Music, Today I Learned

Sakhi Maro/Tu Mera Dil

I listen to a lot of music. This is known.

A byproduct of that is that for long periods of time, certain artistes take on more, or very little, prominence in my playlists, a function of recent release schedules, my soundscape mood (there are times when nu-retro reigns supreme on my headphones, for example, or ambient anime piano), and pure serendipity.

The third factor, that of serendipity is what leads to goosebumps, when a song that I haven’t heard in a long while suddenly emerges front and center. Today was one such day, when a tune from Susheela Raman’s Love Trap, an album that defined 2004-05 for me, materialized in my head, and of course, I had to play the album from beginning to end. I was going about my morning with a smile and a skip, as song after song came on, releasing dopamine hits and unlocking half-buried aural memories. Suddenly, it was ‘Sakhi Maro’ on the speakers. If you know the song, you know it melts you like butter on a warm slice of bread. But today, out of all the times I have heard ‘Sakhi Maro’, I realized that the opening bars of the song reminded me of something else. Another song.

But what did it remind me of? I paused the song for a bit and thought about what exactly brought about that stray memory? It was definitely not Susheela’s voice or the tune itself. When I played it again from the beginning, it hit me. The gentle, melodic strumming that is the bedrock of the track reminded me of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track from one of his collaborations with Michael Brook. There being two of those albums – Musst Musst and Night Song. A bit of quiet contemplation brought me to the exact track. It was the opening track to Night Song, called ‘My Heart, My Life’, with the exact same strumming that was part-guitar, part-harp.

Now I had always thought most sounds on the Brook albums were the Infinite Guitar, the musician’s own modification of the electric guitar. As it turned out, the sound on both the songs was a West African instrument called the Kora. It has 21 strings and has features of a lute and a harp. And once you hear a kora and realize how versatile it is, it’s hard to ever miss it. Tom Diakite plays the instrument on ‘Sakhi Maro’, Kaouding Cissoko from Senegal plays it on ‘My Heart, My Life’. On both the tracks, these guys steal the bulk of the thunder.

Here’s a minute long video that shows how the same instrument produces different kinds of sounds, demoed by musician Toumane Diabate.

And here’s an hour-long concert that’s a cello-kora duet featuring Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal.

On an aside, the MTV Unplugged version of ‘Sakhi Maro’ has Sam Mills playing the guitar on the track, which added to my confusion. The track also features renowned percussionist and singer Kutle Khan on vocals and the khartal, making it arguably better than Susheela’s original interpretation.

I cannot but be awed by the things that I still do not know, and by the secrets these familiar friends from decades ago still manage to unravel.

(Also, this is the second time in a year that I have gone back to Susheela Raman on the blog. That must count for something!)

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Albums, Music

Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan

This is a good time to mention that Susheela Raman has a new album that came out last year, called Ghost Gamelan.

In case you didn’t know, Gamelan is a form of traditional music from Indonesia, primarily the islands of Bali and Java. The music is percussive, and its origins lie in Javanese mythology, from the story of a king who summoned the gods by playing on three gongs. So while gamelan incorporates a variety of musical instruments, the majority of the world identifies it via the distinctive sound of the metallic and bamboo gongs, xylophones, and cymbals that are used in the ensemble.

The first time I heard the sound of gamelan was, even though I did not know it then, the soundtrack of Akira. The layered, propulsive beats that underscored the violent motorcycle chase sequence in the opening moments of the film was all bamboo and metal gongs. The sound captures the frantic energy onscreen with perfection, and still manages to pump me up every time the beats kick in. For a movie that released in 1988, the music does not sound the least bit dated. (Contrast this to another sci-fi anime epic that released in the same time period -– I adore Joe Hisaishi, but the Nausicaa OST screams its time-period from the first synth-note)

Raman’s album, in contrast to Akira, fluctuates between percussion-heavy pieces (‘Tanpa Nama’) and slow, meditative pieces (‘Beautiful Moon’, ‘Spoons’) that accentuate the moodiness the musical form is capable of. Sometimes, her lyrics and the main melody dance around the traditional music elegantly, yin and yang (‘Ghost Child’); in others, voice and gong echo in unison. ‘Annabel’ is probably the only track that is old-school Susheela, and is a wonder unto itself. Oh, and the last song ‘Rose’ features lyrics by William Blake. While I don’t like quoting promotional material from album releases, the official text describes the music far better than I can:


Javanese music evokes  the invisible; ancestral presences, old religions, volcanic rumblings, and court intrigues. A sensuality of appearances, decorum, ritual and procession runs to trance and possession. Meanwhile, Raman’s songs here are meditations on change, transformation and mortality. Lyrics reflect on uncertainties cast by memory, desire and the ephemeral.  In this album, tonality and rhythm are questioned and de-centred, just as much as they are asserted. Some records achieve a fixed quality but this record is very ‘alive’, or volatile, both in the performances but also in the way it shifts as you hear it. The vitality of the interactions, of the musical cultures misbehaving with each other, result in a sound more ‘unearthly’ than ‘world’.

https://bit.ly/2PpKqxa

A major part of the album depends on the skills of Raman’s collaborator, Javanese musician Godrang Gunarto and his ensemble. You can see them live here (apparently, they have been touring together since 2017) , wait for 3:42.

One of my favorite experiences with gamelan was a Hammer museum exhibit called The Gamelatron, from two years ago. This was an open-air installation featuring a five-piece kinetic sculpture that used robotics, metal gongs, and timers to play gamelan-inspired music. Viewers were encouraged to lounge around in seating areas and soak in the harmonies that played throughout the day. It was a blissful hour, and I remember coming out of the exhibit feeling rejuvenated.

I loved revisiting the music of Susheela Raman. It’s been 13-odd years since I heard Love Trap for the first time (and forged a life-long friendship in part because of a mutual love for her album). I hadn’t listened to her in years; a Whatsapp message earlier this year brought her again into my periphery, and this apparently is what I missed since 2011:

  • a 2011 album called Vel, which I never listened to
  • a cover of a Naushad song called ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahaani’ for a 2013 movie called Kajarya (which strays into familiar territory as ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Love Trap)
  • a strange 2014 album called Queen Between, which features Raman collaborating with neither available on Spotify in the US, nor via any online music stores. Amazon has a (used) CD for sale, so it looks like this was never released in the US. So here we are, in 2019, unable to listen to an album with a few keystrokes and minimal latency. What is this world coming to?

At this point, our intrepid music explorer remembers this little-known site called Youtube, and he blushes at his tirade against digital tyranny. “I recant”, he exclaims, as his senses are filled with chocolate and chiffon, marshmallow and clouds. Behold, unbelievers, the joys of ‘Sharabi’, by Susheela Raman and Rizwan Muazzam.

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