It was just a year or two ago that I first heard of the instrument called the Mohan Veena that had been invented by the great Indian Classical Musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. I heard it being played by a Canadian Blues musician named Harry Manx and I was astounded by the depth of feeling that it was able to bring to traditional Mississippi Delta Blues music.
Prior to that the only times I'd heard Indian instruments being used in Western popular music were occasions when they were being used for effect, or wow that sounds cool, by people who hadn't taken the time that Mr. Manx had to learn properly. Most Western pop musicians just aren't interested in taking the ten years required to study with a master to learn the intricacies involved with playing any of the Indian stringed instruments.
Which is a pity considering the wonderful way in which Mr. Manx was able to incorporate it into his music. So I was very excited when I saw that the Northern Blues label had released an album of Blues music featuring Doug Cox and Salil Bhatt, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's son.
The new album, Slide To Freedom not only features Mr.Cox on various Resonator guitars, wooden and aluminum, Mr. Bhatt on the Satvik Veena, and percussion by Ramkumar Mishra on Tabla, but Vishwa Mohan Bhatt sits in on two songs with his Mohan Veena. The result is pure magic.
The Veena, which is the basis for both the father's and son's instruments is, to put it very simply, like a long skinny lap guitar that the player sits behind and plucks the strings with the fingers of one hand and depresses them with the other hand. Usually they have two hollow gourds that they rest on which also serve as resonators I would guess.
Both Bhatt elder and junior have adapted this basic model and combined elements of it with a Western guitar body. Salil Bhat's Satvik Veena retains the extra resonator under what we would refer to as the head of the guitar – furthest away from the hollow body. The Mohan Veena of his father's design has more in common with a guitar, with only the addition of a board along which an extra twelve strings are run marking it as different.
It's these strings that generate the sound we in the West associate with the sitar – the long drawn out sound reminiscent of bells if they were a string instrument. Look at the two men in the picture and you'll be able to see some of what I'm talking about.
But to be honest with you I don't really care what an instrument looks like, I want to know what it sounds like and what the meeting of these three players results in. In a lot of instances where completely different forms of music come together one or the other is forced to make accommodations. So does Salil try to make his Satvik Veena sound like a Western instrument or does Doug try and make his resonator guitar sound like a sitar and forget that it produces a valuable sound in its own right?
Somehow or other none of that happens; the three principal musicians, Cox, Salil, and Mishra on tabla (the two drums are referred to as one instrument when talking about the tabla not two – tablas plural is two sets of drums) have found a place where all three instruments blend seamlessly together while never losing their distinctiveness. If on occasion it becomes difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins it's only because they have made the sound a non-issue and have put the focus squarely on the songs performed instead.
Whether it's one of the two old Delta Blues songs, "Pay Day" by Mississippi John Hurt, or "Soul Of A Man" by Blind Willie Johnson or the pieces the three of them have created collaboratively it doesn't matter. With each of the three, or four as the case may be, giving their attention to what they can bring to a piece of music, regardless of what they sound like, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
When that happens it becomes impossible for our attention as a listener not to travel along the same path. In the end, we are able to judge them by the same criteria we would use to judge any piece of Blues music; how well does it work melodically, rhythmically, and emotionally to express the Blues.
In my mind that proves just how successful Slide To Freedom is. Once your ear is used to the exotic nature of the tabla keeping beat, and the new sounds generated by both the Satvik Veena and Mohan Veena, you find yourself listening to an acoustic blues album instead of an exotic coupling of instruments from the East and the West.
So is it a good acoustic blues CD? Yes it is. Doug's vocals on "Payday" opening the disc help to establish a mood that is never allowed to slip. Even a song entitled "Bhoopali Dance" sounds just as much a blues piece as "Soul Of A Man".
Listening to the disc Slide To Freedom is a reminder that in spite of any and all differences there is always a place where we can all come together in harmony.