Saath-Saath is “together-together” in the Hindustani language, an intentional repetition of a word to show its importance, mimicking how one might say it in Cantonese or Mandarin.
What happens when Indian and Chinese musicians meet? “Indian” and “Chinese” refer here not to practices tied to modern nation-states but to performative idioms embedded in specific social-cultural-political histories. Are the musicians able to overcome the lack of shared languages? Can they communicate through a lingua musica comprising voice and melody, and if so, what is communicated? Do they simply perform “their own music” side by side with each other, or can they actually create a new kind of music?
Historically, the musical crossings date back to the 7th century, a good 1,400 years ago, during the Tang dynasty, when songs, instruments, and musicians from West Asia and South Asia thronged the port cities of China. That’s when the prevailing musical scale in China, it is believed, was transformed into the heptatonic scale under the influence of Indian or South Asian music. Today, however, after China’s turn to the West beyond its immediate west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there may be no traces left of that seven-note scale. But perhaps the latent memory of that old interaction still persists, manifested in the shape and sound of certain Chinese instruments or in the ways Indian melodic structures can be harmonized with Chinese melodic expression.
This double album presents a truly unique contemporary collaboration between Indian and Chinese vocalists and instrumentalists, and a Cantopop lyricist. DISC 1, recorded in Jinze, an ancient township near Shanghai, showcases the electrifying voices of Bindhumalini, Rutuja Lad, and Zhe Lai in compositions such as Maya, the Swindler (based on a poem by the 15th century Indian saint-poet Kabir) and Qarlygash -The Swallow (based on a Kazakh folk song long popular in Mandarin as “Yienze”). In Oblivion, Omkar Havaldar and Zhang Yi join the others with vocals and pipa to present an old composition from Hindustani music with the added frisson of the Chinese instrument. Appreciating the Lotus is a kunqu opera lyric in the Lan Hua Mei genre, where the southern breeze and the sound of the waves enliven a tune in Raag Bhairavi re-presented in old Chinese. The Wandering Heart was composed by Zhang Yi, who drew on the melodic structures of Raag Bhairav, infusing them with his pipa training to present a bi-lingual tale about the resolution of emotional turmoil. Green Tara is also a Zhang Yi composition based on the Tibetan Buddhist goddess of that name, deconstructed by the Indian singers into three Hindustani ragas and re-assembled as a new raag, “Jogavathi.”
In DISC 2, the Hong Kong album, seven of the 10 tracks are based on the profoundly allusive poems of the Cantonese writer Chow Yiu-Fai. When the New Century Comes is a poignant poem from 1997, the year of the handover of the erstwhile British colony to China, presented by the three Indian vocalists, the poet, and yangqin player Kimho Ip. In “Ice and a Summer Insect,” written in response to Omkar’s melody in the Raag Brindavani Sarang, Chow talks about finding the weight of lightness as time ages, and Omkar then returns the Cantonese poem to the melody he had composed as a prompt for the Cantonese poet.
Bindhumalini sent a melody she had composed in Raag Kamod to Chow Yiu Fai. Listening to the melody on his headphones, and treating the notes as composing prompts, Chow translated the tune into Cantonese words and phrases whose tones of enunciation matched the Hindustani notes. What emerged was the metaphor-rich poem, To Know. “When the snake coils, get to know an ant”; “One moment, almost a life, what beauty are we looking for.” “Here I am,” says the poet, “Come and know me.” “Here you are”, he says, “I wish I know you”.
Dream of Floating Dust is Chow’s response to a melody in Raag Gorakh Kalyan sent to him by Omkar Havaldar. Translating Chow’s poem into Kannada, Omkar sings it in the style of a bhaavgeet (literally, emotion-poetry) expressing his feeling about floating on the clouds while encountering a world full of pain, sorrow, and compassion. In the poem At, Chow says, “I want to go but I always come back,” his words always at the tip of the tongue. He has written this to Rutuja Lad’s melody in Raag Miya Malhar. In another experiment, she sends him a tune in Raag Tilak Kamod, receives his Cantonese response, the poem Nowhere to be Found, and reshapes it in Marathi in her rendition. Bindhumalini takes Chow’s poem Never Explain the World, written to the notes/tones of Raag Puriya Dhanashree, and renders it in Tamil. Chow’s spoken Cantonese resonates through these multiple Indian languages and melodies.
With yanqin player Kimho Ip, Bindhumalini presents Come into my Eyes from the Indian saint-poet tradition: “Make your eyes a room…Make your eyelids the curtains.” Rutuja’s and Omkar’s duets with the yangqin are based on traditional compositions from Hindustani music: Krishna at Moonset in Raag Bhibhas and Away to your City in Raag Bhairav. For the duet with Bindhumalini, the yangqin was played with the regular mallets used for that instrument; for the other two duets, the yangqin was struck with sticks used for the santoor, an Indian stringed instrument sharing a West Asian ancestry with the yangqin. As Ip says, referring to the sequence of mallet hits on the yangqin, “Each sequence leaves behind the trace of a movement… A musical work is a representation of the trace of a movement, of a journey.”
These two Saath-Saath albums are the product of multiple crisscrossing journeys that took Chinese musicians to Bangalore and Mumbai and took Indian musicians to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Wuhan between 2016 and 2019. The album’s main title – RE/SEMBLANCE – refers to the seeking of similarity in difference. Zhang Yi created a melody that resembled a Hindustani raga but at the same time was not that raga. When Bindhumalini or Rutuja or Omkar sing Chow Yiu-Fai’s poem in Cantonese, does it remain Cantonese even when it resembles it? Does it also resemble (and reassemble) a Hindustani raga?
Watch the associated documentary directed by Indian filmmaker Surabhi Sharma at saathsaathmusic.com
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