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Ghazal's Irani-Indian mix

By Banning Eyre

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Back in 1997, producer Brian Cullman was so inspired by the unusual plucking and bowing techniques, singing tones, and expansive improvisations of Kayhan Kalhor, master of the three-stringed Iranian violin called "kamanche," that he resolved to build a group around him. Initially Cullman envisioned, as he puts it, "a Middle Eastern equivalent of the Chieftains." Kalhor, however, favored a smaller ensemble focused on the interaction between himself and a young master of the Indian sitar, Shujaat Hussain Khan. So a compromise was struck as Kalhor and Khan recruited a third member, tabla virtuoso Swapan Chaudhuri. The trio took the name Ghazal and got off to an auspicious start by completing all the tracks for their debut CD -- Lost Songs of the Silk Road (Shanachie) -- in a single night.

Ghazal haven't lost the creative spark of spontaneity that ignited the improvisations on Lost Songs, but the trio aren't quite as precipitate when it comes to recording anymore. Kalhor, Khan, and Chaudhuri were even willing to take some time off to talk when I visited them in the studio last year during the sessions that would become their third album, the new Moon Rise over the Silk Road (Shanachie). Kalhor began by telling me that he'd been keen to explore the parallels between Persian and North Indian music long before he met Khan. "Due to the wars in the 14th/15th up to the 18th century," he explained, "parts of North India were invaded by Iranian kings. All this affected the culture and music. We see that around the world. People share culture because of war and animosity."

Nevertheless, the differences -- in rules of composition and modalities, among other things -- certainly outweigh the similarities between the two traditions. And though the Iranian Kalhor and the North Indian Khan have complementary personalities and artistic temperaments, their histories vary. Kalhor came to music on his own; Khan took up the sitar at the age of three and began performing when he was six under the guidance of his father, the master sitarist Ustad Vilyat Khan. "Being a child prodigy is great," he admits gleefully. "People treat you special. But when you get to 16, 17, 18, you're not a kid anymore and you have to start at the bottom rung once again. That is where a lot of kids lose their way. It's an immense amount of pressure."

Fortunately for Shujaat, his father always insisted that he develop his own musical personality, and indeed, it's hard to imagine a person more sure of who he is. I ask him how Ghazal's freewheeling improvisations have gone down with the cognoscenti of North Indian classical music. "In every field, you have tight-ass, conservative people," he points out with a chuckle. "And I value their opinion up to an extent. But they can't push it down my throat. We are not doing this because we aren't able to make our lives as successful soloists. All of us are accepted as top-rung performers of our own culture. In addition to that, we are doing this for pleasure. For fun."

Although Kalhor himself does not come from a musical family, his parents encouraged him when he began to play the hammered dulcimer as a boy. He moved onto the violin briefly, then settled on the Persian variant, the kamanche, because, he recounts, "The sound of kamanche was closer to my soul." Kalhor has created his own techniques and approaches to classical ornamentation on the kamanche and has developed a reputation as an innovator.

Ghazal succeed because both Kalhor and Khan are willing to step outside the cultures and traditions that formed them, and because both play from the heart instead of intellectualizing. Khan explains, "I have very consciously kept away from the restrictions laid down by tradition. On the other hand, total freedom -- that's a little boring. I enjoy knowing that this is the kind of mood that we want in this piece, and the kind of notes that we want to play with. We make rules for ourselves."

Kalhor adds, "We take a little phrase, three or four notes, and we work on that. We do an improvised introduction and then go to that phrase. That's the point that holds us together."

You hear the process in action on "Fire in My Heart," the longest of the three pieces on Lost Songs. In the slow, non-rhythmic opening, Kalhor slides through the chosen raga, Khan sallies forth with strong, declarative bursts of jangle and then, as the sound fades, bends the pitch of the principal note in his trademark fading ornamentation. Ten minutes in, Kalhor breaks into full violin voice, his tone devastatingly rich, then shifts to a rhythmic plucking sound while Khan takes over the melody. When the tablas come in, the string players drift briefly in a rapture before beginning a new ascent, Kalhor building to delirious cycles that Khan answers with showers of crystalline notes. The musicianship is withering, but what lingers is the feeling, the pure pleasure of masters at play.

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