This week my mind has been on instrumentalists. First we learnt that Manohari Singh, a helmsman of R.D. Burman's techni-colour dreamboat, passed away on July 13 at the age of 79. Singh, whose saxophone lit up songs such as 'Roop tera mastana' and 'Mehbooba mehbooba', could play the alto and soprano versions of the instrument with a mesmerising ease that's rare in our part of the world.
Then, a couple of albums leapt up in neon pink from a shop shelf. Both promised a fusion of Hindustani melodies and western arrangements. Now, ever since Ravi Shankar met Yehudi Menuhin, most fusion experiments — barring exceptions like Fazal Qureshi's Indo-Swedish jazz band, Mynta — have tended to end in confusion. But I, a non-purist (read: a sucker for fresh sounds), picked up the albums in the hope that Bickram Ghosh and Kamal Sabri, masters of the tabla and the sarangi, would dream up tracks that are more than the sum of their clangorous parts.
Well, I was wrong.
Some of the parts, though, stand out on their own. On the first track of Ghosh's Electro Classical, 'The awakening', Rajesh Vaidhya shows some nifty fingerwork on the electric veena.
On the third track, described as "the story of an imaginary courtesan and her love", S. Sekhar's mridangam sticks to Subhayu Sen-Majumdar's esraj, and together they make love to the vocals like car bumpers in a tight traffic jam. But the whole caravan "revisiting a Mughal court"? Let me off, please.
Jesse Bannister's saxophone vibrato on the fourth track, 'Dancing on the moon', is not nearly as evocative as Manohari Singh's or Kadri Gopalnath's. And Ghosh's 'Bol scat' on the song, lipping the title, sounds like a hypnotist speed-whispering to a hapless prey: 'Look into my eyes, look into my eyes'.
On 'Copper wire', Snehashish Mazumdar's electric mandolin does bring in a fresh sound to jam with Amyt Dutta's guitar. But after a promising entry, the melody begins to sound a bit like an old Doordarshan filler tune.
'Wake my love' makes the most of the swirling sound mix as the kitchen department cracks the whip. And despite another interesting mandolin entrée in 'Sunflower', it's left to the warm electric bass to hold the rest together.
Together, the nine tracks fail to add up as an album. If played at home, it'll disturb the neighbourhood's pace-makers. It's better played softly — probably in the background at a fashion party.
Take a bow and...
If Ghosh's album suffers from over-explanation, Kamal Sabri's Sarangi Funk doesn't help by not declaring the names of the accompanists on any of its eight tracks. Instead, we have a rather cheap paean to the "musically gifted" sarangi player from Moradabad's Senia gharana.
Reinforcing the papery fore-taste is an accented voice on the first and last tracks saying, "Do you want to hear my philosophy? It's sarangi technology."
'Namaste India', the longest track, shows what the album aspires to be. By parading a medley of bhangra and dandiya stock-tunes beside the UP-side 'Chalat musafir' and the Bangla 'Shadher lau', it opens a window of tired clichés on the modern musical high street.
The desperation to slap a veneer of 'modernity' doesn't serve the sarangi or the master well. Perhaps fittingly, the last track ends with a heavy sigh.