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(Valley Entertainment 15162 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/3/2002)
Back in the 1960s there was a burst of interest in traditional Indian music, with the Beatles, and especially George Harrison, journeying to the sub-continent, and absorbing its music and spirituality, to the point that the traditional Indian instrument, the sitar, became almost synonymous with the psychedelic movement. The American public lost interest with time, but the popularity of world music over the last decade or so has seen some revival of interest in Eastern sounds, with performers like Shiela Chandra, and the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
This week, we have a fascinating recording that combines Western musical values with Indian influences, though less the familiar sounds of Indian classical music, but instead is based on what is called kirtan, or chant singing. It's a CD by Los Angeles-based Dave Stringer called Brink.
Dave Stringer's involvement with Indian music was almost accidental. With a background in the visual arts and also as a jazz musician who did some composing for dance troupes, Stringer came to work in the Hollywood movie industry as a film editor. About his only interest in Eastern religions and philosophy was taking classes in yoga to relieve a painful back injury. One of the people he met at an ashram in Los Angeles hired him as an editor for a documentary in India. Stringer reluctantly took the job, rather than face unemployment in Los Angeles, and journeyed to India, where he soon became fascinated by the chants in the ancient Sanskrit language. At first, he did not understand the words, but he was drawn by their sound. He began to play some of them on a dulcimer and accordion that he had brought with him for entertainment. In the meantime, Stringer's job was to distill lectures by the gurus there to 15-minute-long short film features meant for teaching beginners.
After the film project was done Stringer decided to stay on in India, volunteering to teach in a school, and absorbing as much of the chant style as he could, including learning from the children he was teaching.
After returning to Los Angeles, he began working with a group that taught meditation and chanting, and then for several years worked teaching chanting at various prisons. Eventually, Stringer became involved with leading a group practicing kirtan singing in Santa Monica, and that lead to various invitations from Yoga centers around the country, so that Stringer now does the music full-time.
In addition to making his own music, Stringer has worked as a producer for some artists in the New Age field, including the group Axiom of Choice, and performed on CDs with artists like Hans Christian and Vas.
Kirtan is the Sanskrit word for singing, and it is an ancient form that arose in Eastern India, involving call and response of various mantras that gradually grows in intensity, as the gathered people begin clapping and dancing.
Stringer's new album Brink does not have a great deal of that aspect of it, but the Eastern drone-like chants are very much in evidence, and a few of the tracks have lyrics in Sanskrit.
Brink, while showing a good deal of Eastern influence is hardly an album of traditional music. The CD mixes Eastern and Western influences easily, often with traditional Indian instruments like the tamboura and tabla drums mixing with music in Western 3/4 or 6/8 time, with unexpected combinations of instruments including harmonium -- a pump organ -- cello and trumpet.
Appearing with Stringer are some of the people with whom he has worked in the past, including Hans Christian, who plays cello, Suzanne Teng, heard on flute, plus Jay Bellerose on drums, Greg Ellis on percussion, and David Zasloff on trumpet.
The CD has a mix of pieces with English lyrics, along with traditional chants and poems in Sanskrit, in one case dating back to the 9th Century. But despite the traditional material, the sound is contemporary, with enough domination by Western influences that it does not come across as a particularly exotic world music album.
Leading off is one of the pieces with original English lyrics, Checking the Arithmetic. The piece is quite interesting lyrically, while the musical setting spans influences ranging from folk singer-songwriters to the Eastern sound with the tabla drums and tamboura. <<>>
The first of the tracks imbued with a meditative chant sound is called Sleep, again featuring an interesting mix of instrumentation and influences, though it's one of the less memorable on the CD. <<>>
Very much in the traditional Eastern sound is Shivo'ham Shivo'ham, with lyrics from around 800 AD. The refrain translates from the Sanskrit "I am consciousness and bliss." <<>> After the meditative beginning, the piece gains momentum, in the tradition of the kirtan singing, though the added elements bring a more Western sound to the piece. <<>>
One of the most eclectic pieces on an already wide-ranging album is The Homing Instinct, with memorable lyrics about the impulse to return home among the creatures on the earth, including people. The track features a fascinating mix of instrumentation combining Eastern and Western sounds. <<>>
Ganashyãma is perhaps the most meditative piece on the album. It is a masterful combination of sonic beauty with subtle textures that add lots of interest. The 16th Century Sanskrit lyrics are about being lost in love. <<>>
My favorite piece is on the CD The Satellite Sky, which is one of the more Western-sounding songs on the album. It's a very attractive piece, on which the Eastern influence is more subtle, taking the form of percussion and the general atmospheric texture, while harmonically, Stringer's jazz background becomes evident. <<>>
The one track that comes closest to being a cliché of Indian music is Jaya Vitthale, with its combination of sounds most people associate with Indian influence, plus hints of Eastern European influence. <<>>
Brink ends with its title piece, the only instrumental among the 11 tracks on the CD. Its drone-like sound is another creative mix of ingredients, with combination of trumpet, melodica -- the keyboard harmonica -- plus the distinctly Indian textures in instrumentation and mood. <<>>
Dave Stringer's Brink is a fascinating and distinctive record in the way it mixes Indian and Western sounds. That concept was something of a cliché in the 1960s psychedelic era, mixing sitars and tablas with electric guitars, but in the current period of interest in World Music, there have not been that many Indian fusion efforts, and Stringer's emphasizes a rather different facet of Indian music, the kirtan singing tradition, together with the meditative aspect. While the CD can approach new age at times, a distinguishing feature is that the Western music side contains a lot of interesting and artistically substantial ingredients, while the instrumentation is a wonderful eclectic blend with skillful arrangements and first-rate musicianship. This is music that one can not only use for meditation, but also makes edifying foreground listening.
Our grade for sound quality is rather close to an "A." The music is well recorded, and mix engineers Hans Christian and Thomas Barquee resisted the temptation to get overly spacey with the reverb effects, avoiding the hackneyed overly atmospheric sound of much new age music. The dynamic range, the scope from loudness from softest to strongest, is also better than average.
There are those purists for whom anything less than strict authenticity in styles is reason to dismiss a work as unworthy. Brink does not pretend to be authentic, and drawing as it does on both intelligent composition in the Western tradition, and the ambience of the Eastern sounds, the result is a fine album that rewards listening on a number of levels.
(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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