Monday, August 07, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 041: Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: A Meeting by the River

There’s a depth to modal music—and that depth can connect modal musics of wild diversity. Certainly the musical texture of a melody moving against a drone, with harmonic chords either absent or an afterthought, is a texture shared across very different music cultures, from South Asia to West Africa to the Near East to the South Seas. It connects ancient and modern music cultures: both medieval European chant and East Asian vocal genres share the drone-plus-melody texture. And, of course, the melody + drone texture, with its radical emphasis upon tension and resolution, upon the light-and-dark artistic possibilities of dissonance and consonance, of the expressive possibilities of all the micro-tones “between the notes” and the world of bends, slides, slurs, and glissandi that can connect them, connects to the most ancient instrument of all, the human voice.

Couple that with an instrument capable of reproducing all that microtonal expressive information (preeminently the voice, but also bowed strings, winds, and a competent blues guitar player or harpist), and you have both a wealth of diverse implicated idioms and, potentially, a shared technical language.

So it’s no wonder that two modal musicians specializing in playing plucked strings with a slide might find common ground. In the Hindustani tradition of the vichitravina, a sitar-like lute, sitting on gourd resonators with a lengthy wire-strung neck parallel to the ground, is played with fingerpicks called mizrab and “fretted” (really, “has its strings stopped”) with a small polished stone held in the left-hand. The instrument thus borrows from the grand-daddy Hindi plucked lute, the vina, which is often depicted as the favored instrument of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and speech, and the patronees of truth and forgiving. She is a river-goddess first. But the chitravina also borrows from the slippery intonation of the sarod, the short-necked lute with a polished metal fingerboard, which comes into Hindi music from Islam (Arabic: sir-‘ud, meaning “the grand oud”). The chitravina may have borne a Hindi music influence into Polynesia, and thus may be one of the unacknowledged ancestors of the Hawaiian slide guitar.

There’s a direct connection between Hawaii and the Mississippi Delta blues guitar as well. Though there are ancient and multiple traditions of bowed and plucked lutes in West Africa, the one perhaps most closely shaping slide guitar traditions is the musical bow, which comes into the New World as the Afro-Brazilian berimbau and the American South’s diddley-bow—both single-string instruments with pitch shifted by manipulation of a smooth stone.

Playing the guitar with a slide in the South seems to have been an innovation by African-American musicians who heard Hawaiian lap-slide players on 78s released as demonstrations by catalog companies selling Victrolas. W.C.Handy claimed to have heard slide players in the Delta in Oughts (around 1906), but certainly by the ‘30s, the Delta had seen at least three generations of great slide players—most significantly for the present essay, the great sanctified singer from Texas Blind Willie Johnson, whose instrumental Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground was preserved on a gold-plated LP (along with Bach and Beethoven) that went “out there” with the Voyager space shot.

Miracles and horrors can result when two worlds collide. Thankfully—in both music and global relations—when there is sympathy, humility, and most crucially a willingness to listen, to find ways to coexist in one another’s worlds of experience, the result is more often miraculous.

So with this CD, the record of the very first encounter between the Hindi chitravina player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (who plays a wonderfully personalized, modernized version of the instrument, adapted from an arch-top jazz guitar with added sympathetic and drone strings) and slide guitarist Ry Cooder, whose touchstones on the instrument have been Blind Willie and the great Robert Johnson. Cooder was drafted to recreate Robert’s style for Hollywood film Crossroads, which had the misfortune to feature Ralph Macchio and an abysmal screenplay but also some chillingly-evocative moments (the encounter with a modern-day “Mr Scratch” at the crossroads, driving a jet-black late-model Camaro; the climactic cutting contest between Macchio—who, appallingly, wins by playing Bach—and the Devil’s guitarist, Steve Vai), none more so than the opening few seconds, which recreate the mythological moment in a Dallas hotel room in 1936 when Robert Johnson laid down the original of Crossroads Blues for Ralph Peer.

Water Lily Acoustic’s audiophile engineer/owner put them together in a small Catholic mission in Northern California. They were introduced, had dinner, sat down with their usual accompanists (Ry’s son Joachim, Bhatt’s tabla-player Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari), and this record was the result. There were no second takes—no additional sessions. It captures a moment of holy listening, when sympathy, humility, and compassion come together in the hearts and hands of two master musicians and the world is saved by the sounds that result. They play Hawaiian tunes (Isa Lei), a very logical point of connection between Hindi and American stylists; original blues (Ganges Delta Blues), and two free-improvised pieces. It’s probably fair to say that, brilliant as Cooder is, on display here is mostly his impeccable musical taste: knowing when not to play, when to lay back and allow Bhatt to take the lead (a lesson Ry might have remembered a little better on the Buena Vista Social Club project, where he’s not quite so tactful). This takes guts: the courage to keep one’s paint out of the picture. At the same time, he’s ballsy when he needs to be: there’s an incredible moment in Longing, in the midst of a long (brilliant) solo by Bhatt, when, after 8 minutes on the tonic drone, Cooder shoulders his way into the sound-mix, playing an unmistakable and bluesy six-string glissando that takes the tonal center up to the IV chord—something that is never done in Indian music. I asked Cooder about that, and he laughed and said “You noticed that? Yeah, I thought, ‘Fuck it! I’m gonna take him to the four chord!’”: an amazingly confident and courageous improvisational decision.

The greatest playing is probably on the title track, which also opens the disc, and was the first tune they played together. At a certain level of development and in certain contexts, master musicians are no longer really playing instruments, no longer really thinking about music. They’re freer than that, able to use the decades of technique not only to escape physical limitations, but to escape the emotional, egotistical, and cultural blinders that trap us all inside our too-small individual worlds. A Meeting by the River captures that.

There’s a quote from my beloved Rumi on the liner notes, from the Mathnawi, about “letting the beauty we love be what we do.” No question that is the ethos here. But I think another Rumi parable captures this music even better (paraphrased here from the great Sufi Coleman Barks, a Georgia boy whose lifelong encounter with Rumi’s work has been one of the most extraordinary journeys in American poetry—equaled only by those of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg):

An ocean frog visited with a frog who lived in a small pond. The pond frog dove to the depths of his home—a distance of two feet—came back to the surface, and said “Look at the depth of my world.” He swam across the pond—a distance of five feet—came back to the shore, and said “Look at the breadth of my world.” Finally, having exhibited the full expanse of his pond, he said “Isn’t that amazing? What is it like where you live?”

The ocean frog replied, “I can’t describe it to you. But I’ll take you there someday.”

In A Meeting by the River, by listening and if only for a short while, we can go there too.

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