Atchafalaya Swamp

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Orgasm in the Realm of The Religious

A week ago I thought I had died and gone to heaven in the Merdeka Hall of the Putra World Trade Center. I was in sheer ecstasy (minus the pills, thank God) -experiencing the foremost exponents of the Electric Guitar, Tabla, Ganjira, Mandolin and the Human Voice perform that night.

Watching the frenzied orgy on stage by the five Kurta-clad maestros was something truly bordering on the orgasmic.

Some of the latecomers even faced my wrath for disrupting my state of total rapture - where I gave them a whispered tongue lashing (lest I disrupt my "trance" even more). Those idiots who hadn't set their mobile phones to Silent Mode were not spared either.

Damn, it was that good, and my ears are still ringing from the sonic sensuality a week later.

Now I know why people turn to Sufism.

How, do you ask, can five guys in Kurtas (one Caucasian, four Indians) come on stage, only to sit cross-legged - and enthrall a standing-room-only audience?

Easy. If you we're to realize that the five guys on stage are geniuses - and that their talent must be God Given. To paraphrase The Star's reviewer, 'musicians armed with such heavenly music'.

And heavenly they were, as no way can music such as this spew forth from mere mortals.

Way back in the Seventies, and as hormonally-imbalanced Form Three schoolboy with eclectic tastes in music, Liverpool Press books and La Scala, I was already listening to John McLaughlin.
It was an uncle's LP actually, and I think it was called "The Inner Mounting Flame". McLaughlin was the prime catalyst for several of Miles Davis' early forays into marrying jazz and rock, the most notable being "Bitches Brew". The original '72 Shakti line-up had Billy Cobham on drums, Jerry Goodman on Violins, Rick Laird on Bass and Jan Hammer on Keyboards. Violin maestro L. Shankar also toured and recorded with the group at some point .
In 1973, McLaughlin and his close friend Carlos Santana (with Santana taking the first name Devadip, while John took on Mahavishnu) were united by their spiritual guru Sri Chimnoy. This culminated in a critically-acclaimed duet album called "Love, Devotion, Surrender", possibly Santana's ONLY spiritual album to date.

And Ustaz Zakir Hussain? And what about this living genius?
The son of the legendary Ustaz Alla Rakha (Ravi Shankar's super sideman), Zakir moved to the States in 1970 to move in circles considered the super-galaxy of musicians, and by '92 had already bagged a Grammy for Best World Music category (together with Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart). In between engagements with Shakti, he also tours with brothers Fazal and Taufiq Quereshi.

Zakir is 56. But from what pictures I saw on album sleeves from the Seventies - damn - he still looked the same; the same fervor, the same boyish enthusiasm. Coming from the great Sufi traditions of Ustaz Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan he surely must've discovered the Fountain of Youth - on stage he still looked liked an over-eager schoolboy! And the tones - the tones - that he coaxed out of the tabla made you believe the tabla could be played like a guitar or piano.

U Shrivanas, the most youthful member of the troupe is probably the best mandolin player in the world (the mandolin looks like a guitar except it's a lot smaller - used a lot in Country and Western music) . My God, his telepathic interplay with ace slinger McLaughlin was a sight to behold. The incredible jazz runs, fingers flying across the frets in a cascade of orgiastic tones showcased the perfect menage-a-trois between Carnatic (South Indian), Hindustani and Western jazz!

I think I've run out of superlatives, because how could a bloody earthenware pot (ganjira) be coaxed to create those supreme sounds by the miracle percussive hands of Selvaganesh (ganjira, ghatam, mridangam) I don't bloody know.
Shanker Mahadevan's four-or-five octave voice will
quite possibly haunt me forever.

The audience, mostly musicians themselves, were all in awe, big time. Some had mouths hanging open through-out the performance. I suspect all live acts in clubs or bars around KL were closed that evening because anybody who's anybody in the local music fraternity had turned out in full force.
During the intermission, I rushed to the men's room to light up with drummer Zahid (Sheila Majid, Michael Veerapan) and drummer Tom (Headwind), where I also had the good fortune of bumping into local guitar supremo Josie Thomas. Boldly taking our smokes out of the toilet and into UMNO's No Smoking foyer, I suggested to Josie that he get the latest "Trisum" CD, a new release by Dewa Budjana (of "Gigi" - considered Indonesia's best rock guitarist), Tohpati and Balawan - Indonesian guitar legends in the veins of 3G.
Now this is uncanny and certainly begs belief - but when I read the Star's review on the concert a few days ago, the reviewer mentioned that Dewa B too was in the audience!
Holey - Schmoley!

Incidentally Dewa Budjana had just released a solo album in the States called "Home". Peter Erskine, who had "discovered" Budjana, basically twisted Sony BMG's arms to bring Budjana to the States. The sophomore effort features Erskine, Dave Carpenter and Reggie Hamilton. It was actually their second collaboration after the success of 02's "Samsara" .
Peter Erskine is of course a former member of Weather Report with stellar giants Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Zawinul. Erskine's polyrhythmic playing can also be heard on albums by Diana Kraal, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Lee Ritenour, to name a few. In 2005 Erskine took the Grammy for Best Jazz Album, together with Randy and Michael Brecker for his performance in "Some Skunk Funk".
Now if Pete E thinks that Bali native Budjana is worth recording with - then that's saying a lot.

Anyway, I kicked myself for not paying attention. I'm sure Dewa B was in the men's room with me at the Merdeka Hall that night but like I said, nobody was paying attention. Except, of course, for the Star's Nantha Kumar who spotted him amongst the audience.

Needless to say, we walked out of the hall feeling we had just had a profound religious experience.

A spiritiual orgasm of the highest order?
Without a doubt, yes.
Please also go to fellow blogger's Rajaram for his excellent take at http://rajahram.blogspot.com/2007/06/19-shakti-india-beat-3.html

(Photo Credits: Copyright © Malaysian Tenpin Bowling Congress, 2007)