No drone zone, pushing stylistic boundaries

Mohamed Assani's Wayfinder reviewed
Conner Singh VanderBeek

Mohamed Assani's Wayfinder is a bold journey into the genre-bending potentials of musical fusion. Assani, a sitarist who is also trained in tabla and keyboard, initiates a series of conversations between Indian and Pakistani classical music, Middle Eastern music, jazz, electronic, and Western classical – and does so in a way that keeps each influence an equal participant.

Assani firmly departs from the established expectations of sitar performance, typically explorations of a raag over a drone. "I wasn't here to create a traditional album," Assani says. "I didn't want drones in any songs."

Assani refuses to compromise the musical heritage of the sitar by taking it into Western musical frameworks

On the same token, Assani refuses to compromise the musical heritage of the sitar by taking it into Western musical frameworks. He does not reduce sitar to twang as George Harrison does in "Norwegian Wood," or to timbre as Pat Metheny does in "Last Train Home" by using an electric sitar (which, technically, is not even a sitar). Assani instead offers a series of compositions that showcase the myriad stylistic directions that the sitar can take.

His fusion neither purist nor reductionist in its approach.

Mohamed Assani

Fusion is intimately tied to the concept of world music – a term that was employed by British record companies as early as 1987 to sell, to British consumers, music that was already popular in other parts of the world.1Stokes, Martin. "Music and the Global Order." Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 33 (2004), 52. Ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes explains how “fusion” and “world music” are terms used to contrast existing genres; Western popular genres like rock, jazz, funk, and hip-hop are treated as neutral arenas into which foreign actors insert themselves. As Stokes writes, “Algerian rai is described as Islamic rock and roll and as Thursday night fever, South African kwela as township jive, Greek amanes as Greek blues, and so on.”2Ibid, 59. This artificial distinction pigeonholes non-Western musicians into the language of Western genres, thus blocking these diverse musical cultures from even truly standing alone.

“There’s a lot of mediocre fusion,” Assani says. “It’s not about juxtaposing; it’s almost like it’s a fascination to play with foreign musicians.” For Assani, the best fusions occur when musicians strive to understand each other’s musical languages and create a unique space for interaction exchange. At that point, labels like “Pakistani jazz” or “Hindustani funk” become inaccurate as the musicians strive to create a musical space that is distinctly in between.

This penchant for mixing comes from Assani’s musical upbringing. Assani, who was born in Pakistan, originally wanted to be a pianist when he left Karachi for England. Assani studied Western classical music and world music at the Dartington College of Arts in southwestern England and would later study tabla from Pandit Sharda Sahai and sitar from Ustad Ashraf Sharif Khan of the Poonch Gharana. Assani currently teaches at the VSO’s School of Music and has previously taught world music at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Mohamed Assani
Wayfinder pushes the stylistic boundaries of the sitar even further into compositions that defy any singular genre label.

Assani is by no means just a Hindustani musician; he would be better described as a musical conversationalist. His concerto for sitar and orchestra, “Pressed for Time” (co-written with Canadian composer John Oliver), explores ways the sitar can contrast, lead, and blend into Western orchestral textures. Raag blends into and builds harmonies. Orchestra shadows the sitar like sarangi trails a khayal vocalist. At one point, Assani’s sitar provides a lehra, or a repeating melodic figure for rhythmic soloists, for Shahbaz Hussain’s virtuosic tabla playing. The sitar continually transforms to fill numerous roles, Hindustani and Western classical alike.

When asked about the impulse to explore harmony on sitar, Assani explained, “I always wondered what a certain chord would sound like on the sitar or how a certain raag would sound like with harmony.”

Wayfinder pushes the stylistic boundaries of the sitar even further into compositions that defy any singular genre label.

"Awakening" opens the album with an unmetered, improvised sitar alap over a steadily pulsed synth ostinato that outlines the skeleton of Raag Ahi Bhairav. As the track builds in intensity, Curtis Andrews enters on mridangam. Assani’s rapid motifs gradually build into a slow, climatic melody doubled by flaring synth. The synthesized bass drum kicks that opened the track become gradually heavier and add rapid ride cymbal bursts that are reminiscent of trap music beats. The remainder of the track alternates between Hindustani-styled improvisation and intense, rave-like moments of build-up.

Excerpt: “Awakening” 3:30-4:40
Assani pushes the sitar into Western-derived musical constructs, harmonizing it and playing harmony, adding counterpoint and playing countermelodies.

This opening track establishes much of what the listener experiences throughout the album: sitar evoking Hindustani form while also organically taking on Western classical and popular musical concepts. Any piece may include an alap (unmetered, improvised introduction), jor (when the alap becomes metered), jhala (a more rhythmically intense improvisation), gat (composition), and vistar (elaborations upon the gat), and improvisations may be built on tan, or short melodic motifs that are transposed and repeated up and down scales. At the same time, Assani pushes the sitar into Western-derived musical constructs, harmonizing it and playing harmony, adding counterpoint and playing countermelodies. Main melodies are presented like the heads of jazz tunes, and crescendos peak into electronic music-style breaks.

