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CD Review: Bombay Dub Orchestra

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Over the past twenty or so years that I’ve actually paid attention to pop music, and World Music in particular, I’ve noticed a depressing trend. A pattern has developed that serves, over time, to dilute original music, until it has been distilled into something that bares only a passing resemblance to the distinct sound that made it unique in the first place.

There have always been things that have bothered me about North American and European attitudes to World Music. The conceit of claiming to “discover” music that has existed in some cases longer than our civilization makes me scratch my head for starters. It’s like it didn’t exist until somebody showed up with a tape recorder so they could make a project out of it.

I know there are a few contemporary musicians who are genuine in their interest, and original in their incorporation, of music from other cultures into their own sound and writing. Peter Gabriel, Bob Bronzmen, Harry Manx, and Ry Cooder have all done amazing work with musicians and music from different parts of the globe.

Even Paul Simon, for all that people like to criticize him, was respectful of the people and the music that he utilized in Graceland. He incorporated them and their music into his work without compromising them, or their sound’s integrity.

But unfortunately, once the music gets past the initial introductory phase that these few individuals offer, and the novelty of the indigenous performers has worn off, things start to become compromised. A prime example of this is what happened to Native American music, specifically flutes.

In less time then it takes to say, New Age, people sporting names like Cindy Spotted Wolf and Ralph Running Rabbit swamped the market with recordings of pseudo spiritual, relaxation, and meditation recordings. Swirling keyboards were mixed down with the occasion flute sound, eagle cries and wolf howls to make it sound authentic, and enough sound of running water to make you have to pee every five minutes.

Now of course whole new frontiers have opened up so you can get variations on this theme based around music from Africa to Brazil and all points in between. The latest casualty appears to be the music of India.

In recent years, second generation immigrants from India to places like England and Canada have been experimenting with elements of Western pop music and incorporating them into traditional music from their homelands. Out of this amalgamation has emerged some pretty amazing music. Groups like Asian Dub Foundation have created a brand of Indian House music that combines all the best elements of Dub and the rhythms of traditional ragas.

Of course, there has been a long sporadic relationship with Indian music and the west dating back to the sixties when people like George Harrison began incorporating sitars into their songs on occasion. But it had never really caught the general public’s imagination until recent years when Indian performers began the incorporation in reverse.

When I heard about the album Bombay Dub Orchestra I must admit that the word Dub led me to have preconceived notions of what I was going to hear when I put the disc in my player. My first indication that this was not going to be what I expected was upon hearing swirling synthesisers in the opening bars of the first track.

Bombay Dub Orchestra is the project of two composers and writers, Gary Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay. Recording in both London and Mumbai, they had access to some of the finest Indian musicians around, from sitar and tabla players to vocalists.

It is divided into two discs; original compositions on disc one, and then “Dub” versions on disc two. On opening the package I remember feeling quite excited by the photos of the array of musicians, it made me hopeful as to the content.

Unfortunately, I was to be sorely let down by the results. After listening to the first piece, I thought that perhaps they had developed a composition similar to orchestral music where themes are developed in an overture and then explored in subsequent movements. That would explain why the sounds of the sitar and tabla are buried under the wash of keyboards.

But that was not the case. The further I went into the disc the more obvious it became that this was the pattern followed by all the tracks. The elements of Indian music that were being incorporated into the songs were continually buried underneath washes of synthesiser, depriving the music of almost any legitimate claim to the inclusion of Bombay in the collection’s title.

Yes, they’ve used Indian musicians and recorded elements of the discs in the city formally called Bombay, but aside from that, there is little reason to think of this as an example of the meeting of two cultures to form something new. Rather, it sounds like two separate pieces of music pasted one on top of the other, with one, the Indian, being subservient to the other, the electronic music.

The Dub versions of the songs really don’t make any difference to the compositions, and only serve to point out how dissimilar it is to the genuine article as produced by groups like the Asian Dub Foundation. Adding some vocal tracks by Jamaicans singers do not make a Dub song. There has to be an inherent rhythm to a song that predominates for Dub to work, and when the predominant sound is that of keyboards, there is nothing really to build from.

Bombay Dub Orchestra is an example of the trend towards homogenising a music and a culture to make it fit into a market niche. With its swirling keyboards and swirling strings, I expect it to become the latest “inspirational” hit among the new age crowd. But if you want to hear some Indian House or Dub music, pick up some Asian Dub Foundation and you’ll see what’s it like to dance in two worlds at once.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.