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V/A - Bollywood Steel Guitar

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Artist: V/A

Album: Bollywood Steel Guitar

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Jun. 10, 2008

The seemingly endless variety of music produced for India’s Bollywood film industry is, at its best, not only eclectic, but utterly engaging, well-crafted, imaginative, and designed to hook into cinematic visual archetypes and auditory pleasure centers. Dance, spectacle, and the human voice are at the heart of these tunes. And given the importance of vocals, it is perhaps not all that surprising that the electric steel guitar, with its swoops and glissandos and throaty timbres, has found a place in the genre. There are historical musicological precursors at work here, too, most notably the intersections in India between a tradition of stringed slide instruments (the veena, used in Carnatic music, for example) and the ubiquity of Hawaiian music as a global pop sensation during the early 20th Century.

Compiled by Stuart Ellis for the Sublime Frequencies label, Bollywood Steel Guitar is a luscious collection that goes straight for the steel guitar section of that aforementioned pleasure center, while presenting a chronology of Bollywood arrangement styles. The 1960s material, with steel played by artists like S.Hazarasingh, Van Shipley, and Kazi Aniruddha, reveals strong twist, surf, and spy movie influences, including pounding drums, trebly guitars, accordions, and combo organs, along with jazzy elements of straight 4/4 swing. Yet there’s almost always that sense of Indian timbral texture and melodic phrasing, and occasional tastes of Indian instrumentation, such as tabla, sitar, santoor, and harmonium. The steel players glide over the arrangements, way up front, picking and barring expressively and at times explosively, with gorgeous steel tones; brash, warm, and ever-so-nicely overdriven.

The material from the 1970s evinces strong influence from Spaghetti Western soundtracks in the often moody, spacious arrangements, and in the use of fuzz tones and layered percussion. (Check out the wild west desert guitar twang and mariachi trumpet on Charanjit Singh’s “Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne.”) Indeed, some of these '70s tracks, with their extreme yet satisfying eclecticism, are textbook examples of the art of Indian film music.

The tracks from the '80s introduce sweet disco strings and Giorgio Moroder-lite sequenced synths, but the steel guitars, played here by Kazi Arindam and Gautam Dasgupta, sing with the same throaty throb of the earlier material. The most recent cut here is from 1986, but one hopes that this energetic and confident steel guitar tradition will survive for a long time to come.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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