CD Review: MAHIMA
Bringing together two of the world's foremost slide guitar masters for Mahima didn't, in itself, guarantee brilliant results. As Kavi Alexander's adventurous Waterlily label has proven on more than one occasion, concept and realization -- when inviting virtuoso performers from different cultures for impromptu jams without much acclimation - don't always translate into a coherent and cohesive whole. But when things gel as they did with the fabulous L. Subramaniam/Larry Coryell From The Ashes and Ry Cooder/Vishwas Mohan Bhatt A Meeting by the River sessions, profoundly scented magic descends from the higher musical heavens.
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
Today's album appears on the UK Riverboat label that already gave us the stunning Spanish guitar/Arabian oud workout between Eduardo Niebla and Adel Salameh called Mediterraneo [TUG 1012]. Devotees of the above-mentioned releases should add this to their libraries if they haven't already done so. Ditto for Bhattacharya's solo album demurely called Guitar that appeared on the India Archive Music label . While today's album truly triangulates circle and square to transcend vernacular differences between Hawaiian/Blues slack guitar and Hindustani chatarangui and gandharvi styles for surprisingly firm common ground, Guitar is set into purely Indian soil to sound and play ragas like sitar or sarod.
The chatarangui used on Mahima employs 24 strings mounted atop an archtop guitar body. Six are primary strings; four supporting strings that add octave, major seventh, flat seventh and sixth intervals; twelve are sympathetic resonators; and two chikaris serve as high rhythmic drones. The Gandharvi is a 12-string slide guitar with octave and standard doublers but adds two chikaris. Brozman contributes two National Resophonic tricones for D and G tunings; a baritone tricone of his own design; two Bear Creek Weissenborns Hawaiians; a short-neck Kona and a 7-string baritone Hawaiian; two charangos and a miniature bouzouq. Debashish's younger brother Subhashis plays tabla and percussion, his sister Sutapa adds vocals and is joined singing by both her siblings on occasion.
For Californian Brozman, this is the fourth genre-crossing, cultural ambassador project. Two former ones saw him exchange musical ideas with Japanese sanshin/guitar player Takashi Hirayasu. His Dig Dig collaboration with Reunion guitarist René Lacaille was also captured. As the extensive liner notes tell, Brozman insists on complete cross-cultural immersion for his projects. This entails cooking and living together, sharing anecdotes and stories and establishing kin- and friendships to prepare the ground, not for short-notice stylistic confrontation -- in the hopes of somehow intermeshing -- but for eventual seamless dovetailing. This requires mutual respect and understanding of stylistic differences, such as arose here when Western-style harmonic progressions met Indian-style improv anchored by drones and archetypal scales.
Rather than concentrating on soloist fretwork explosions (Guitar for example is a far better showcase for Bhattacharya's out-of-this-world mastery), Mahima focuses on ensemble interplay and cultural overlap. Both players deliberately reach beyond their own neighborhoods toward a new turf in the middle. This abandons unnecessary complexity as well as the dreamy, free-floating mien of Indian alap, though the lyrical "Maa" is distinctly related to Raga Bhairav. Things instead go for a mostly far funkier vibe. Call it Bollywood meets back porch Blues. Or call it The Islands go Downtown. There are plenty of twangy blue notes, bouncy bhols, joyful vocalizing, heavy-metal Ashwin Bhatish "Sitar Power" riffs and percolating hand percussion grooves. Think how mandolinist Dave Grisman transcends Bluegrass by injecting Jazz and Grappelli idioms. Mahima operates on much the same level of keen artistic intelligence and ensemble refinement. Speaking of smarts, Brozman is adjunct music professor at the Macquarie University of Sydney/Australia.
"Digi Digi Dom Dom" initially disguises its 6-beat double-waltz beat behind 5/7 asymmetry and Indian-style vocal percussion while "Bana Mali" introduces an African flavor. "Jibaner Gan" is a Blues musette with a gritty octave-doubled main theme full of wailing 'tude that intersects with double- or triple-timed partial motifs, raunchy glissandi and Subhashis' perky percussion magic. As she does on the fetching "Bahu Dur Dur" opener, Sutapa's vocals add an exotic element to "Sujan Re" while the closing "Lullabai" intertwines both guitars in a lyrical down-tempo meditation on timbre and sliding embellishments.
With eleven tracks and a playtime just 6 minutes shy of the full hour, Mahima is not only generous in quantity but first and foremost a true heavyweight in the high-carat quality department. It takes its place alongside A Meeting by the River and From the Ashes as mandatory masterpiece possession for anyone under the heavy influence of stringed instruments played at the very peak of their expressive potential. Mahima becomes the kind of hybrid that makes you forget the innate twin nature of dissimilar elements. What arises instead is a third aspect. It contains traces of either but is a new breed of "neither syntax" altogether. Call it one of the truly happy Waterlily exploits - except on the Riverboat label. It's every bit as outré, wildly sophisticated, enchanted and musically accomplished as that other audiophile-gem outfit is famous for.
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