Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Modern Bengali Music: State of Bengal and Paban Das Baul

I wanted to review a new CD by State of Bengal and Paban Das Baul, Tana Tani (Realworld), which I've been enjoying quite a bit in the past few days. (I found it in my local rock n roll record store in New Haven -- not in India!) But then I find that there is already a perfectly serviceable review of the CD at Ethnotechno, so I can skip explaining who Paban Das Baul and Sam Zaman are. I agree with the reviewer Derek that the earlier State of Bengal collaboration with Ananda Shankar was forgettable (as jam records are wont to be), and that State of Bengal's first CD, Visual Audio was not quite what it could have been.

But I don't think Derek gives Sam Zaman (the man behind SoB) the credit he's due. For one thing, Zaman gets at least one (maybe two) freebies from me for coming up with the catchiest asian drum n bass song ever, "Flight IC408." Whether or not the CDs that follow live up to the hype of that first, definitive track, is almost immaterial from a historical point of view. If someone just says the phrase, "Passengers are requested to please proceed to the aircraft," it puts me (and probably not just me) in the mood to dance, and that is Zaman's doing. Props to him.

But musicians need to keep moving forward, and I'm happy to discover that Zaman is finding his niche in this style of music. Tana Tani (Pushing-Pulling) not exactly hardcore and it's not exactly downtempo; rather, it's generally midtempo and it's groovy. Paban Das Baul pulls out some very beautiful melodies, and Zaman's production is both inventive and tasteful (he goes easy on the electronics, and allows the songs to stand as songs).

This CD should appeal to Bengali speakers especially, as I think the modernization of Bengali-language music has been overwhelmed by the flood of Punjabi beats and hip-hoppified Punjabi folk songs coming from the UK. I personally don't mind the Punjabi dominance, as I understand a lot of Punjabi, but I think there is a huge reservoir of music in other languages that is being overlooked. As this CD shows, there is certainly something very distinctive and beautiful in the Bengali folk tradition; I hope Zaman will continue to explore it. (As a side note, I should point out that the CD liner to Tana Tani has translations of the songs -- my only request is that in future they also include the literal transcriptions in Bangla.)

One of my favorite Paban Das Baul songs from his earlier CD Real Sugar (Real Sugar, with Sam Mills) is "Ore Poinkha":

You gave me no hint, o poinkha
You made a fool of me
Did you not say, O poinkha
That you had more land
Than seven ploughs could till
But when I got there
I just saw a few tail-less sheep
And nothing showing in the barn
did you not say, o poinkha
that you had a house on seven floors
But when I got there
I saw a palm leaf hut with no doors

(Kind of like I felt when I first got to grad school!) Though the mournful tone of this song is arresting, I wonder how it fits into the Baul tradition, which as I understand it is usually devotional. It's hard to interpret this song as devotional; it seems like it has more to do with an arranged marriage gone sour. Perhaps?

On the new CD, my favorite lines are from the first track, Moner Manush, translated as follows:

When you live in two lands
Keep love in your heart
When two hearts are one
You'll see so much play in the heart's lotus
If you wish to catch the man of the heart now

Paban Das Baul says
Inside good is evil
You've discerned between them
And now, hold on to subtle judgment
If you wish to catch the man of the heart now

The reference to "two lands" is not the only one amongst Paban Das Baul's songs. For instance, in the song "Tana Tani," for instance, he explicitly names London. But what it shows is that even in the midst of a quite traditional song structure -- Baul songs resemble ghazals in many ways -- there are references to displacement, to the problem of modernity.

This CD is a must for anyone interested in Indian music, traditional and modern.


pennathur said...

The dance-mix/bhangra-rap/techno mania has sadly drowned out the rich and vast melodic repertoire of Punjabi folk music. Thankfully Bengali traditional music hasn't gone the same way.

10:18 PM  
Qalandar said...

what a beautifully evocative post! I'm going to go buy the CD now!

10:49 PM  
Baul in New York said...

Suddenly came acroos your review o Paban Das and I agree with you - Sam Zaman and Paban Das together have taken Baul to a new level - never ever imagined Baul could also be fused so well with western funk.

Paban Das by himself is a great singer - very melodious and his traditional Baul songs also are some of the best I have heard and comparable in some instances to the great Purna Das Baul.

Thanks for your translations too ...

10:02 PM  

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