so i wanted to mention that up front to settle that conflict-of-interest (but really it's a confluence of influence) and have you grabbing that scorcher of a release too. besides the work in the shouts from the sea, phong's had a hearty hand in a few noisier/rock projects as well: halo valley and boat burning.
let's throw the experimental and abstract music aside for a few minutes, as phong is a maniac for indian classical, and the last few months i've listened to little else at work and at home and my stereo speakers/headphones constantly drone like a tanpura because of it. could be my tinnitus though. he's the first person i thought of that could really help shed some light on some of the questions and mysteries that were building for me as i was getting deeper and deeper into it. so i thought it would be great to dive into this music with him and have him guide us through some styles and legacies and open us all up to this incredible universe.
phong doesn't consider himself an expert, just a massive lover of this music. and we're covering hindustani as that is what he is more familiar with (as opposed to carnatic music), but i've learned a whole ton from talking with him about this. with tons yet to explore.
i asked phong, through email, a series of questions that wrapped around particular instruments, as i find the more i understand about the basics of each purpose/use the more i can get my head around the immensity of it all.
i hope you enjoy our conversation.
(this is a long one, and i'm all for long form interviews, so hang in there. i've left phong's responses as he sent them back to me in full/unedited and we've added some youtube clips of incredible performances, so let them soundtrack the reading if you can.)
rotational: so we'll start with the sitar and the obvious starting point is ravi shankar. and abdul halim jaffer khan (whom i've just heard)'s wiki mentions these two with the third, vilayat khan, as the sitar trinity. but i feel like leaving nikhil banerjee out of that equation is odd, and then learning a bit about the rivalry between shankar and khan adds to that having-to-define the masters, etc, which is silly since all of these players are friggin amazing. and i hate the "who do you like best?" way of comparative musicology, so i'll ask: any particular recording or specific raga that you've been drawn to more than others? or one's technique or voicings that speak to you more personally? and on top of that, any other sitar players that you really enjoy listening to? i feel like the sitar-tabla combination is so perfectly tonal.
pt: i agree with you, a sitar trinity in my book would be ravi shankar, vilayat khan and nikhil banerjee. it's a matter of stylistic/tonal preferences, and of studying from a certain gharana. this is a big deal in indian music. my sitar teacher, krishna bhatt, his guru was ravi shankar. for me, as a student living with my teacher etc., it meant a devotion to the gharana. and so it's always been maihar [the name of allauddin khan's home place and of the style lineage associated with his tradition]... nikhilda, his gurus were ali akbar khan and of course, baba allauddin khan... now speaking of the sitar, what is crucial in someone's tone is their jawari. this is the overtone buzz created by the curve of the sitar's bridge vibrating against the strings. each bridge made according to the player's taste. raviji's jawari is referred to as more open (more buzz), while vilayat khansaheb [khan + saheb, commonly used as an honorific, other examples of honorifics are ji and da]'s is more closed (less buzz, more classicist/purist). nikhilda's was between the two. he also was much less a performer than raviji and khansaheb. raviji came from a dance background via his brother, the great uday shankar. khansaheb's performances were legendary, he even broke out into ghazals, if the mood was right... nikhilda, though, he's the one for me. he was all about getting inside the raga, not necessarily performing for an audience. nikhilda's releases on raga records, each one is great: the intimate settings, the atmospheric recordings, the great tabla players on board with him, etc. i'll just mention one, the 1967 kpfa broadcast of chandrakauns and khamaj with mahapurush misra. sublime.
speaking of ragas, my favorites tend to be the ones associated with transitional cycles of the day/night: bhairav, marwa and malkauns, for example. their tonal moods resonate with me, from peaceful to haunting to foreboding to meditative. then there are the 'lighter' ones such as bhairavi and kirwani. they grab me in a different way... i was learning one raga (yaman, the one most start with) for a long time, really exploring it, before moving onto others.
two other sitar greats to definitely check out are mushtaq ali khan and manilal nag.
rotational: quick add to that, any particular instrumentation that you feel is a little bit under-represented that works well together when paired with the sitar?
pt: indeed, sitar/tabla is the ideal combo. when another solo instrument is added, it often drags into a crowd-pleasing cutting contest, to the detriment of the raga... of course, there are exceptions which transcend this: nikhil banerjee and ali akbar khan's sarod. vilayat khan and his brother imrat khan's surbahar, vilayat khan and bismillah khan's shehnai. these are classic jugalbandis. the tonal spectrum by these duos is so nicely balanced... also, it's telling that these pairings were all of family members, teachers/disciples or close friends. it works best in this context.
