendra Kapoor, he carved a niche of his own. He was equally adept at Bengali and other regional language songs, but sadly, I was never exposed to them, and will thus focus on Hindi cinema.

Much has been written about how Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore were at an advantage because they represented Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, the leading heroes of the day. On the other hand, Manna did hit songs for Balraj Sahni (‘Aye mere pyaare watan’ from ‘Kabuliwala’, ‘Aye meri zohra zabeen’ from’’Waqt’, ‘Tu pyaar ka saagar hai’ from ‘Seema’ and ‘Tujhe sooraj kahoon ya chanda’ from ‘Ek Phool Do Mali’), Mehmood (‘Aao twist karein’ from ‘Bhoot Bangla’ and ‘Ek chatur naar’ from ‘Padosan’) and Pran (‘Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa’ from ‘Upkaar’ and ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’ from ‘Zanjeer’). Yet, the other three singers invariably got the biggest stars.

Still, looking back at Manna’s immense and priceless contribution to Hindi film music, he had five qualities that put him on par with the others — technique, originality, versatility, consistency and song memorability. Let’s look at each of them.

Technique: With his intense classical training and mastery over the ragas, Manna could sing even the most difficult songs effortlessly. Add to that his pure and clear voice, and a god-gifted power of expression, and the end result was pure magic.

His classical brilliance was evident in ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ from ‘Dil Hi To Hai’ (in raga Bhairavi), ‘Poocho na kaise’ from ‘Meri Surat Teri Aankhen’ (in Ahir Bhairav), ‘Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya’ from ‘Mere huzoor’ (in Darbari Kanhada), ‘Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare’ from ‘Dekh Kabira Roya’ (in Rageshri) and ‘Sur na saje’ from ‘Basant Bahar’ (in Pilu).

Check out the ‘antara’ of ‘Tu pyaar ka saagar hai’ (‘Seema’, raga Darbari Kanhada) and notice how he made even the most complex passages seem like child’s play. And for sheer expression, ‘Kasme vaade pyaar wafaa’ (Upkaar’), ‘Aye mere pyaare watan’ (‘Kabuliwaala’) and ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ (‘Anand’) are the ultimate.

Originality: Though each male singer from that era had his own style, Manna’s distinct timbre and manner of delivery made him unique. One perfect example would be ‘Lapak jhapak tu aa re badarwa’ from ‘Boot Polish’. One simply can’t imagine anybody else doing justice to the song. Likewise with ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ from ‘Dil Hi To Hai’, ‘Bhay bhanjana’ from ‘Basant Bahar’ and his cameo in the Lata-dominated ‘Chadh gayo paapi bichua’ from ‘Madhumati’. For that matter, even his private album rendition of poet Harivanshrai Bachchan’s ‘Madhushala’.

There is a theory that more aspiring musicians were inclined to imitate Rafi, Kishore and Mukesh, in comparison to Manna Dey. To that, his fans would react that Manna was so original that it would require real in-depth training and practice to blindly follow him. That assumption may not be totally off the mark.

Versatility: For some strange reason, many people have associated Manna Dey mainly with classical songs. Yes, he was a master at them, but if you really study his repertoire, the truth is that he could sing anything and everything under the sun.

For instance, he was equally fantastic with comic or lighter songs, examples being the unforgettable ‘Ek chatur naar’ (with Kishore in ‘Padosan’), ‘Aao twist karein’ (‘Bhoot bangla’), ‘Dil ka haal sune dilwala’ (‘Shree 420’), ‘Meri bhains ko danda kyon maara’ (‘Pagla Kahin Ka’), ‘Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo’ (‘Mera Naam Joker’) and ‘Na maangoon sona chandi’ (‘Bobby’).

Manna could sing straightforward and simple numbers like ‘Dil ki girah khol do’ (‘Raat Aur Din’), ‘Mud mud ken a dekh’ (with Asha Bhosle in ‘Shree 420’), ‘Chunari sambhaal gori’ (‘Baharon Ke Sapne’) and ‘Yeh dosti’ (with Kishore in ‘Sholay’). And when it came to romantic songs, there were these Raj Kapoor classics like ‘Pyaar hua ikraar hua hai’ (‘Shree 420’), ‘Yeh raat bheegi bheegi’ and ‘Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum’ (both ‘Chori Chori’), all duets with Lata Mangeshkar. And with Asha, he sang ‘Tu chupi hai kahaan’ in ‘Navrang’.

