traditional fusion from coastal Balochistan
Topic TSCD 916
Before I report that this is a wonderful CD which you have absolutely got to buy, allow me to unload one small bone of contention. I am no fan of fusion music. For that matter, when I tell the world I dig ethnic music the most, I specifically disregard the flavoured rock 'n roll, which takes up most of the Roots/World Music section in my local HMV. Equally, I find little to crow about in the smoothly seductive soulful sounds, which are all I ever seem to pick up when I tune in to BBC Radio 3's Late Junction. In short, as far as studio engineered syntheses are concerned, if they donít exist in the realworld, they donít exist in mine.
No, if you want to set this kiddyís hair on fire, the sounds do it with are the sorts which ethnomusicologists used to bring back from the farthest reaches of the southern Sahara, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or the steppes of Central Asia. It is village music. It is tribal music. It is the music of artisans and peasants, and so called stone age primitives; those inhabitants of the third world, who were circumnavigated by the march of progress. It is unstaged and it is unplugged. It is rare and it is precious, and it is getting all the more so.
And it is beautiful. Therefore, when I saw the word fusion in the above title, I baulked. All music involves some degree of fusion. Indeed, all of the genres covered by this journal have been moulded by relatively slow and spontaneous processes of socio/musical interaction and cross-fertilisation. The term fusion, however, implies the more or less instantaneous joining of two or more disparate musical styles. It invokes not-very-subtle undertones of modern jazz saxophonists trying to get off on the same cultural wavelength as, say, Ravi Shankar or Dembo Konte, and never quite succeeding.
Nor was the hint in the title the only thing to throw me! Call me a geographical nerd if you will, but neither Makran nor Balochistan rang even the remotest of bells. Fortunately, the CD booklet provides the reader with a thumbnail geography. This describes Balochistan (other sources spell it Baluchistan) as a province which is shared between Pakistan and Iran. Makran turns out to be a hilly, coastal segment, which occupies roughly the southern half of the overall terrain. It is situated along the Arabian sea, and the present recordings were made in the Pakistani sector.
Consultation of Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta failed to add much to this description. Neither repository mentions Makran. However, between them, they both amended and expanded the booklet impressions of the political and physical geography of Balochistan. From these sources, Balochistan should be described primarily as an administrative province of Pakistan, with parts of it sprawling into southeastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. It is for the most part, an arid, rocky, mountain plateau, practically devoid of soil and rainfall and natural vegetation, and possessed of a fiercely intemperate climate. Roads and wheeled traffic are scarce, as are life forms - animal or human. Indeed, the few people who live in the place are mostly nomadic pastoralists - goat and sheep herders - and simple agriculturalists. Neither encyclopedia broached the subject of music, although Britannica did have something to say about the karez. This is an underground irrigation system, which permits water to drain from the foothills into the few urban settlements, via a network of tunnels and galleries. It seems to have been brought into Balochistan from China, at some unspecified time in the past, by migratory Buddhist monks.
I am not sure how significant this intelligence is, for I have scarcely a nodding acquaintance with Chinese music. Also, I am left in the dark, as to how much and, in what ways, the music of Makran differs from the rest of Balochistan. Anderson Bakewell, the discís compiler, does specify a number of influences on Makranian music. These apparently arose from trade and transmigration along the coastal region. I am not clear, however, as to whether any of them made their way into the hinterland, or vice versa. I can only report that, if those who influenced the irrigation systems of Balochistan, left a similar impression on the music of any part of this province, then that impression was lost on me.
Nevertheless, the parable of the karez highlights an important feature of the regionís history. It is that Balochistan generally is open to absorption of a wide variety of exterior cultural forms. Such absorption, however, takes place over long periods of time. Thus, the region appears to have been a slow melting pot for the absorption of music traditions from other parts of the globe. To illustrate this, the booklet supplements that thumbnail geography, with a potted history of the previous millennium. From these, the region emerges as simultaneously central and inaccessible. Many of historyís great land migrations, military and mercantile, hinged around it. For that matter, the Arabs were famous maritime traders. Makran, situated on the Arabian Sea, must have been a staging post for traffickers all over the Middle East, and farther afield. It is no surprise then that the influences Anderson Bakewell speaks of, stem from the Middle East, from the rest of the Indian sub-continent, and from Africa. Also, visual evidence shows that the twentieth century did not entirely overlook the region. In the back cover photograph of this booklet, one can see an idiomatic lute, some extravagant looking beakers, and a monophonic portable radio/cassette player.
