Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is the leading exponent and inventor of the Mohan veena – a modfifed lap steel guitar with twenty strings, twelve of them sympathetic. A student of Ravi Shankar he somehow ended up founding a school of Indian lap steel guitar playing.
In the early 90s Bhatt hooked up with the American Water Lily boutique label and started making records for them. Early on he started collaborating with musicians from other genres and I have three of the resulting albums.
The first, and it was a significant boost for his profile in the West, was with Ry Cooder. Legend has it that the two of them met, jammed and recorded an album in one day. (This album also seems to have kicked off a phase in Cooder’s career during which he put his solo works on hold and operated in a collaborative mode – usually outside of his trademark styles – or as a sideman.)
The record sounds terrific. Spacious but accurate and intimate, the acoustic instruments sounding full and rich and with great dynamic range. And it’s not rehearsed to death (how could it be?) with umpteen cuts of every part polished to perfection. So there’s a spark to this music as well, the sort of energy that comes from spontaneity. It sounds alive and living.
It’s just four longish cuts that would have made up an old vinyl long player. Three of them are jointly credited and the fourth is a Hawaiian hymn “Isa Lei”. The latter is the only track on which Cooder is the dominant voice. Everywhere else he takes a lower key role, playing with outstanding empathy, clearly keeping any self-indulgent tendencies he may have in check, and showing considerable breadth of technique and imagination. OK… so he DOES shine, but not obviously.
Bhatt contributes some astonishing solos and his instrument, with drones and sympathetic strings, produces a clear but rich sound.
This is not the most structured music you will ever hear, and it rambles a little at times with the two players audibly trying to figure each other out, but when it clicks it really is something. For me the outstanding track is “Ganges Delta Blues” with a potent blues riff underlying the fireworks and Joachim Cooder doing a very simpatico job on percussion.
In 1994 Bhatt teamed up with the modern American great of lap steel guitar, Jerry Douglas. Douglas has a multi-faceted career as a producer, star Nashville session player, sideman to Allison Krauss and recording artist both in his own right and on a bewildering array of collaborative projects He is nominally one of the “new acoustic” generation of players who emerged in the 70s and used bluegrass as a launching pad for explorations into other musical territories. So he’s a prime candidate for this sort of project.
It’s more structured than the album made with Cooder. More, shorter tracks. And more obviously equal as well with both men sharing the spotlight. Douglas deploys his trademark speed and Bhatt is well up to the challenge. They both step out of their nominal comfort zones (though with top players things like “genre” are often just convenient labels for record companies and stores to use for filing and categorising purposes). “Gypsies From Rajasthan” starts off in a flamenco mode before the two players take the tune elsewhere.
The remarkable double bass player Edgar Meyer appears on several tracks and he’s excellent every time. Meyer is another player with the combination of supreme chops and breadth of musical vision. His contributions often slip and slide to mesh with the two lap steels, nowhere better than his solo on “Resurrection”. He adds a low, growling arco (bowed) part to :”Many Miles From Home”.
I suppose one of the points of these cross-genre collaborations is to highlight commonalities and parallels in the different musics but also the contrasts. This album does that well whilst also allowing the two principle players their own voices. The album concludes with two solo pieces that allow Bhatt and Douglas to display their skills and their trademark styles. These are the two least interesting tracks on the album, despite the excellence of the playing.
I was looking forward to Tabula Rasa because of the great things I’ve heard from Bela Fleck. They team up with Jie-Bing Chen who plays the erhu, a Chinese two-string fiddle.
Fleck is the glue here, with both Chen and Bhatt sitting out on occasion. The playing is great, and the combination of sounds is very different from the other two albums which are really East/West slide summits.
But there are problems. The material is thin. The best tracks are Fleck’s, but he doesn’t have enough to go around. And too often it doesn’t sound like an integration of different styles but like they’ve been just laid on top of each other, like Chen and Bhatt came in separately and overdubbed on top of some Fleck tracks. The old American folk song “John Hardy” is included here, and it demonstrates the problem – Bhatt just repeats the melody instead of using it as a starting point for something more interesting and inventive. Nowhere do they play with attack and punch and attitude that made the Cooder/Bhatt record work so well.
The early 1980s saw the emergence of “world music” as a means of bracketing and marketing to western audiences music that didn’t fit into the usual pigeon holes like “prog”, “be bop”, “soul”, “bluegrass” and so on (though we’d become used to reggae by then). The point (or a point) was that great music with attitude and energy and a spark to it happened all over the world, that the world of music was much broader than we’d thought.
Bhatt is the kind of guy that “world music” was about: A highly skilled musician who was carving out a substantial career in a territory that was right off of Western radars. So albums like those we’ve examined here can serve as door ways to new musical worlds for those who are tired of the increasingly commoditised mainstream rock or just have a curiosity about the wider world of music.
By any standards Bhatt is a formidable musician, and after the Cooder collaboration curious western musicians with an interest in steel guitar and an inclination to expand their musical palette started seeking him out (I suppose this is similar to 60s rock and folk players seeking out the likes of Gary Davis). Certainly there is much that is interesting and worthwhile to be found by examining the work of such players.
These three albums then can open doors and all offer top notch playing. But the first one, the one that Bhatt cut with Cooder (who increasingly is revealing himself as a musican of skill, power and vision) is the one to go for by virtue of it’s sound and vitality.