Of the singers from that era, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar and even SD Burman had their typical styles, whereas Mahendra Kapoor was used to represent only certain stars. When it came to versatility, Manna was on the same level as Rafi and Kishore.

Consistency: From the 1950s right up to the mid-1970s, Manna Dey regularly came up with hit numbers. There were times when he sang only one song in a film whereas other singers got three or four songs, but that one song made its own mark.

When you think of ‘Waqt’, for instance, the first tune that comes to mind is ‘Aye meri zohra zabeen’. Talk of ‘Zanjeer’, and you immediately think of ‘Yaari hai imaan mera’.

All singers have their share of hits and flops. With Manna Dey, the successes clearly outweighed the ones that didn’t make a mark. Though some felt he was offered fewer songs than the others (or that he himself was more selective), the relatively high hit ratio was enough proof of his consistency.

Song memorability: This point doesn’t require elaboration. Just look at the songs mentioned above, and there’s no denying that each of them is memorable in its own way. Even 40 or 50 years after they were first rendered, they move you with their sheer melody and meaning. And while the music directors, lyricists and co-singers had a major role to play, Manna Dey made them special by adding his own touch.

YES, an era has ended. Over the past four days or so, so many other memories have been revived, some in colour, some in black ‘n’ white. I thought of whether I first heard the songs on the radio, or saw them in the cinema halls, or on television programmes like Chitrahaar in Delhi or Chaaya Geet in Mumbai. I remembered songs I actually began to appreciate only much later ― like ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’ and ‘Tu chhupi hai kahaan’. Each memory has been special.

Still, as a music journalist who came on the beat in 1995, I have one personal regret. I never met the legend even once, not even casually at a music industry party. It was always a dream to interview him, but that sadly remained unfulfilled.

Thank you for the timeless music, Manna Dey. Your voice lives on forever.

CD review/ Cosmic Chant — Rajeev Raja Combine


Cosmic Chant/ Rajeev Raja Combine

Genre: Indo-jazz fusion

Available on iTunes India, OKListen and other digital space

Rating: *****

BESIDES focusing on his career in advertising, and then starting his sonic branding company BrandMusiq, Rajeev Raja has been involved with his other passion of playing the flute for three decades. He’s studied both the western concert flute and the Indian bansuri, doing numerous gigs as frontman and accompanying various Indian musicians.

Keeping that introduction in mind, it comes as a surprise that he’s just released his debut album, ‘Cosmic Chant’, along with his band Rajeev Raja Combine. However, even if you wonder what took him so long, it’s obvious from the first time you hear this set that it is a labour of love, and a stunningly brilliant one at that.

The sound is a smooth mix of jazz and Indian classical, with elements of rock, Latin sounds and world music. Each of the eight tracks bears the stamp of rich quality, pure melody and crisp instrumentation. While the album is dominated by the flute, Chandana Bala’s accompanying classical vocals are an asset, and there’s some super-tight work by guitarist Hitesh Dhutia, keyboardist and saxophonist Tala Faral, bassist JD, drummer Vaibhav Wavikar and tabla player Vinayak Netke.

The flute is, of course, not new in Indo-fusion. However, most other flautists essentially belong to the Indian classical tradition, and thus stick to the classical rudiments of bansuri or venu playing, with their accompanying keyboardists, guitarists, bassists and drummers bringing in the jazz, rock and world music flavours. As Rajeev focuses on the metal concert flute, and has himself grown up on the best of both western and Indian music, he plays a cross-section of styles effortlessly.

Thus, what we have is an album with great variety. The opening piece ‘Drone’ starts with a pleasant melody line, followed by charming vocal sargams that flow into a marvellous piece of flute improvisation, which then leads to a neat saxophone solo. Just the ideal album opener.

‘Nightingale’s Song’ is another beautiful tune, beginning with melodic guitar lines, and then making way for flute and vocals, which complement each other perfectly. Somewhere down the line, bass and tabla join the action.

‘Mulligan’s Mood’, dedicated to jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, was composed by Rajeev back in 1982, and has been one of his concert regulars. After a steady build-up, the tempo increases suddenly, with some striking guitars and keyboards. Kenneth Rebello makes an appearance on bass here, and some breathtaking flute portions seem straight from the Jethro Tull/ Ian Anderson style sheet.

