Pandit Ram Narayan – L’Inde Du Nord: L’art Du Sarangi, 1971

Another favorite from the Ocora catalogue. Pandit Ram Narayan was the first internationally successful sarangi player, credited as responsible for the introduction of the sarangi as a solo concert instrument in Hindustani classical music. He’s also responsible for developing simplified sarangi fingering techniques, and elements of his tone and inflection have been widely mimicked and adapted by subsequent generations of sarangi players. There’s lengthier information about the ways in which he pushed the boundaries of both the instrument and the genre here.

The short version of the story is that this record is incredibly beautiful, and serves as a plain reminder of why the sarangi was traditionally treated as a filler instrument during solo vocal performances, meant to imitate the vocals. Ram Narayan’s sarangi is so expressive that it feels human: crying, lilting, taking melismatic nosedives and acrobatic leaps. It’s piercing but never shrill. It’s something you should hear before you die.

Note: I spent awhile wavering between sharing the original recording, which has some room tone, vinyl pops, and a sound that is both richer and muddier; and the remastered version, which is cleaned up and has a sound that is clearer but thinner. I settled on the original, but if anyone feels strongly about hearing the remastered version (which includes an additional râga), let me know and I’ll post it.

Robbie Băsho – Bonn Ist Supreme, 1980

Hard to know where to begin with Robbie Băsho, as he did so much in his twenty years of making music before his life was cut short by a freak chiropractic accident. He went to military school, then pre-med. He painted, sang, played trumpet, played lacrosse, lifted weights, wrote poetry, and changed his name to Băsho after the Japanese poet. He went through phases of cultural and musical obsession, including Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Japanese, Indian classical, Iranian, Native American, English and Appalachian folk, Western blues, and Western classical “periods.” He “used open C and more exotic tunings and he developed an esoteric doctrine for 12- and 6-string guitar, concerned with color and mood. He spoke of ‘Zen-Buddhist-Cowboy songs’ a long time before Gram Parsons mentioned his vision of Cosmic American music.” He studied under Ali Akbar Khan. He pushed for a broader appreciation of the steel-string guitar as a classical concert instrument. He made 14 studio albums in 19 years. He wrote “a Sufi symphony” and another for piano and orchestra about Spanish and Christian cultures coming to America. He’s considered one of the geniuses of American folk and blues, and yet his name often gets lost in conversations about John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Sandy Bull.
Although several of his studio recordings are among my favorite albums, I wanted to share this live recording because (unsurprisingly) there’s a specific rawness to it that I love. The master files have been lost, so this is a cleaned up version of a second generation tape, and it shows. Băsho lets himself pick up speed at the expense of precision, often bordering on sloppy, and he sings unabashedly in a voice that many have snickered about but that gives me chills. It’s terribly intimate, and the audience is all but inaudible excepting polite bits of applause. You hear Băsho talk a bit about his guitar tunings, about his 115 year old instrument, and banter a little in bad German. More importantly, Bonn Ist Supreme gives an overview of his dizzying range, incorporating his signature guitar raga style, American spirituals, a reworking of Debussy, blues, themes from Wagner’s Parsifal, and Celtic folk melodies. Sprawling and trancelike.

Sivakumar Sarma – Santur: Inde Du Nord, 197-

Perfection. Pandit Sivakumar Sarma (also Shivkumar Sharma) was the first musician to play Indian classical music on the santur (a hammered dulcimer traditionally used as a folk instrument). Sarma has had a hugely prolific career and has worked with the most legendary classical musicians, but I have yet to hear very much of his catalog because I can’t tear myself away from this. Achingly beautiful work from the master of the instrument.

Note: Nobody seems to know exactly when this record was released, but based on a few hints I would guess mid-70s. This never made it to CD and to the best of my knowledge, has never been reissued (cough).