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Ustad Abdul Karim Khan – 1934-1935


Oh, caveats. They’re buggers right? Yeah. Well, here’s one anyway – without wanting to get into the ‘how do ‘we the west’ appropriate non-Western music?’, there’s always a massive problem writing about this sort of thing. I’d not suggest that my lack of knowledge of Carnatic/ Hindustani music is in any way an impediment to enjoying/ talking about Indian classical music, but I always get this feeling that it’d take me 20 years to get near putting this in some sort of context. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan has a phenomenal tone, lovely range, the ornaments to the rags are phenomenally delivered, the recording has been re-mastered brilliantly considering it sounds like one mic in a dusty room some point before the 2nd World War (!). But I’m taking it as read that he has the reputation he does in India for good reason – I’ve heard a bit of this stuff, and this is great, but mostly my appreciation comes from a sort of awe/ reverence for the complexity of the music rather than being able to distinguish Khan from Rajesh Patel who plays in the local café.

It’s a bit like footballers. I’m sure the difference between the lads in the park and England 11 is massive, but they’re just people kicking balls to me. Fair play to them, I just don’t really know the ins and outs that make the difference. (I’m going to over-stretch that simile. You see if I don’t). I’m probably closer to Indian music than I am football though. So maybe it’s a bit like snooker/pool. Snooker – I could tell you why O’Sullivan‘s considered one of our greatest living players, what tactical breaks lead to Trump‘s breakthrough recently… and so on. Indian music’s a bit like pool to me – I can see they know what they’re doing with a cue, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to figure it out. Though having said that, I’ve always been a bit floored by any Indian classical musicians I’ve met, while pool seems more like snooker’s training bra or softcore cueing for kids. Massive holes, it’s a piece of piss. Not like playing a motherfucking tabla. Hardcore instrument. Respect is due, even if I haven’t the foggiest.

ANYWAY. This is a great record. I imagine that it’d go down well with a lot of people into Indian stuff (which should be you, otherwise I’m not your friend any more), it’ll tick the Folkways box, it’s a lush recording and a great introduction to a massively complex area. All the songs clock in around four minutes or so, which I’m guessing is due to the recording limits of the time. Which is a bit of a shame – there’s a sense in several of the songs that he’s just getting warmed up, rather than getting into the full on ecstatic reveries that come with a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan‘s CDs. (NB – I’m not even entirely clear if that’s a fair comparison, given my dearth of knowledge from this area of music). These miniatures (and what I know of this area suggests that even 20 minute versions are incomplete versions of the live event) are a great showcase for Ustad’s tactile dexterity and subtlety around a mode. The liner notes are pretty good, giving a fair amount of biographical detail and pics – perhaps a bit lacking in musicological context though.

There’s this thing Khan does – I’m entirely sure there’s a proper term for it, but I don’t know it -where he hovers around and just flat of a major 7th (in Western scales) of the given mode and manages to maintain the suspense in a way that’s entirely gorgeous and quite anxiety inducing. The rapid glissandi around the middle of the scale, with the inhuman throat wobbling, the sudden jumps up and down a scale – just an incredible feat of human singingness. Again, as far as I know this could be something that every Kolhapuri kid can do, but… I’m suspecting it’s part of Khan’s reputation that they can’t. I should say the harmonium player, playing some odd cat-and-mouse with the vocals, is doing a great job. I have images of some poor young lad furtively panicking as Khan goes off into space with his vocals.

So yeah – caveats (and disabused similes) aside, there’s no reason not to recommend this record. A great historic thing, and a lush/ baffling document of a world that I’d like a second life to get to know properly.

 -Kev Nickells-


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1 comment to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan – 1934-1935

  • Jasraj Vaidya

    A good recording of some legendary historical 78s from India. However the first 6 tracks listings are completely incorrect. It lists some tracks that are not on the CD and mixes up track numbers on some. Here is the correct listing as per what I hear and find on older 78s that this was likely created from.

    #1 Kafi Thumri: Bawre Dam De Gayo Kanha
    #2 Basant Khayal Jalad: Phagava Brija Dekhana Ko Chalori (Teental)
    #3 Basant Khayal: Ab Maine Man Dekheri (Ektal)
    #4 Gujri Todi Tarana: Dim Dara Dir Dir
    #5 Malkauns: Piran Jani Dekhi
    #6 Jhinjoti Thumri: Piya Bin Nahin Avata Chain (Adatal)
    Tracks #7-#10 are listed correctly with minor typos.

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