On the title track, which appears next, Rajeev gets into flamenco-Indian classical fusion mode. Beginning with a Paco de Lucia-styled guitar riff by Hitesh, this one has good coordination between the vocals, flute and rhythms. Chandana’s mid-composition sargam portion is a highlight, and the flute solo and tabla playing act as the right follow-up.

As its name suggests, ‘Grunge’ gets into rocksier territory, with energetic guitar and flute passages. ‘Friday Night Funk’ is a blend of Indian melodies and funk, and one finds shades of European folk in the later flute parts. Despite a title hinting at Middle Eastern music, ‘Turkish Delight’ is actually a stylish amalgamation of Latin and Indian music, with bossa nova and samba guitars and rhythms interacting with Carnatic vocals and haunting flutes.

Finally, ‘Peace’ acts as an ideal climax. Based on raga Hamsadhwani, popular in both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, it boasts of wonderful interplay between vocals and flute, and an uplifting keyboard stretch.

What’s most impressive about ‘Cosmic Chant’ is that there’s not a single moment when you feel that the fusion is forced or artificial. There are absolutely no gimmicky show-off moments, no sudden displays of unnecessary energy outburst, no random intrusion of unwanted semi-spoken rhythm syllables — things which have become characteristic of most contemporary fusion projects.

The beauty of this album lies in its simplicity, variety and use of syncopation, and the fact that it has melody written all over it. It’s the kind of music you can play again and again, and yet it grows on you. Clearly, this is one of the best Indo-fusion albums released in the past decade or so.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

The sob story of the CD

broken cd

Dear music lovers,

All of you recognise me by the name audio CD, or even more simply put, the CD. My full form, as you know, is Compact Disc. Strangely, in the next couple of years, all that may change, and I might stand for ‘Certified Dinosaur’. Technology, once my creator, has now become my destroyer, and it’s only a matter of time before I become old-fashioned, or even extinct.

Some of you may wonder why I have become so sceptical, cynical or pessimistic. Well, I am smart enough to read the writing on the wall, and see what’s going on around me.

Let me tell you precisely what’s happening in India. Over the past few months, one major exclusive music chain has shut shop. Another similar chain cut down music quantities and decided to hawk mobile phones, gadgets and movies instead. Some outlets which sold a mix of books, music and other related categories have either shut down, or banned any music from entering their doors. In such a scenario, only a few old stores are fighting against the odds to survive.

The concept of a music retail chain doesn’t exist any longer. The physical music format is dying.

The change in the environment will have other consequences too. The biggest to be affected will be the record labels. With so many stores shutting down or changing their business models to exclude music, these companies will have no one to supply to. Manufacturing quantities have already come down drastically, and the situation will only get worse. Some of them have been talking of selling more music digitally, but it’s been some seven or eight years they have been trying that, without much success. Only a miracle can change their fortunes now.

Because of all this, I will be seen in fewer places. I can already see the change. One of my followers went to pick up the brand new Krrish 3 CD at a store he’s been frequenting for the past few years, only to be told the store isn’t stocking a single CD now. Another person went looking for John Mayer’s latest release ‘Paradise Valley’ and Sting’s ‘The Last Ship’, only to be told they hadn’t received it. A third person looked for a Bhimsen Joshi compilation, and discovered that stores which once had loads of classical music now only stocked a handful of new Bollywood releases.

What pinches me is that all this music is now available illegally for free. Somebody just downloads it from a site, and passes it around on a pen-drive. Sometimes I exist in the stores, albeit in smaller quantities, but nobody will pick me up because they have already got a free copy, or because they checked it out — again for free — on YouTube. Even if the sound is terrible, people will listen to it just because they didn’t have to pay a single paisa. The industry’s sales revenues have obviously gone for a toss.

Another group to suffer will be the artistes, be they singers, composers, lyricists or musicians. Earlier, they would get royalties accrued from sales of physical albums, though even there, they kept wanting a bigger chunk of the pie. In the case of digital sales, a lot is downloaded for free, and there is no exact account of that, or means to monitor it. So barring the few legitimate companies which honestly declare digital revenues, one will never know what is exactly due to the artistes. Also, those planning to release new music will need to think of other ways to reach out to audiences. For them, the organised retail route no longer exists.