rotational: i recently picked up (meaning: downloaded) a sarod lp by sharan rani backliwal, whom studied under ali akbar khan and his father and ultimate-master allauddin khan. really amazing. she has the speed and the pacing down, and i feel like the sarod just speaks to me on such a basic level, like the overtones and notes are just where they're supposed to be. the sarod has so many incredible handlers, i know that you hipped me to the documentary by james beveridge from 1971 on amjad ali khan, another sarod specialist, where there is the most beautiful scene of him playing in front of that room at around the mark.
and it's just heart-breaking stuff. all of the universe realizing something in unison then forgetting it in bliss. do you think the power of the sarod comes from the materials and how it's played? the sliding and the plucking? the overtones? do you think it has extra-magical powers too? and give me a few of yr top performances - you've probably seen a bit of this in person as well, can you give a bit of yr feeling catching something live too?
pt: wah, the sarod. what an instrument... the gharanas of allauddin khan, hafiz ali khan and radhika mohan maitra. sarod lineages basically stem from these greats... from its design, the sarod has that resonance/overtone thing down, the goat skin/teak wood combo just perfect. and yeah, the slide aspect means you can get much deeper bends than on the sitar, for example. a mellow and huge tone... in regards to recordings, for starters, definitely track down the ali akbar khan ones from the 60s on connoisseur society (some later reissued by khansaheb's ammp), so excellently recorded and khansaheb in early prime... i'm lucky to have caught several of khansaheb's concerts while living in the bay area in the early 90s. transcendent stuff... i remember one particular experience of a concert at st. john's church in berkeley when i felt being levitated by his sarod together with swapan chaudhuri's flying carpet tabla... that melting that happens beyond time, out of and locked in. all the tonal colors that happen between the notes, the resonating drone strings so key to getting to that zone of being/listening/playing.
riffing on the beveridge film, there were three others he made: on pt. jasraj, bhimsen joshi and vijay raghav rao. all worth seeking out.
rotational: so there's the sarangi, which seems like a lesser used or lesser known instrument. i'm thinking about ram narayan, but i'm drawing a blank on some of the other greats. why is it less known? and what are some of the other bowed instruments?
pt: yeah, for most of us, ram narayan is basically the one sarangi soloist master. he has gotten the most exposure and deservedly so. but there are definitely other greats such as gopal mishra, sultan khan, sabri khan (who recently passed) and in earlier times, maybe the greatest of them all, bundu khan ... there's a really good sarangi portal, sangi rangi, that's a must check. there are deep write-ups on histories and players and playlists.
sadly, since the last century, the sarangi has gradually been displaced by the harmonium. there are social and musical reasons for this. there was this stigma of the sarangi being connected to tawaif culture which was strongly marginalized under british india... and obviously the sarangi (having up to 40 strings) is much more difficult to tune/maintain, and to master. the harmonium, having fixed notes and not the sarangi's sliding action, doesn't dig as deeply.... for many raga heads, the sarangi is still the instrument closest to the voice. apparently there are vocalists who choose harmonium accompaniment over sarangi as they don't want to compete with its voicing.
there are other bowed instruments such as dilruba and esraj, but performances and recordings are pretty rare.
rotational: i couldn't wait to ask you about bismillah khan and his absolutely otherworldly shehnai. what's the background on this instrument and how would a fellow like this fall into it/discover it? is this a family passed-down type traditional torch too like the other more popular instruments? are there shehnai schools? the first time i heard him, i was floored. i'm hearing moondog and modern classical tone/drone marching, i'm hearing minimalist bagpipes, i'm hearing so much life within it. and is it usually played in concert with other horns? that panning, stereo effect, the call and response type passaging, it's so amazing and seems completely magical. they couldn't have known it would have this much of a visceral effect, could they?
pt: bismillah khan, what a giant. there is no one else who comes close. his shehnai has this incredible joyous quality. and when the other shehnai players in the party/group join in, there's this huge multiple double-reed resonance... and yeah, this is a passed-down family thing. probably more so than for other instruments. it being played more in the social ritual context, rarely as a concert performance, other than by khansaheb. there are a few other shehnai players, but none on his level... i've had this recurring daydream of khansaheb's shehnai jamming with john coltrane's soprano. now imagine all those split tones layered on top of each other.
another reason why khansaheb is huge for me is because of benares, his home city. my first extended experience of india was being there. the intoxication was so intense i didn't want to leave. the life/death continuum overbearing sometimes but crazy uplifting too... i gotta mention a great documentary by goutam ghose, 'sange meel se mulaqat' (1989), of which i had the privilege of writing some words on for alexander keefe's sarkari shorts blog project. i guest-posted a few others too on alex's blog. it was a lot of fun to really dig in on those wonderful documentaries.
