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Music Review: Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble – Flat Planet

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Anybody familiar with even the most basic history of jazz and blues knows how they both have their origins in African tribal music that came to North America with slaves. When the slaves were Christianized by their masters, those sounds formed the basis for the music of their churches, which in turn provided the inspiration for its secular cousins jazz and blues. Of course African American traditional, or folk music, isn't the only one to have inspired other genres. In Louisiana's Cajun music one can hear the sounds of Normandy that were brought south by the deported former settlers of New France, the Acadians, while traditional Hungarian, Romanian, and Roma (gypsy) music inspired the orchestral compositions of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

So it's only natural for a jazz musician whose origins are in South East Asia to want and go back to the traditional music of where he was born and use it as inspiration for a new series of compositions. Which is exactly what Fareed Haque has done with his latest group, Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble, on the soon to be released CD, Flat Planet, on the Owl Studios label. Drawing specifically upon the folk music of Pakistan and North Western India (which is also the basis for today's Bollywood music as well) Haque's intent was to emulate fellow jazz musicians of African American descent embracing, what he calls, "the groove of gospel music", by doing the same with "the groove of my own heritage". Punjabi folk music, he claims, is to India what gospel is to America – funky, fun, danceable and spiritual.

In order to achieve his goal, Haque has augmented Flat Earth Ensemble's regular line up with some special guests. The band is already a mix of traditions featuring as it does players on the instruments we normally associate with jazz; guitars, saxophone, drums, keyboards, and bass as well as those playing tabla, dhol, and other South East Asian percussion instruments. However the addition of sitar and Hindustani violin allows them to expand their sound even more and explore melody as well as rhythm.
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Anyone familiar with Bollywood musicals, especially modern ones, and movies like Bend It Like Beckham that have brought Indian music to Western audiences, will know that Haque isn't exaggerating with his description of the music as funky and fun. However if you come to this disc expecting to hear something along the lines of what you'd hear in one of those movies you'll be disappointed. Remember he's not trying to recreate either Bollywood, traditional folk, or even the dance hall music that has sprung up out of the fusion of Bhangra (the name given a specific type of folk and dance music from the Punjabi region of India) with hip-hop, reggae, and house music. What he's doing is creating music that draws upon those influences like jazz draws upon gospel.

While some of the tracks have beats and sounds that make them immediately identifiable as South East Asian, much like you can hear identifiable elements of funk in some jazz fusion projects, there are quite a few more where he's taken a couple of quantum leaps away from his source material to create something new. However, in order to ensure that listeners are able to appreciate, as much as possible, what he has created, Haque builds up to those pieces by beginning the disc with songs containing elements of either rhythm or melody that we can identify with. It's like he's showing us the various stages he went through in working with the music in order to develop his final sound.

Whether it's the track that leads off the disc, "Big Bhangra", with its insistent, tabla and kanjira driven beat that evokes the pulsating rhythm that propels dancers across the screen of a Bollywood musical, or "The Chant", incorporating sitar and violin to flavour the melody, the tracks at the beginning of the disc introduce the listener to the various elements that are used in the traditional music. However, even with these tunes he and the band are starting to expand and develop those aspects and give you an indication of the direction he will taking the music in.

Somehow or other, even at this stage, the music doesn't seem like a fusion of sounds, where one has been welded onto the other. Instead it feels like Haque and his band are taking individual elements – as described above – and seeing how they interact with the band's regular sound in order to develop something new. It's like they are asking themselves what does a sitar do to the melody line of a song and how can we create that feel without actually using its sound? Of course, as these songs are in of themselves great pieces of music, the music is nowhere near as clinical as that sort of description makes it sound. However, as we progress further into the recording and the band is pared back to only its original membership, we begin to feel the Punjabi influence more than actually hear Punjabi sounds in the music.

So by the time we reach the conclusion of the disc, three movements from "The Four Corners Suite"; tracks nine ("North"), ten ("South"), and eleven ("West"), Haque and the rest of The Flat Earth Ensemble have created a sound in which you can hear the debt owed to the folk music without actually hearing any of its distinctive elements. It's like you would never think to hear that John Coletrane's music is related to African American gospel, as it has evolved so far from that sound.

Flat Planet by Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble is a great disc that's not only filled with interesting and fun music, but gives you an insight into how a musician will develop a new sound. Derived from the traditional music of the Punjabi region of India and the surrounding environs, the sound he ultimately creates is not only appreciative of Haque's cultural background, but beautiful in its own right.

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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.