It’s not that I am the first musical format to face such a thing. My forefathers underwent a similar fate too. Many years ago, the spool came and went unnoticed. The Long Play Vinyl Record or LP, and his brothers, the Extended Play EP and the 78 rpm were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, but fizzled out. Though LPs have been back in fashion over the past couple of years, I fear that their availability will decrease too, and they will probably be sold in a few exclusive outlets whose promoter is in the field more for his love for music than for the money.

My predecessor, the cassette, was a superstar in his own right, not only selling great quantities himself but also ensuring sales of Sony Walkmans, car stereos and tape decks. Today, nobody listens to him, and the latest music systems don’t even have a cassette facility. If cassettes exist, it’s only in heavily fungus-bitten or mangled forms in the cupboards of people who don’t know what to do with them, except retain them for pure nostalgia.

Now look at my fate. When I suddenly became famous some 20 years ago, people thought I would last forever. Though the old-timers always preferred the analog sound of the LP, they didn’t find large quantities after that whole vinyl craze died down. My digital sound attracted its own set of followers, and as I was less likely to be damaged and thus had a longer life compared to a cassette, people started believing in me and relishing my sound. Even though some people felt I was expensive, they could not argue about the quality of sound I produced.

Over time, I became friendly with different types of formats. Besides music systems and portable Discmans, I could be played in home theatre units, and even in computers and laptops —something which wasn’t possible for other formats. Though I was threatened by this ghost called audio piracy, industry associations took extra steps to ensure that was reduced, at least by ensuring that my duplicate and fake clones were not available in the market.

I survived for a long time, but my downfall came out of the blue. Yes, I still exist in the fairly large collections of hardcore music lovers, who have admired me and nurtured me for years. These people have treated me like a king, making sure I stay clean and that I am not misused. They liked owning the physical copy, and they shall continue to be proud of my presence. Sadly, in today’s world, their lot is decreasing.

What ever happened, and that too so suddenly? The general response to this question is that people have changed the way they ‘consume’ music. Yes, ‘consume’ is the word they use, as though I am a Maharaja Mac burger or a Thums Up cola.

I hate the word ‘consume’, as it sounds like a word used more by the jargon-oozing marketing wizards who now throng the music industry, unlike the true music-loving artiste promoters who existed in the past. But I must admit that people have changed the way they listen to music.

I got my first scare about a decade ago, when there was a sudden increase in the demand for iPods. People could store an endless list of songs on these tiny gadgets, and listen to them either on their headphones or by connecting them to their computing systems. They would choose exactly the songs they wanted, and build their own personal library. Since the iPod could be carried everywhere, unlike most systems that played CDs, I slowly became redundant for such tech-friendly users.

Slowly, youngsters began looking for alternate means of listening to music. And if it was free, better for them. They looked for music more in the form of single songs, instead of complete albums. There was little patience to appreciate a work of art in its entirety.

Things kept changing with each passing year. Today, people want music on insipid MP3 files, USB drives or even on those creaky mobile phones that can make even the great Beethoven sound like a baboon. They want it on YouTube, because they can find anything under the sun free of cost, listen to these songs and then attach them on Facebook statuses to impress scores of virtual friends. Today, in the era of Smartphones, who wants a not-so-smart CD?

I agree that times change, and with it, so does technology. The latest technology has done wonders in fields like cinema, animation, advertising, banking, the very functioning of corporate offices, so on and so forth. Thanks to technological advancement, the world has become a smaller and more comfortable place.

Ironically, technology has actually had a devastating effect on the physical music industry. On the one hand, we have the most advanced systems and gadgets. But on the other, the best forms of transmitting good sound — the analog LP and the digital CD — have fewer takers today. With fewer stores retailing them, we may soon become history. And by the way, why on earth am I still associating myself with the world ‘digital’ when I should actually be detesting that word?

Ask anyone who’s grown up on the best music of the past 50 years, and that too by listening to it on good music systems, and they will tell you that slowly, the age of great sound is slowly making way for the era of cacophony. Just look at the person sitting next to you in the train, at office or in a restaurant, blaring a song on his mobile phone, and you’ll know what I mean. Melody has turned into malady.

This may well be my view, and I am sure thousands may disagree with me, simply because they haven’t felt the real thing in the past, and are happier boasting of the latest fads. But today, if you talk of listening to recorded music as a purely aesthetic, aural and amazing experience, what’s happening is everything except music to the ears.

