Goodbye Ambience, Hello Music: Vishal Vaid and Karsh Kale

Saturday night we went to see Vishal Vaid (see this thoughtful interview at MyBindi) at Joe's Pub in New York City. It was pretty great -- he and his band have found what I think is just the right way to blend the traditional bhajan/ghazal style of music with a few modern, 'fusion' elements. I'm not sure if Vaid is planning to put out a solo CD; I think he probably should.

Vaid sang on a number of tracks on Karsh Kale's 2001 CD Realize, which is one of the better examples in the chill-out drum n bass genre. The attraction on that CD was the sophisticated production and the Asian underground "vibe." While I've always enjoyed listening to Realize, but I've never loved it -- it's mostly music I listen to in the background. (Talvin Singh's Ha, in contrast, is something I can listen to intensely.)

I'm glad to see Vaid going in a new direction here, aiming for a return to a style of music approaching conventional light-classical style of bhajan/ghazal singing. The electronics are completely out. When Karsh Kale did come into the performance for the last two songs, he was playing live drums. There's more emphasis on song structure, and on the content of the songs themselves. The poetry of forbidden love and the meditations on life and death -- the truly priceless heritage of the Indo-Islamic literary tradition -- come to the foreground. Say goodbye to ambience, and hello to a (dynamic and evolving concept of) the real thing.

Though Vaid's music is as a whole much closer to the traditional ghazal style, there are still many things Vaid is doing that deviate from what you hear in Jagjit Singh, for instance. I'm not an expert (to say the least) on this, but to my ear he is using a much wider vocal range, and considerably more emphasis on improvisation. Vaid works the tension between the formal austerity of the ghazal and the wild expressivism of the Qawwali aria.

Apparently, he is doing it from a perspective of personal investment and scholarship, as this interviewer found:
In addition to providing vocals for the electronically-oriented Realize band of which Karsh Kale is the driving force, Vishal also does more traditional ghazal mehfils, with Karsh accompanying him on the tabla, and he’s acquainted with the work of great Urdu and Punjabi poets such as Bullhe Shah, Ghalib, Qateel Shifai, and their ilk. More than this, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the newer Urdu poetry developing in the wake of the very political poetic period that seems to have died down a bit with the passing away or decreasing activity of the great Socialist poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sahir Ludhianwi, and Habib Jalib. Vishal also writes ghazals himself, though I didn’t have the presence of mine to ask whether the short bait that he iterates in “Liberation” is his own:

dawâ milî na masîhâ milâ
kashtî ko na kinâra milâ

We found no medicine and no messiah,
Our boat found no shore. (from the MyBindi interview)

Vaid takes the classical tradition seriously, and perhaps modernizes it in a controlled way. Others (in recent years) have tended to approach the tradition as more of a mining operation.

Counterpoint: I really enjoyed Vaid's original songs and his style of singing, but several of the people in my party thought that Rahis Khan's astonishing tabla playing was really the standout aspect of the evening. My cousin from Delhi found Vaid's occasional use of integrated English translation to be a little irritating. I didn't mind so much because I don't have any training in Hindustani classical music, and therefore don't have much investment in its "authenticity." Also, the translations open the music up to a much larger audience in the U.S. as well as elsewhere than might otherwise be possible. Having watched the rise and fall of many a world music "sensation" (Bob Marley, King Sunny Ade, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Fela Kuti, Bally Sagoo, Cheb i Sabbah, etc.), it seems to me that an effort at translation can make a very big difference. (See my earlier piece on the Brazilian dance music fad for more on the importance of translation.)

Vaid also does some vocals on Karsh Kale's new CD Liberation. I haven't heard it yet, so I'm not sure whether what I saw on Saturday is a trend that Kale is also following. Maybe when I get the CD I will write a follow-up.

[This post was slightly modified]