Planet Soup

(Ellipsis Arts)

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook

Night Song

(Real World)

U. Srinivas & Michael Brook


(Real World)

By Peter Margasak

Just as English has become the world’s universal language and the dollar its standard currency, so too has American popular music become the primary stylistic model, threatening to further melt cultural diversity into a pan-ethnic blob, albeit with a distinctly Yankee accent. From the advent of mass communications, once-insular cultures have been bleeding into one another. But this potentially fruitful journey can’t help but make stops in the U.S., the economic center of the communications biz, in the process picking up some old-fashioned imperialistic infections.

Pop music hungrily absorbs all sorts of outside influences, whether it’s the withered sitar strains novelly wafting through some Beatles songs, the Afro-Cuban rhythms throbbing beneath Carlos Santana’s guitar ululations, or the African and South American mixtures on the recent world-tours-on-record by Paul Simon and David Byrne. Of course, in these cases the ethnic content has rarely served much more than an ornamental or spicelike function; beneath all those funny instruments was your basic meat ‘n’ potatoes pop and rock. The 80s witnessed the proliferation of “world beat,” the rubric under which non-Anglo musicians added unseemly globs of Western pop to their own indigenous styles. Prior to the appearance of recorded music there was lots of musical cross-pollination thanks to colonization around the world, but the modern marketplace undoubtedly spurred the growth of world beat. African music, most prominently, has retained a modicum of its unbridled, rhythmically fierce exoticism, but more importantly it has been tempered by antiseptic production techniques and the inclusion of countless Western pop ballads.

Living in a country with a hybrid culture, we have no right to condemn the curiosity of foreign musicians dabbling in nonindigenous styles; after all, jazz, country, blues, and rock are all built upon non-American sources. Thankfully a growing number of new releases take a more thoughtful, creatively vital approach, trying their best to avoid outright appropriation. Rather than cashing in on watered-down ethnicity, these musicians are bypassing American models, as a significant chunk of the music on Planet Soup, a three-CD set of so-called “cross-cultural collaborations,” proves. On the other hand, two recent recordings by Canadian guitarist Michael Brook with the Indian classical mandolinist U. Srinivas and legendary Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan demonstrate a careful attempt to assimilate sounds of the Indian subcontinent into an amorphous ambient setting.

Though wildly inconsistent, Planet Soup casts a broad net at dozens of styles from around the world that either operate outside of a traditional context or ignore the issue of purity altogether. Entries from such artists as Tajikistan singer Oleg Fesov, Scottish folk-rockers Wolf-stone, Cuban Santeria great Lazaro Ros, and Mongolian throat singer Bolot Bairyshev represent the old model: tradition subverted by Western pop values. Worse, groups like Germany’s Dissidenten and Estonian emigres the Urb Brothers rely almost exclusively on uninspired sounds borrowed from other cultures, containing virtually no palpable indigenous element, with the possible exception of language. The artists who retain a strong native identity, despite numerous globe-trotting accents, deliver the most interesting music, even if it’s sometimes unsuccessful. Yaghoub Zoroofchi is a terrific singer from Azerbaijan, a region that’s situated between a number of divergent cultures, specifically eastern Europe and the Middle East. Elements of both surface in the traditional tune “Salam Gater Misham.” Propulsive hand drums and jaunty strings frame Zoroofchi’s extroverted, Middle Eastern vocals. A track by the late Argentinean bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla offers a sparkling slice of his revisionist tango music, which he dubbed, simply enough, “new tango.”

The most satisfying tunes in the set manage either to illustrate musical similarities between different cultures or to prove that disparate musics have the ability to combine harmoniously. “Absencia-La Jove Negra” by Al Tall & Muluk El Hwa seamlessly blends the fiery acoustic guitar of Spain’s flamenco tradition with the hypnotic grooves of Morocco’s Gnawa musicians. The exhilarating salsa of “Doley Mbolo” by Africando is performed by both African and Latin American musicians. Of course, rhythms that serve as the backbone of meringue, salsa, and mambo are all derived from Africa, while contemporary African soukous borrows Cuban rhythms, and this tune brings the two worlds together. Senegalese singer Nicholas Menheim delivers an impassioned vocal, and the irresistible rhythmic foundation proves the compatibility of music separated by an ocean but bonded by years of miscegenation. Unfortunately a sizable chunk of Planet Soup is comprised of Anglo-based fusions that suffer from too-clever eclecticism. Much of the music exploits novel combinations for their own sake: the banal acoustic blues of Paul Pena is incongruously accented by the Tuvan throat singing of Kongar-ol Ondar, while guitarist Chuck Jonkey proffers a sterile Indian-Peruvian synth-pop fusion. For all its shortcomings, however, the compilation does present a panoply of promising fusion activity.

Over the years guitarists Ry Cooder and Henry Kaiser have each been involved in a number of interesting, well-conceived projects with foreign musicians. Cooder has delivered striking fusions with Hawaiian guitarist Gabby Pahinui and Indian guitarist V.M. Bhatt. Kaiser, with his frequent sidekick David Lindley, has recorded extensively with musicians from Madagascar. On his own Canadian guitarist Michael Brook creates fairly snoozy ambient music that veers dangerously close to New Age, but he’s increasingly been involved with producing pan-ethnic fusion records. His conceptual ambitions resemble those of Cooder and Kaiser. But whereas Cooder and Kaiser meticulously arrange their projects to retain the essential styles of the musicians they collaborate with, Brook has had the troubling urge to situate his subjects within musical settings that have no real identity. Two of his recent projects have achieved disparate results.