Technology, for music’s sake, please use your charm to make things sound as good as they did.

CD review/ The Last Ship — Sting

sting last ship

The Last Ship/ Sting

Genre: Singer-songwriter

Universal Music/ Rs 495 (imports)

Rating: ****

AFTER a memorable stint with the Police, Gordon Sumner aka Sting has had a somewhat strange solo career. Between 1985 and 1993, he released a string of outstanding albums, namely ‘The Dream of the Blue Turtles’, ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, ‘The Soul Cages’ and ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’.

Sadly, much of his later effort has been predictable. Though the albums ‘Mercury Falling’, ‘Brand New Day’ and ‘Sacred Love’ had their highs and their hit songs, they didn’t match the earlier masterpieces in terms of both consistency and freshness. In his 2010 collection ‘Symphonicities’, he played symphonically re-arranged versions of his older songs, with the assistance of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. But barring a brilliant take on ‘Roxanne’, the effort fell flat.

Sting’s latest set ‘The Last Ship’ is being marketed as his first full-length album of original material in a decade, after ‘Sacred Love’. It is also inspired by Sting’s forthcoming play of the same name, scheduled to be released on Broadway next year.

Has Sting got over the shadow that has hung over him for quite some time? The first couple of hearings of ‘The Last Ship’ may make you feel he hasn’t, and an early reaction is that his vocal texture has lost a fraction of its spark. But give the album four or five listens, and the old magic begins to unfold slowly but steadily, like a ship that takes its own sweet time to move out of the harbour, but sails smoothly once in full flow.

Though old-time fans may argue that isn’t anywhere in the class of ‘The Soul Cages’ or ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’, the truth is that it is clearly his best effort over the past two decades. The sound is a blend of Celtic flavours, British folk, sea shanty and the trademark Sting style. Filled with fiddles, accordions, whistles and bagpipes, the tunes at times remind you of solo Mark Knopfler and even the ‘Les Miserables’ music. What’s most impressive, however, is the quality of the lyrics, with the songs being poetic and recitation-friendly.

Check him on the last lines of the opening title track, which go, “In the name of the Father, in the name of the son, And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun, On the earth or in heaven or under the sun, When the last ship sails.” He’s moulded his famous timbre, but the song hits you with its sheer punch.

Of the other songs, ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ sounds more from the Knopfler style book, and ‘August Winds’ is sung with a melancholy that makes it haunting. ‘So to Speak’ is a charming duet with British folk singer Becky Unthank, who comes in mid-way, and ‘Ballad of the Great Eastern’ has an old-fashioned charm, with its lilting Brit-folk interlude. ‘Practical Arrangement’ is wittily written song about a man wooing a woman on how they should end their respective solitude, and ‘What Have We Got’ is a peppy song with theatrical seaside shouts.

There are other beauties. With its moody guitars, ‘And Yet’ seems like it’s an extension of the earlier albums, with the lines, “This town has a strange magnetic pull, Like a homing signal in your skull, And you sail by the stars of the hemisphere, Wondering how in the hell did you end up here?”

‘Language of Birds’ has the outstanding words “And across that sea is an island, A paradise we are told, Where the toils of life are forgotten, And they call it the Island of Souls.” On this song, Sting also gets into nostalgic mode, with the lines, “It was him who was trapped in the soul cage, son.”

‘I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else’ is a lyrical masterpiece, with Sting singing “There are times when a man needs to brave his reflection, And face what he sees without fear, It takes a man to accept his mortality, Or be surprised by the presence of a tear.”

To be sure, this is the kind of album that’s likely to appeal more to the lyrical-minded than to those who focus on pure melody. Here too, it takes a while to get a hang of many songs, and it is advisable to keep a print-out of the lyrics handy. There are times when the compositions sound bland, only to be saved by the words.

Sting’s change in voice may spark some debate too. He’s sung in a pitch lower than what one is accustomed to hearing, and there are occasions when he’s gone in for a more countryside accent which sounds forced. His timbre is also showing the signs of strain that appear with age — he turned 62 on October 2.

These minor observations, however, don’t take away from the overall quality of the songs. As mentioned before, this is the kind of album that takes time to grow on you. But once it does, it simply seems like it’s the best thing Sting has done in years. Enjoy the ship ride.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

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