rotational: i know yr a huge fan of the dagar family sound, in the dhrupad tradition. can you fill me and us into what that history and style (hindustani classical vocal) was all about and what attracts you to it? when was the first time, if you can remember, hearing this particular genre? would it have been the vocal music that you heard first or something on the rudra veena? (i can't believe how amazing the rudra veena sounds: so rich and full and cutting.) ...speaking of the rudra veena, and this is a small tangent first, i feel like a lot of the indian classical music can be intimidating or over-whelming at first as it's tricky trying to put the differing styles and players in the right part of the library brain, but i feel like once you get a better understanding on some of the instruments and ensemble groupings it can help define or make the picture a little less foggy/cluttered. i say this because the rudra veena and a particular tape by bahauddin dagar specifically just floored me and magically helped open up my receptors that were very busy confusing everything. the rudra veena can be so slow and thick and lava-like in its outpouring. are you a fan of this instrument? are there any others that get this deep and inside?
pt: dhrupad is the deepest. it's a very old form, a kinda mother music. dhrupad is more introspective/meditative, much more deliberate in its approach to developing a raga. eventually it makes a more lasting impression... but of course, the durational thing can be off-putting/boring to some listeners... the alap in dhrupad can take up to an hour or longer before the pakhawaj kicks in... it takes a surrender, a devotion, an abandonment of the senses in the absorption of the raga to get inside it... there was one experience of catching dhrupad all night on maha shivaratri at benares, the ultimate place to experience it. benares being shiva's city. the festival ended at dawn. i remember just lingering on the ghats afterward. a total morning dew moment.
i was turned on to rudra veena first, and of course by z.m. dagar. whenever i listen to his veena, it's like being dissolved onto this other level of liquid melting tonal colors. yeah, the lava thing as you said, that's a perfect description... the other great rudra veena master to check out is asad ali khan... on the vocal side, obviously the dagar tradition is huge. so many greats through the centuries. there's a photo where there are 7 dagars sitting together with their tanpuras and z.m. with his veena. so awesome... among the dagars' students, the gundecha brothers are carrying on the torch. one of the musical highlights from 2014 for me was catching them again here in dc. so great, their voices dovetailing each other, this phasing effect with the drone so strong. i felt so transformed afterward... dhrupad for me, transcends time like no other form... one time i really zoned out listening to a z.m. tape at half speed. now try that. like huge whale song washing over you... and i gotta say hearing dhrupad blasting out on the hills on a huge sound system on a morning at voice of the valley noise rally vi was pretty amazing too.
on a related note, i gotta mention here lalmani misra who was a great master of the vichitra veena, which is played with a slide. his action on that instrument is unbelievable.
rotational: to go back and reference a question from earlier, there are many wonderful records and performances from women, the sarod mentioned above, as well as many vocalists (like the mississippi/change records lp by kesarbai kerkar) totally holding down their territory throughout the differing styles and traditions, why do you think that openness was so nurtured throughout the generations? is it simply a matter of expression always rising, and if a voice or talent is sharing and developing there is a system of support and structure to let that flower and to catch flight? even considering the devotional aspects and how that could be seen as a barrier or blockage (as history has shown us before)?
pt: unfortunately women were and still are under-represented, especially instrumentally-speaking. the reasons for this stem from societal biases and restrictions, etc. which somehow still exist.. but the more you dig, the more you'll find luminaries such as sharan rani who ruled on the sarod. and then there's the legendary annapurna devi's surbahar. sadly she was never officially recorded and became a recluse early on, only rarely taking on students. there's a live recording from 1953 plus another with ravi shankar. amazing gems but that's about all you will find of hers.
among vocalists, kesarbai was huge, i always get blissed out listening to her. her voice has this amazing haunting quality... there's mogubai kurdikar and her daughter kishori amonkar. and of course, the mighty gangubai hangal, just wondrous... begum akhtar is huge for me too. i'm flashing back to the year i spent in pakistan 1993-4 studying urdu. one of my assignments was transcribing and translating the ghazals she sang. so heart-rending. this was another gateway: into the urdu/persian poetic tradition and then abida parveen and others.
rotational: i have this record of mahapurush misra - the transcendental tal, where he showcases his incredible and explosive tabla chops, and the great maestro ali akbar khan is the accompanied background drone - much like how the tanpura or even the tablas are usually represented, and it's obviously a huge push to show how the tablas can be the main instrument too (and amazing for khan to lay back and add that bed so effortlessly), but is there any other records that you know about where one of the more 'background' instruments gets its glory like this? and do you have a particular tabla go-to? and have you ever played them?