Geographical location notwithstanding, however, sheer impenetrability made sure that Makran was no easy touch in terms of musical cross-fertilisation. Indeed, the booklet hints that local politics were a further source of hindrance, both to the visiting ethnomusicologist, and to the migrant musical influence. Therefore, integration and incorporation of disparate cultural elements has been a slow and ongoing process, ever since the Baloch people of northern Iran settled the region around a thousand years ago. We are not talking of a fusion cooked up within the time scale of a recording studio allocation. We are talking of a compounding of ingredients which has been centuries in the making.
Thus, the music of Makran is terra incognita to the visitor, to the record collector, and to the reviewer. Nevertheless, the image of inhospitable isolation left me somewhat surprised at how familiar this music sounds. The whole disc feels like a selective migration from that other opulent outlet in Topicís World Series; Music in the World of Islam. There is no reason why it shouldnít. First of all, the inhabitants of Balochistan are followers of Islam, even if they adhere to the unorthodox Zigir sect. Moreover, it seems to me that musical change, over the whole of the Middle East and south Asia, proceeds at a fairly similar rate to our present model. In that part of the world, inhospitable environments are scarcely a monopoly preserve of the Makranians. Therefore, we can expect the music, which the Balochs originally carried from Iran into Balochistan, to bear a significant resemblance to the present day musics of both these regions. Certainly, any aural similarity between this and the World of Islam set has to derive from migration and cross-fertilisation, rather than from similar recording locations. Of the seventy-four tracks, which made up the World of Islam set, I could only identify two which were recorded in Balochistan. It is not clear, from Jean Jenkinsí sketchy notes, whether that means Makran.
Let us not ponder the question to excess. The disc we are here to review specifies the recording locations, even if the booklet does not contain a decent map to show where they are. Six localities are identified, but we are told nothing about them. Neither are we told much about the musicians, beyond their names and the instruments they play. Detailed information, human and geographical, is important, if we are to understand the contexts in which this music is performed. In this instance, given that the populace is largely migratory, does that mean the musicians are also migratory? Alternatively, are the recording locations also the urban settlements of Makran?
Lack of information worries me. Therefore, while browsing Britannica and Encarta, I took a look at the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. It was not much more helpful than the other sources. However, it did tell me that the musicians of Balochistan are nearly all itinerant professionals, with a big repertoire of wedding songs. The CD booklet appears to concur with the first part of this information, telling us that musicianship is strongly associated with caste membership. Fine, but does that mean music is a hereditary profession? Is it a trade automatically entered into by specific individuals, as a specific consequence of caste membership? I suspect not, because I was interested to note that at least two of the performers here are blind. As observers of other traditions may have noted - pre-famine Ireland and twentieth century Black America are examples - music is a profession which is often resorted to by the blind and the crippled. That is precisely because they are unable to earn a living by any other means. Such people often lead fairly miserable existences. They eke out a living on the margins of their own communities, disdained by those who enjoy their services. I do not know if this is the case in Makran, because the booklet does not discuss the status of musician-hood there. It does however devote a sizable section to the musical instruments of the region. Not for the first time, I find myself exasperated by an ethnomusicologist, who reports extensively on the artifacts of music, and says next to nothing about the people who play the artifacts. Yes, I know the instruments will be unfamiliar to Westerners. Therefore, space given to their description is entirely justified. But the musicians are equally unfamiliar, and it is not just a question of asking whether it is more politically correct to emphasise musical instruments or human beings. The more we know about the social culture of any human aggregate, the more readily we can empathise with its music.
