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Blues, greens, yellows ... the ghazal's many hues

Kaash means 'if'. Hariharan's first ghazal album in years binds Afro-American beats to Urdu poetry, and it's an experiment that produces at least three fine numbers

Rs 60

Urdu blues. You haven't heard of that genre before? Well, that's the label Hariharan gives his new album.

"The mood in ghazals and in blues is the same. And so I thought why not use this language and that music," says he. And that's how Indian poetry meets Afro-American rhythms on this album.

Kaash is Hariharan's first ghazal album in many years. I had looked forward to it very eagerly. Until I saw the music video. Hackneyed. It tries to impress you with a show of affluence. Two men sit in a swank bar, one nursing his whisky and the other some fancy cocktail. The man with the stubble has had a tiff with his girlfriend, which he indicates through fashionable grimaces. Hariharan sings Maikade bandh, a part-philosophical, part-romantic number, in the background. The bar may be closed, he says, but the city has lots of beauties who can get you drunk with their eyes. The drinking over, the two friends part, and Hariharan arrives in a white Mercedes to offer a lift to the dejected lover. Okay, okay, we know you rich folks have your sorrows, but must you use them as a pretext to flaunt your money before lesser mortals?

Shekhar Suman invited Hariharan to his Movers and Shakers chat show and said, "Whatever you call it -- Urdu blues or greens or yellows -- we wish you all the best." I hadn't heard the album or seen the video, and his remark had sounded facetious and insensitive to Hariharan's experiment. I forgave Shekhar after watching the video.

Does that mean the album's pretentious? No.

Early in his career, Hariharan recorded quite a few ghazal albums like Reflections, Horizon and Dil ki Baat. In the last five years, he has been singing regularly in films, and has had little time for ghazal albums.

Kaash took Hariharan a whole year to complete. He says he is grateful Ustad Rais Khan agreed to adorn his songs with his sitar. The other stars accompanying him are Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi and Sivamani on drums.

The soft title song has a piano and sitar accompanying it, and you hear ghazal-like improvisations somewhere in the middle when Hariharan takes off in raga Jog.

Ustad Rais Khan's sitar is the highlight of Ye aina se. He plays delicate improvisations on the tune, based on raga Bhim Palas. The beat and chords are very much blues, and the sitar makes stylish forays into unexpected notes, especially the tivra madhyam.

Jhoom le and Hun ne ek shaam are very competently rendered, but are unremarkable tunewise, and you will have to get to the other side of the tape before you hear the really exciting songs.

Maikade bandh, the first number on Side B, is a conventional ghazal tune with a rare blues grace or two. Hariharan avoids the conventional ghazal orchestra of the harmonium, sarangi and the tabla. A drum and bass guitar accompany him throughout, and give the song a texture that's different from the traditional ghazal's. In the first interlude you hear southern rhythm on the ghatam and khanjira, and some strains on the sitar.

I liked the next song better. Aadhi raat guzar gayi takes exotic Arabian excursions and returns to raga Ahir Bhairav. It's about the loss of sleep, and captures a certain dreamy desolation though it's set to a lively tempo.

Hariharan's rigorous classical training is in full flow in Aandhiyaan, which shows strong shades of ragas derived from the Puriya scale. I especially loved the warm violins (conducted by Ousephachan) playing the interludes, now leading you to believe they're doing raga Amritavarshini and then surprising you with Puriya Dhanasri phrases.

Hariharan is best in Ab ke baras, which he sings with more feeling than any other song on this album. Is there raga Madhuvanti in it somewhere? Yes, and some intricate Karnatak-sounding phrases. Did you know that Hariharan learnt Karnatak music from his mother Alamelu Mani? The evocative orchestra of violins, cello (Shekar) and flute (Navin) is complemented by deep, wistful veena phrases (A K Devi). The storm in the background and the unhurried, step-like rhythm make this a stylish experiment. I forgave Hariharan the Mercedes video after hearing this song!

I am not so sure Kaash gives you "a new sound", as Hariharan has been saying, but it is indeed an album put together with a great deal of love and effort. Hariharan used studios in Chennai, Mumbai and London and got fine instrumentalists for the recording. As an experiment, it's far superior to and much more artistically successful than something like Madhosh, the Ghulam Ali album that messes up ghazals with silly drum beats. Sivamani's drumming is nowhere overdone, and the orchestra is rich and acoustic.

Music lovers who have managed to protect their taste from the balle balle onslaught will definitely appreciate the subtle artistry on Side B of Kaash.

Amritamati S

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