State of Bengal vs. Paban Das Baul :: Tana Tani
In mid-December, when Real World announced their upcoming releases and I spotted a new collaboration between South Asian beat miner State of Bengal (a.k.a. Saifullah "Sam" Zaman) and Baul singer Paban Das Baul, my interest was piqued. There was no apparent reason - State's last two releases, the solo Visual Audio and Walking On, a collaboration with sitar player Ananda Shankar - did not sit particularly well with me, and I knew little of Baul music outside the scene's ambassador, Bapi Das Baul. Well, I should add "was" to that last reference, as with Tana Tani Paban wears the crown.
Zaman always had it in him, but never quite got it out. Audio Visual had moments, highlighted with two cuts making the infamous Anokha comp: "Flight 1C 408" and "Chittagong Chill." An ambitious traveler, Zaman locked in on rhythms but neglected breathing space for them; repetition can be effective, but looping can become a scapegoat for innovation. Audio Visual had it's head-nods and hip-shakes, maybe even a heavy drum-'n-bass fist thrown in the air. Much the same for Walking On: Shankar's hat tip to Hendrix (naming the project The Ananda Shankar Experience & State of Bengal) resulted in overblown, unnecessary guitar screeches set against rapid sitar lines. The bullets misfired, and while a few moments emerged, it was altogether forgettable.
Forget Zaman did, as Tana Tani - meaning "push and pull," a metaphor for many things, as we shall see - is a brilliant serenade to what's quickly (and unfortunately) becoming known as Asian Chill. The misfortune lies in the constant need for media and labels to make albums saleable by genre instead of letting the music exist for itself, as TJ Rehmi's latest, The Warm Chill, can attest. While Rehmi did, however, build in the genre within the album name, Zaman and Baul demystify some 500 years of Bengali history with an album gorgeous as it is moving, emotive and inspiring. Four months after my hunch, I was proved wrong only in degree: I looked forward to receiving the promo, and that optimism has turned into necessity as the record refuses to leave my stereo.
Credit vocalist equally with rhythm maker. Baul, Paban's last name as well as the title of his religious sect, is simply untamable. It's coded into his very character - the word Baul is from the Sanskrit "batul," meaning "mad." The Bauls are Bengal's mystics, comparable to Pakistan's qawwals, Islamic Sufis and Hindu Sadhus. They weave philosophy into song and present sacred text in verse. Their life aim is dissolution, disillusion or dissolving like moth into flame, as the poet Rumi would put it. They are most commonly either Muslim or Hindu, but when one enters, they shed that marking - as well as any other - and are referred to as Baul, mad poets modern in the lineage of Hafiz, Diogenes and Ginsberg.
Paban doesn't come across as particularly neurotic on Tana Tani, but his romantic tenure is solidified; as sexual energy is harvested through Tantric practice, Baul (singer and sect) present coitus as cunning, fornication as fact. His previous Inner Knowledge and Real Sugar (the latter alongside Susheela Raman/Tama guitarist Sam Mills) are exquisite, but his masterpiece is now rendered. Tana Tani, push and pull, he tugs at the timing of his vast repertoire - the dubki, a small tambourine; dotara, four-string fretless banjo-esque piece tuned to resonate with voice; ektara, a one-string gourd Bauls consider unity with the divine; kortal, a high-frequency bell; khomuk, a pitch-shifting drum mimicking the sound of a barking dog - and emerges an organic victor in Zaman's technological world. The connection is not ProTools versus classical Indian, but rather a deeply held passion for creating music uniting the two. And that union, much like the Baul belief of human and god, is inseparable.
The very opener is destined for fame, certain to be picked up by more chill-out comps than Thievery Corporation and Groove Armada combined: "Moner Manush," the very definition of lie-back-relax-and-immerse-submerge-yourself- into-yourself-and-the-Self-
we'll-take-care-of-everything. From there, it only gets better. "Kali," the black goddess, sees beautiful light as Zaman and Baul once again push/pull meaning into metaphor. The following tribute, "Radha Krishna," is a midtempo mindswirl, and by the time they reach the title track, you've been fully stretched, sedated and surrendering. Even when Zaman programs d-'n-b, as in "Tana Tani," "Ram Rahim" and "Al Keuto Sap," he allows spaciousness to exist. Much like the Baul practice of Aarope Sadhana - the yoga of breathing - Zaman lets his beats out for fresh air.
He even steps aside, on occasion, and lets tradition be kept: the heartwrenching "Padma Nodi" and "Kon Ek Pakhi," a minimalist dream. The album's opus, in this journalist's ear, may very well be "Medina," with sounds mimicking the Australian digeridoo and Brazilian berimbau, laid atop an absolutely unbeatable (slightly) broken beat. Paban's voice continues its sensual voyage from headspace to heartspace, and you give in. There is no choice, really. Tana Tani is seductive, reels you in with delicate claws and rips away fragments of your being. When you recover, you realize it was excess dissolved, and you emerge with clarity, focused, inspired and content.