Thereby hangs a tale. The reason why roots music is more successful than ethnic music, commercially speaking that is, is precisely because roots never entirely succumbs to the exotic. It always keeps one foot firmly within the familiar currents of western popular music. Thereby hangs an audience, an audience which doesnít need to abandon its preconceptions as to what music should sound like.
Thereby also hangs the problem of encapsulation, for our perception of music is defined by what we know and recognise. Thus, listeners who are attuned to the short regular geometric patterns of European melody, may be forgiven for wondering what to make of this stuff. If you are one of the uninitiated, how do I explain what happens when the musicians of Makran pick up their axes and blow? How do I convey, in earth-bound phrases and cyberspatial soundclips, the feelings of exaltation when this magic carpet of music starts to lift off? Just for once, Iím not going to kick up at the fact that these are mere excerpts of much longer performances, or that they show no more than a tiny part of the overall edifice. They do leave me feeling like a one-eyed intermediary between the blind man and the Picasso, but that is a reflection of the present day limitations of western technology. In the absence of anything approaching virtual reality, though, I did find Anderson Bakewellís elegant prose somewhat less than helpful. Consider the following paragraph.
Over this rhythmic ground of seemingly metronomic regularity, the extended repetition of melodic phrases further establishes a deceptive stability. Yet rogue notes infiltrate almost imperceptibly and the listener can be unaware of a shift of mode until its critical mass becomes decisive.Quite! If Iíve got this straight, the booklet does not apply the word mode in accordance with western usage. It does not denote the archaic musical scales, which helped stimulate Cecil Sharp into formulating his famous conclusions, on the slow and spontaneous evolution of folksong. Rather, the term seems to refer to a system of note groupings called, interestingly enough, rags. Unlike Indian classical ragas, however, these do not provide the framework for continuous, extended improvisation. Instead, the musicians who play the melody instruments, perform the rags almost repetitiously. Gradually and progressively, though, they introduce variant notes, until the whole melodic structure has been completely revamped. That, at any rate, is what it sounds like. The effect is rather like the kind of improvisation which west African kora players indulge in; developing an idea progressively, and exhausting it before moving on to something else.
I stressed the role of melody instruments just then. However, with the exception of one track played on the bansari, or flute, all these pieces are ensemble performances. The rhythm players of these ensembles are insistent and percussive. Just as the pulsating guitar of the blues singer, Bukka White, constituted an ambient element of his overall performance, so the contribution of these rhythm players to the hypnotic effect is far more than merely supportive. (sound clip - Sheki Saz - Abdul Ghapur, Suroz; Gul Muhammad, Damburag; Yusup Koshkalat, Dukkur and Chinchir)
Listeners to that sound clip might join me in detecting an interesting parallel. The combination of reiterative melodies and emphatic rhythms at times put me in mind of players of the Sardinian launeddas. The parallel is an interesting one, for the launeddas has its equivalent in the Makranian donali. Both instruments belong to the same family of reed pipes. Moreover, with the maritime migration I mentioned earlier, Iíd have thought it quite likely that trade links existed between Sardinia and Makran.
What of the rest of the disc? It contains thirteen tracks, which vary in length roughly from between two and eight minutes. Those who like a well-compacted CD will be glad to note that this one ends up just two hundred and twelve seconds short of the permissible playing time. Of those thirteen pieces, despite that New Grove assertion about wedding songs, only three seem to have been designed for nuptial celebration. Of the others, there is the aforementioned bansari solo, which turns out to be a descriptive piece, commemorating a severe drought. The booklet describes this as a song, although it is purely instrumental. A song without words, perhaps? The disc contains one or two other descriptive pieces. These are a couple of zahiroks, performances in free rhythm, which express loneliness and longing, plus a track called Bagey Saz, which conveys the rocking motion of camel drivers as they steer their camels across the desert. From the speed it is taken at, Makran must have some of the fastest camels in the entire continent! (sound clip - Bagey Saz/Simorgey Saz - Perzo Sajjad, Donali: Rahmat, Damburag)
That word saz puzzles me. It crops up in a number of track titles, and I cannot find an explanation in the booklet. Anderson Bakewell has chosen to identify these recordings by their particular genre, rather than by the names of individual pieces. Therefore, saz would appear to have some sort of generic meaning. I am no expert on musical instruments of Asia, or the Middle East, or their complicated nomenclature. I do know, however, that this word is used by the Turks to designate a variety of long necked lute. It is similar to the instrument which the Makranians call a damburag. The etymology of the name damburag presumably suggests a derivation from the Indian sub-continent, rather than from the direction of Asia Minor. However, remembering that the Balochs originally emigrated from Northern Iran, has the word saz emigrated from up that way also, and changed its meaning in the process?
