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Debashish Bhattacharya - Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar

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Artist: Debashish Bhattacharya

Album: Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar

Label: Riverboat

Review date: May. 28, 2008


Debashish Bhattacharya - "Gypsy Anandi" (Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odissey)


In the late ’20s, a group called Mme. Riviere’s Hawaiians, featuring the legendary Samoan-born, Hawaiian-raised steel guitarist Tau Moe, toured Asia, exposing the continent to the traditions and music of the Pacific islands. Like most of the countries the group visited, India was quite taken by the exotic sounds, and a wave of Hawaiian influence, especially the usage of steel guitar, swept across the country. Some 35 years later, a toddler by the name of Debashish Bhattacharya stumbled across a vestige of this brief craze tucked away in his house. An already prodigious child trained in music by his parents, both traditional Indian vocalists, Bhattacharya was performing for audiences only a year later – at age 4 – on the lap steel guitar. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Now at 45, Bhattacharya is formally known as Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, meaning he is now a certified master musician of his instrument of choice: the slide-guitar. Molding a completely idiosyncratic three-fingered style, Bhattacharya combines the techniques used on Indian sitar, Western guitar and Hawaiian lap steel with traditional Indian ragas and classical Hindustani music. And in the process of this pioneering stylistic development, he has created a “Trinity of Guitars,” all with hollow necks but in varying sizes, that would fulfill such requirements: the 24-stringed Chaturangui with tones reminiscent of the violin and sitar; the 14-stringed Ghandarvi, which sounds like odd combination of a bowed sarangi and the flamenco guitar; and the four-stringed Anandi that resembles a ukulele played with a slide technique.

Now Bhattacharya has the difficult task of following-up his highly acclaimed album, 3: Calcutta Slide Guitar, which won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music 2007 in the Asia/Pacific category. Thus sets the stage for Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide-Guitar Odyssey, nine devotional songs performed by Bhattacharya with his own instruments – featuring the youngest of the trio, the Anandi – and accompanied by his brother and tabla player, Subhasis. The music is spirited and intricate, undeniably lyrical without a single syllable being muttered, and performed with elegance, skill and energy. Bhattacharya’s guitars sound limitless thanks to the microtonal detail of performing with a slide, and he has the manual dexterity to criss-cross scales, rhythms and modes without any abruptness. It creates a mercurial sound with curved, sensuous edges, like a rotating prism of light translated across a melodic tonal scale.

The opening track, “Sufi Bhakti,” introduces the warmly pinging sound of the Anandi. Bhattacharya actually utilizes three different Anandi within the song and surrounds them with an Indian harp, tabla and ektara, an ancient one-stringed instrument. With just a slight hint of reverb, the central Anandi cordially introduces itself with an array of modes – from a banjo-like twang to a sitar-like buzz – between showering harp strums and heavy tabla bass tones. It appears later in its finest setting during “Gypsy Anandi (Odyssey of Slide-Guitar).” A joyful and lilting tune, the Hawaiian flavor is undeniable, but so are strong wafts of Andalucian rhythms and Eastern European gypsy music. Bhattacharya once again uses three different Anandi, layering them in a manner that the low end sounds like a Hawaiian steel guitar while the high end has the same reedless tone as a flute.

Bhattacharya’s ragas are equally as spirited, but in more of a patient manner. “Amrit Anand (Eternal Joy)” and “Maya (Illuslide)” both feature more of a traditional sound, in terms of the Western idea of Indian music, but Bhattacharya’s dialogue between rhythm and melody never ceases. He makes it impossible to separate the two. The liner notes explain “the raga draws all the peace, devotion, romance, pain and bliss from the person who understands it truly and sincerely.” Listening to Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide-Guitar Odyssey, I could associate each one of those emotions to any of the tracks, even if they are seemingly opposite feelings – which, like the fusions of genre and cultures, is Bhattacharya’s greatest talent. His music is universally accessible; it emphasizes the emotion of the listener, and then empathizes without ever using force. There is no question there is spirituality within Bhattacharya’s highly developed music, but he let’s you discover it yourself.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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