Brook recorded Mustt Mustt, a 1990 album by the phenomenal qawwali singer from Pakistan Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A type of Sufi devotional music, qawwali is a powerfully hypnotic, trance-inducing style with similarities to light Indian classical music. As it slowly builds in intensity, the music transforms itself from a calm pulse into joyous, nearly ecstatic shouts. Pieces typically run about 15 minutes, but in traditional concerts they can last much longer. The lead vocalist is usually joined by a tabla player, several harmonium players, and a small chorus who deliver fervent vocal responses and rhythmic hand claps. On Mustt Mustt Brook pared down the traditional instrumentation and added guitars and synthesizers, but structurally the music was similar to traditional qawwali, though the songs were much shorter. The album included a remixed version of the title track by proto-trip-hoppers Massive Attack. Due to the astonishing liquidity of his singing, Ali Khan’s work has proven well suited for dance music, and numerous DJs have subsequently remixed his work.

On Night Song virtually all traces of traditional backing have been replaced with a layer of sumptuous, throbbing ambient sound, which melds a wide variety of ethnic elements into an opaque whole. Cello, African percussion, string arrangements, and even reed instruments mix with guitars and electronics to produce a slick but ultimately indistinct foundation. Ali Khan’s remarkable singing utilizes familiar melodic contours, but his work with Brook comes closer to truncated vignettes than the slowly evolving, complete dramas he metes out in the traditional setting. With transcendent celerity Ali Khan nails the pop hook in the sweeping “Intoxicated,” and his mind-bogglingly percussive, scatlike improvisations in the second half of the tune vividly demonstrate his boundless intuition and resourceful invention. Brook’s musical settings are in a sense open-ended–more groove than melody–and Ali Khan isn’t hemmed in by restrictive pop-song structures; but Brook doesn’t provide the crucial elasticity offered by a traditional qawwali ensemble, which shadows the muse of the singer by altering dynamics and shifting intensity. But Ali Khan is possessed with such magnetism and flexibility that his singing alone can transcend any encounter, even on his most blatant pop crossover, the recent Cooder-arbitrated meeting with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the Dead Man Walking sound track. Night Song is a refreshing pop record, serving up bite-size offerings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but ultimately it’s a mediocre ambient album with a brilliant singer. For all of its abundant charm, it pales beside the maestro’s monumental traditional recordings, such as 1994’s gorgeous The Last Prophet.

U. Srinivas was a child prodigy of Carnatic classical music, the style of southern India, but he was a virtuoso on an instrument with no connections to Indian classical music: the mandolin. He quickly became a local star, his sensuous improvisations marked by an astonishingly warm fluidity he coaxed from the instrument. In 1994 Brook produced Rama Sreerama, a breathtaking traditional recording that brilliantly showcased Srinivas’s astounding technique and introduced to Western audiences an original conception of an ancient tradition. Srinivas easily communicates a depth of feeling and beauty outside the constraints of traditional Indian music. Srinivas seems poised to achieve a position in Indian classical music that’s similar to Ali Khan’s towering stature in qawwali.

Brook and Srinivas recorded Dream immediately after Rama Sreerama. Whereas Night Song provides an uncluttered foundation for Ali Khan to extrapolate over, Dream fails to give Srinivas the same freedom. With a shifting cast of musicians, including Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, classical violin star Nigel Kennedy, quirky pop singer Jane Siberry, and cellist Caroline Lavelle, the record aims for the same ambient territory as Night Song, though with a bit more structure. Unfortunately Srinivas seems like just another cast member. When his beautifully snaking lines emerge from the bass-heavy groove, as on “Dance,” they evoke the same cross-cultural thrill as the best moments on Night Song. But all too often the thrilling organic qualities that mark Srinivas’s traditional work are smothered by the dense layers of sound Brook constructs. Lost in the mix much of the time, Srinivas’s exquisite improvisations bubble over the pretty fluff. Brook’s record with Ali Khan is salvaged by the fact that the vocals dominate; Srinivas is denied the same situation. It’s not a bad record, but it’s hardly an optimal setting for the mandolinist, and as an ambient record it drags without much direction. As with Ali Khan, stick with the traditional stuff. If you’re interested in experiments, Trio Mandolin (Sangeetha/Koel) is a classical recording with Srinivas overdubbing three mandolin parts.

While most of these cross-cultural collaborations have produced uneven recordings, definite improvements can be heard. For all of Brook’s missteps, both records have their moments, though the pop model still reigns. Unmentioned, of course, is that these musicians wouldn’t mind reaping the rewards of success in the American marketplace. But despite our immigrant roots, most Americans have no interest in ethnic music, unless it’s the music of our own ethnic group; yet the drive to assimilate destroys even these tendencies quickly. Aside from flashes here and there–Ofra Haza and King Sunny Ade, for example–nobody from outside Europe and America has really struck gold in the U.S. Some musicians will never relent, however, finding something more valuable in the process than the lure of commerce. Ali Khan may sing with Eddie Vedder and revel in the praise of Jeff Buckley, but he still delivers the goods.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Vartoogian.