pt: yeah the great mahapurush / khansaheb combo, so potent. i know some other recordings of theirs but haven't heard that one. the whole tabla thing is amazingly deep with its own lineages... start with ahmed jan thirakwa, chatur lal, kishan maharaja, allah rakha, zakir hussain and you'll be flying high for a long time... i gotta mention a personal favorite, swapan chaudhuri, as i caught his mastery several times with ali akbar khan... it's almost obligatory to learn tabla within this tradition, rhythm being a primal ingredient. i took a few lessons. but realized soon that i could absorb only so much of the music, and so focused on sitar.
rotational: three parter:
i know that yr a massive la monte young fan, and he was the direct disciple of pandit pran nath, carrying his legacy and heart, what made that situation so unique? are there other similar stories of western musicians embracing a mentor in this way? what was it about nath's music that changed him forever? we talked a bit about vocal music with the dagar family, but how would you characterize nath's vocal delivery and technique against other styles or traditions? would they be singing about/living specific rituals in differing ways?
do you think being a fan of experimental drone and minimal and modern classical that hits at the longer, more drawn out nature, is a bit of a gateway into indian classical music? is being a fan of young and the minimalists come first for the most part? they were clearly inspired by the music of india (and around the world for sure), which composers or artists or players most remind you of the beauty and progressions found within a raga, intended or not?
and to tie it all up, nath (and young, famously with the well-tuned piano) were deep, deep into longest form drone and raga performance. and we know that other ragas are regularly hours-long, morning/afternoon/evening/
pt: la monte, don cherry, charlemagne palestine, jon hassell, henry flynt, c.c. hennix, yoshi wada... these are some of the heavies who gathered around pran nath. that is some deep list... i think what attracted them was that otherworldly thing, starting with the drone, and the slow building up of the raga for hours on end. the emphasis on tone, and toning. the kirana tradition really developed extreme slowness into vocal music, which is close to dhrupad in feeling. pran nath's teacher abdul wahid khan especially was the source of this deliberateness. his influence resonated in amir khan, maybe my favorite vocalist... and yeah, there's definitely a ritual element to it too. it's about that transcendence of time/temporality. whatever it takes to get there. which could be a meditation practice, taking certain drugs, practicing for hours, etc. it could mean being a hermit and living in a cave, being totally devoted to the music, as pran nath did for years. on that deep level, this music is not about entertainment, it's a spirit thing.
for me, a huge gateway into ragas was coltrane's music and the fire/spiritual jazz music of the 60s/70s. the modal into the ecstatic durational aspect. different moves/techniques, but the same shared goals. i've experienced similar states deep into a trane or albert ayler piece as i have into ragas. also with certain guitarists such as sonny sharrock, john mclaughlin, and pete cosey, that acid groove running in parallel... and then there's the american primitive guitar school starting with john fahey and robbie basho down the line onto jack rose and so many others. it's obvious their stylistic and tonal affinities with raga. all those open tunings with the drone so dominant.
rotational: i wanted to mention some of the western instruments that have been either adapted or played straight up that are found within the archives, and continue to this day. my brother-in-law plays a modded guitar/sitar combo called a mohan veena lap slide guitar i think, i think that's what he has (but he started on a weissenborn that i've played and i'm trying to get him to sell it to me now that he's upgraded but he's no-dice), but he has a teacher and they do this performance/recital/showcase once a year to show how far the students have come and to show their chops, and this is totally a tangent, but the teacher doesn't perform. i was blown away by that. that's probably the main reason why i'd want to check it all out, you know, to see the master rip it a bit. but some start on guitar is my long point. so... there's slide guitar (debashish bhattacharya) and violin (vg jog), and ravi padmanabha plays the bulbul tarang (a sort of cross between keyboards/autoharp/banjo maybe) can you name some others or expound on some of the cooler qualities of the mixing of these elements? any combinations that stand out to you? any records or artists we should check out?
pt: for guitar, brij bhushan kabra was the first to open it up for ragas. a great musician and innovator. his trio album call of the valley with heavies shiv kumar sharma and hariprasad chaurasia is a perennial classic. thereafter, vishwa mohan bhatt opened up the guitar even more. and debashishda, as you mention... and i love mick flower's jams on the shahi baaja, for example... when i was really deep into studying sitar, i appreciated but kinda sidestepped western or mixed instruments for ragas. i was kind of a purist in terms of instrumentation: the older and more ascetic/esoteric the better and so forth... i've come around to appreciating any and all instruments that takes one to that zone. it does not matter as long as you get there.
rotational: phong, thanks. thank you so much for me letting me get inside that fantastic brain of yrs, and thanks for opening up about this wonderful music and helping give it all context and the proper ceremony. take care man!
pt: thanks right back at you for this opportunity! nice to remind myself of how much this music means to me. hoping it helps you and others to dig more. cheers!