World Library of Folk and Primitive Music

Rounder CD 1755

This collection of songs, compiled and edited by Alan Lomax from Alain Danielou's (1907-1994) field recordings during the 1950s, forms part of a larger 'Historic Series' of albums dedicated to folk music around the world.  Cover pictureLomax is known in the field of Ethnomusicology for his system of 'Cantometrics', which is based on the objective description of folk singing styles and his attempt to relate these styles to other aspects of culture, therefore making a connection between music and society.

However, that is not the purpose of this CD, and we have Danielou to thank for the collection of recordings, although his name is nowhere to be seen on the cover!  The original album recorded by Danielou has since been labelled an anthology ('India: a Musical Anthology') because of its repertoire incorporating a wide range of musical genres from both North and South India - hence capturing an overall glimpse of the variety of musical traditions one can find on the Subcontinent.  However, such a title can be misleading since his original work includes only a couple of examples of the classical traditions.  Therefore, although some classical genres (mainly dance/drama) are represented on this CD, its main content is folk music.

The album is accompanied by some very informative notes in the CD booklet, composed by Nazir Jairazbhoy and Amy Catlin, both professors of Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles.  As Jairazbhoy and Catlin outline for us in their notes, we may identify four genres: archaic survivals (Tracks 3, 4, 8), religious and devotional (Tracks 2, 5, 6, 7, 13), instrumental classical, light classical and folk (Tracks 1, 9, 10, 11, 12, 18), and drama (Tracks 14, 15, 16, 17).  The range of instruments that can be heard also supports the all-encompassing ideal of an anthology: from the South Indian classical vina which can be heard in track 10; the North Indian classical sarangi (11) and surmandal (12); light classical shehnai (1); the flute associated with the thumri (9); and the folk instruments ahir and dholak found in folk genres (2 and 4).

Despite this eclectic assembly of instruments and genres, Danielou in fact chose to exclude the comparatively well-documented classical traditions in his original compilations, since his goal was to capture 'the exceptional culture of the common man in India' exemplified in folk music.  Now, if you are unfamiliar with the music of India, you might ask the difference between classical and folk.  The notes carefully and helpfully explain this: classical music theory is written in treatises (sastriya sangit), and the music follows certain acknowledged and elaborate musical principals.  For example, the Kathakali examples (14 and 15) on the album illustrate a classical genre which is complex, symbolic, and sophisticated.  The music for this dance genre used to be defined as folk, but has since developed in musical sophistication as defined by the treatises.  Folk is considered more spontaneous because it has derived from oral traditions, its associations usually limited to a particular group of people, region, religious belief, age or sex.

In this album a number of well-versed, specialist artistes, sought out by Danielou himself in tribal groups from various parts of both remote and urban India, perform some highly meaningful, diverse, and culturally rich traditional songs so that for an hour or so we catch a glimpse of a people and a music that is a little more uncommon to find in this increasingly popular musical and cultural exchange between East and West.  We not only hear them, but some of the photographs taken by Danielou of the very men, women and children we are listening to are included in the inlay booklet, which provides another vivid and personal dimension to the music.

Although I note that most of the pieces were recorded in Benares or Madras, Jaraizbhoy and Catlin take care to explain that these two cities are sites of musical pilgrimage which attract musicians, both folk and classical, from all over India, resulting in a representation of diverse regions.  This also applies to religion, and though both cities are predominantly Hindu societies, Muslim music (e.g. Track 5 - qawwali'), as well as that of cults and religious sects (Tracks 2, 6, 7, 13), are also significantly covered.  The religious diversity of India is thus also represented.  Danielou does not attempt to represent folk music as a whole in India, since that would be a tall task.  Nor does Lomax presume to present the impossible undertaking of a complete anthology.  Instead, this album can be considered a kind of celebration of the expansive nature of music in India - a sampler.

Don't expect this music to be like anything you've heard before.  It is not what is regarded as 'quintessential' Indian village folk music, which is generally performed by non-specialists.  Danielou took pains to stray from this stereotype, and Jairazbhoy and Catlin note that this kind of 'non-specialist' music would have been 'detrimental to his purpose of portraying the ideal of the common man'.  Danielou instead recorded music performed by specialist artistes who were strongly rooted in their musical tradition, historically and musically, and both professional and non-professional.  For example, the history of the hill tribe music of the Ahirs (Tracks 4 and 5) goes back 2000 years.  Danielou's work, when first published, was the first of its kind.  For these reasons, it is reproduced in this compilation as a tribute to his original research and discovery.

The vocalists have voices that are almost surreal and at times eerie; the striking rhythms on the percussive instruments will undoubtedly penetrate the surroundings of your stereo system and therefore evoke a sense of emotion.  But the music is not easy to listen to for the novice to Indian music.  Nor, in fact, may it be for the Indian Classical music lover.  It is probably quite different from anything you have heard before.

The disc opens with the auspicious sound of the shehnai (sahnai), a reed instrument similar to the oboe, performing a mellow melody.  A drone supports this, and after a bit, the drum enters, gradually building up layers of activity, though not too complicated or distracting to be able to follow.  The register then changes to the lower range, which sounds magnificent.  The supporting melodies, played on two other shehnais, eventually join the principal melody and copy some of the motifs.  Then, as they join together in unison, one feels a heightened and satisfying sense of musical oneness.  The melody becomes more intricate as runs and ornaments conclude the extract.  The following track is quite a contrast, and this marks the fashion of the collection - each track is very different to the next.  Here, a man's voice sings a cappella at first, then is joined by bells and drums and answered by a chorus of men in unison.  The catchy beat and melody and the repetition component makes this track quite easy to follow.  Listen to the satisfying slight harmonies in the chorus.