How does the compiler complete this captivating picture of the music of Makran? Well, there are several examples of healing rituals on this disc. The Makranians are prone to affliction by evil spirits, called gwat, and music is a prescriptive part of the procedure for driving them out. Also, leaving aside that Ďsong without wordsí, and ignoring another track, which is wrongly identified as a vocal, the disc has three songs, complete with lyrics. Translations are provided. One of them, sung by Musa, a blind eighty year old former fisherman, contains several motifs which will be familiar to English speakers. A woman addresses a bird, asking it to carry a message to her lover on the sea. She fears for his fidelity whilst he is away, and she is afraid that the seasonal rains will rise before he can return to the shore.
I was interested to note that, whatever its status as a professional activity, music making in Makran is not entirely a male preserve. One of the songs is identified as a sot and this genre turns out to be the preserve of lower caste professional women singers. They are called soti. These songs are performed at weddings and circumcision ceremonies, although there is nothing ceremonial about the theme of this particular sot. Its words are a satire on lower class snobbery and the performance is electrifying. (sound clip - Zahirok/Sot - Sharruk, vocal; Osman, Benjo, Dukkur and Chinchir)
It is a pity that the designwork of this production cannot be conveyed as easily as that soundclip, for it is quite superb. True, the booklet contains some dull looking monochrome photographs, and I wonder if these could not have been shown in colour, or at least with the contrast intensified. Otherwise, the whole thing, especially that resplendent cover photograph of Sardaro playing his suroz, is a real treat for the eyes. Who now would wish to recall the apparatchik artwork of Topic, when it was part of the Workerís Music Association?
By the same token, who could fail to recall Topicís extremely limited ethnic/traditional output in the days of the WMA; or the rapid switch of company policy immediately it changed hands. At a time when crossovers, from Senegal to Donegal, end up producing the same bland, boring blend of featureless music, a proactive approach to the genuine roots cannot be anything less than welcome. At the start of this review I referred to the collecting work of ethnomusicologists as though it were all in the past tense. That is far from correct, as these recordings show. They are less than ten years old. There is a whole world of music out there, and a small but dedicated band of collectors, who keep piling it up on the shelves of the National Sound Archive. It fair warmed the cockles therefore to learn that this disc is among the first of a series of collaborations between Topic and the NSA. I donít know of any suitable invocation to Allah, but may their collaboration be long and fruitful. May a thousand CD releases blossom, and may there be many flooding tides of acquiescent purchasers. I havenít yet heard Topicís disc from Zanzibar (TSCD 917) which is released simultaneously with this one. However, if it is anything less than a worthy complement, I shall be very surprised.
I began this review in my usual understated manner, by describing its subject as a wonderful disc, which you have absolutely got to buy. In fact, it would be impossible for me to tell you how good this record is without resorting to a string of torrid expletives; and nobody would want that. Instead, I shall draw your attention to a story, related in the booklet, of a fifteenth century Indian ruler, who must have been quite a fan of this music. So overwhelmed by its beauty was he, that he was driven to a spontaneous act of self-decapitation! I can assure you that, in these agreeably less intemperate times, there is absolutely no danger of your succumbing to his example. Get out and buy the bleep bleep-ing thing.
Fred McCormick - 20.10.00
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