San Ramon, a backwater city in the Bay area on a lazy June afternoon. In a solidly middle-class hotel, a thoroughly diasporic long-haired Indian and his old Bengali friend are catching up over music. Now, the long-haired one leans over to his laptop and says, listen to this. We are introduced to a rather predictable electronic atmospheric groove, textured by a vaguely Indian string instrument. Utterly mundane. Suddenly the friend sits up with a start, because a singer has broken into chaste Bengali verse: “As you wake in the morning, utter her name: Kali, Kali”.
I speak here of the second of Paban Das Baul’s collaborations with electronic musicians. In Tana Tani, Paban Das works with Calcutta-based Sam Zamam, better known in British Asian breakbeat circles as “State of Bengal” (listen to him in “Flight IC 408″ from Talvin Singh’s iconic Asian Underground album, Anokha). Asian underground musicians are known for their enthusiasm for taking perfectly good folk/classical music from various parts of Asia, and augmenting it with booming bass lines and fractal breakbeats, sometimes producing the musical equivalent of 50 rowdy conversations at once. Bauls are known for being drunk and opiate.
To understand precisely how strange this marriage is, it is useful to take a closer look at the Bauls, a community of ascetic minstrels from Bengal. From the liner notes of the album:
The Bauls are Bengal’s mystical wandering minstrels, keepers of a carnivalesque rave culture that is more than five centuries old. An anarchic sect of nomads, outcastes and ascetics, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings which have been passed down for generations. They are regarded by many as being mentally unhinged by their asceticism – in Bengali the word Baul means ‘mad’ or ‘possessed’; in the villages of West Bengal they are described as ‘holy fools’; in Calcutta they are described as ‘God’s troubadours’. They refer to each other as ‘khepa’, meaning ‘furious’. Carrying hand drums and simple stringed instruments, they travel Bengal ‘s farms and villages, temples and shrines, bus-stops and wells, performing songs of love, desire and mysticism, carrying nothing but a patchwork quilt. They literally sing for their supper most nights.
To properly experience the Baul world, one has to enter a liminal zone: the Durga Puja celebrations, held in late September/early October in East India, and wherever there is a sufficient congregation of Bengalis. Durga Puja is a 4 day long affair, with pandals (tent-shrines) sprouting up all over, and a frenzy of idol-making and feasting. In the evenings, the Bauls take the stage, to sing songs of praise to the Goddess. “Stage” is somewhat of a euphemism here – Baul performances are very intimate, with very little separation between the performers and the audience. As with all communal music, this one starts slow and easy, but by and by the hypnotic drumming and the heat of the evening have completely enveloped everyone. You have surrendered to the intoxication of the Bauls.
And so Tana Tani. Music like this cuts deep. It brings back, with deft suddenness, utterly ordinary childhood experiences in a completely alien form. An underground sound.
Baul music is shorn of everything non-essential. At heart it is situated in two things only: people, of whom certain simple things are sufficient to know, and everything else, which is unknown. There is plenty of empty space in Baul music.
State of Bengal respects this: Tana Tani is a subtly crafted album. The beats retreat before the tinny chimes of Indian cymbals and Paban Das Baul’s gently winding ektara, the bass-lines echo and introduce his voice, and synthesised instruments reinforce the melody where necessary. This is well-dressed Baul work, and it is clear that the modernisation suits its rustic soul just fine. I am hard pressed to find similar examples of such sublimation, excepting perhaps the meeting of two blues cultures in Talking Timbuktu.
But enough of the prattle and let us have some of that pure sound of surrender
Moner Manush, from the album Tana Tani
Paban Das Baul/State of Bengal
~ posted by arvind