The studio recording space also enabled Assani to expand the colouristic possibilities of the sitar and of the album at large. Assani pre-composed most of the album but collaborated with Nelson-based producer Adham Shaikh to fill in the sound. Assani spent the 9-hour drive to Nelson imagining different sonic and instrumental combinations that could realize those compositions. The two spent several late nights shuffling through Shaikh’s vast sample library, picking the exact synth patches that would capture the sound Assani imagined. For “Awakening”, this meant finding the right synthesizer ostinato. For “Black Sugar”, Assani looked for an R&B beat that was reminiscent of the riff from Ariana Grande’s “7 rings”.

Assani then returned to Vancouver to finish the album. He filled in textures with overdubs, harmonizations, and doublings. He video called Shahbaz Hussain and exchanged ideas on tabla until Hussain tracked what Assani calls the “funky, Lahori style groove” in “Serendipity”. Assani played ideas for basslines on keyboard for Jeanse Le Doujet, who then elaborated on that material on electric bass. Curtis Andrews added mridangam, kanjira, and additional tabla. On each step of the journey, Assani incorporated the styles and personal voices of each additional musician.

Mohamed Assani

Wayfinder was originally to be premiered at the Biltmore Cabaret, but the rapid takeover of the world by COVID-19 forced the premiere to be digital. Indian Summer Festival instead hosted an album launch livestream of Wayfinder on Facebook and YouTube on April 24, 2020, and also featured two tracks from the album on the launch event of the 2020 iteration of the festival, titled “Beginnings”. For the ISF program, Assani performed “Darbari Dub” beneath the Granville Street Bridge and “Serendipity” on the Bridges Restaurant Patio in Granville Island, alongside violinist Jeanette Singh.

“Serendipity” opens with a rapid kanjira riff by Andrews and a down-tempo bassline by Le Doujet. A synthesized orchestral string line cues in a melody played by two sitars playing alternating unison and harmonized lines. Synthesized drums and tabla join the kanjira, creating a rich rhythmic texture against the plucked sound of the sitar and sustained, filmi feel of the synthesized strings. Hussain and Andrews spin out the occasional tabla or kanjira fill, never allowing their respective parts to be relegated to mere accompaniment.

The live version for ISF adds conversational elements between Assani and Jeanette Singh. Assani’s vistar (elaboration) on short melodic motifs, which takes the piece from the midway point until its end, is replaced by the trading of phrases between Assani and Singh. These shared phrases become shorter and shorter until the two musicians return to play in unison and close on a climax. Whereas the studio version of “Serendipity” stops after a reiteration of the main melody, the live version concludes in a style much more characteristic of virtuosic Hindustani performances: a tihai (triply repeated phrase) embedded in a second tihai, forming a reliable flashy chakradhar tihai (loosely, triple cycle).

Excerpt: YouTube cut of "Serendipity", 58:23 - 59:12.
Credit: Indian Summer Festival

The live version of “Serendipity” opens the possibility that, despite Wayfinder having been released as a complete studio album, the project is not entirely complete. Assani notes that the piecemeal style of recording one element at a time allows for each tracked part (i.e. a sitar doubling or synthesized orchestral part) to be replaced with live instruments later on: violin, string quartet, etc. And so the listener is left with a body of work that is rich and compelling as it is but will undoubtedly grow and develop even more once Assani is able to tour with it – as more musicians can join the conversation he has already opened.

It is unfortunate that we will not be able to experience Wayfinder in a live setting until after this pandemic. Assani’s work is a refreshing exploration into the spaces of musical fusion that go beyond mere comparison or juxtaposition and into genuine sharing and mutual learning.

Wayfinder is available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp and was made possible with funding from Creative BC and FACTOR.

References

  1. Interview with Mohamed Assani, 18 May 2020.
  2. “‘Pressed for Time’, A Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra’” by Mohamed Assani and John Oliver. http://www.mohamedassani.ca/sitarconcerto/.
  3. Wayfinder, an album by Mohamed Assani. https://mohamedassani.bandcamp.com/album/wayfinder.
  4. Stokes, Martin. “Music and the Global Order.” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 33 (2004), 47-72.
Conner Singh VanderBeek is a composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist working on his PhD in ethnomusicology at University of Michigan.View bio.
Mohamed Assani is an award-winning sitar player and composer, known for being a proactive ambassador for his rich musical tradition. He has brought the sitar to new audiences through innovative, genre-bending collaborations. According to the Georgia Straight, "Assani is both deeply rooted in the artistic traditions of South Asia and a one-of-a-kind innovator." View bio.
 
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