In Track 3 the voice sounds ancient and very textural.  It is difficult to believe it is sung by a twenty-year-old.  Listen to the intake of breath, and note the desperate, wailing, crying sound.  The irregular rhythm of the tala is difficult to grasp.  All of a sudden, a younger voice answers, employing the same style but in a higher and even more desperate tone.  This piece is more of a dialogue than a song and there are no melody instruments to accompany, just deep drum beats.  The singers employ a lot of vibrato, using oscillations, guttural sounds and shouting.  The following tracks are a mixture of rhythmic masterpieces on banging drums and accents in weird and wonderful places, polyrhythms, catchy rhythms and variations on speed, register, and dynamics, and more lyrical, sweet, slow ballads or laments.  Track 9 is a beautiful song played on a muffled, mellow flute, the melody gradually becoming more intricate, ornate, and excited.  The higher register is eventually explored, and this produces a more open sound for the climax.  Track 10 is a kind of game with notes, the melody climbing gradually in register, making the listener impatient to hear the flute reach the top.  Frustratingly, this never comes as the extract ends before we are satisfied.  A couple of these tracks remind me of music from countries other than India.  Track 12 seems reminiscent of Indonesia or China: a zither is stroked delicately by fingers, and the harmonies seem quite uncharacteristic of the more familiar Indian Classical tradition.  The percussion timbre in Track 4 evokes sounds from Korea.

The album concludes with a display of rhythmic expertise on the dholak drum, producing a deeper, more resonant sound along with a higher pattern above.  The rhythms become faster and more complex, incorporating cross rhythms in a constant flow of patterns with no pauses.  The ending comes without warning, but the listener will feel fulfilled by the variety of sounds and textures in this audio journey across India.

The cover notes come in handy for the purpose of delving into and grasping these sounds.  Jairazbhoy and Catlin have given us detail here, and have left little out.  Their notes for each individual track, much of it taken from Danielou's original notes, include useful visual descriptions of the main instruments as well as the cultural and musical role they perform in both folk and classical traditions.  The specific ragas (melodic structures) are often identified along with quite an informative delineation of melodic characteristics.  The information facilitates a comprehension of the whole sound world.  The notes contain some explanations of the status ragas enjoy within certain genres.  For example, Rag Bhairavi is usually prominent in light classical genres such as the Thumri, whereas the Gond melodies heard in Track 8, which are characterised by extremely unusual intervals, are wholly associated with tribal music.  But the notes do not always include a mention of the particular rasa (mood or emotion) connected with the raga although this is an important quality which could perhaps explain that gut response you get on first impression.  Rather, the notes include detailed technical observations about the music.

On this point, I note that the tones are translated into our Western musical equivalent (letters, flats and sharps), and yet most or many do not match what we would expect from reading the notations.  Jairazbhoy and Catlin still manage to convey the melodic outline and characteristics informatively, but the use of microtones (srutis) and other melodic techniques that bend or stretch the notes do not translate well into western notation.  Track 3 is an exception to this observation, where slur markings are an attempt to indicate the equally important microtones played between the notated notes.  I would advise the listener to pay little attention to the notation at this point, and instead to absorb the subtleties of the microtones, oscillations, and glissandi which makes this music so different from our own (listen especially to Track 11).  You will be transported not only into the intricate and textural depths of a music to which such an ancient culture and tradition, varied as it is, is attached, but to the scene itself where the musicians sit cross-legged on the floor in musical, and often spiritual rapture, experiencing an ecstasy they share only among themselves and with a few who listen closely.

The tala (rhythm cyclic pattern) notation is quite accurate, and is useful when deciphering metre and structure.  We are also given translations of the lyrics, often accompanied by a story or mythological account as extra background.  Catlin and Jairazbhoy include some description of the culture of India and the origins of her folk traditions.  After learning that 'there are many cults of wandering musicians in India', we are told that the singer on Track 12 was a wandering ascetic who lived in temples and observed a vow of silence.  A few words about the age and background, along with the photographs that complete our experience: the photos recreate a setting that cannot be achieved in words.  For example, the two singers in Track 3 are aged 12 and 15.  What I am left feeling, however, is that I would like to know even more about them: how did these boys get to be specialist musicians at such a young age, and who taught them?  The kind of extra-musical attention given, however, adds a visual dimension, and this personal touch is what is so unique about field recordings.  We discover that we are not listening to a bunch of anonymous professionals recording and re-recording in a studio, but experiencing music which is supposed to be heard in its real and natural state, inclusive of recording imperfections and all.  Knowing that Danielou was there, in the field, makes it particularly special to listen to.  Imagine the people, the environment and the surroundings, and the fact that he was sitting there with a recording machine.  Listen carefully to the static, cough (Track 15) and echo in the room (Track 7).  My only wish is that we are supplied with more of Danielou's original notes and observations, because they are part of, and integral to, the complete experience of the music.

Ultimately, if the listener has read the conscientious notes laid out in the inlay, s/he can expect to come away satisfied and extremely well informed in every aspect of the recording.  And who will this CD appeal to?  The nature of extracts is possibly too frustrating for the folk expert, but for those who are happy with a taster of folk traditions in this part of the world, and for those who are ready for something a little different, I recommend this CD as a great way to begin exploring.

Claire Martin, SOAS - 15.5.02

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