Suphala :: The Now
[rasa]   review from derek  

Perspective is key to understanding the broad scope of human experience. Where we stand, our personal and collective past, hopeful ambitions and emotional/mental responses to varied stimuli all factor into how we perceive what is in front of us. Walking down the same street an architect will notice the labyrinth of bricks and steel while a fashionista peeks into window displays. And so on. There is a common thread - it is the same street, after all - but the way we see that street will vary as to who and where we are as people.

As this carries into all endeavors, here we focus on music and the way two instruments - tablas and the computer - can be used in a variety of ways. Considered the most diverse percussion in the world by many, the two-drum set - comprised of the right hand dayan and left hand bayan - is the rhythmic pulse of classical, and, as is being proved, futuristic India. With the ability to keep rhythm and melody simultaneously, 10 fingers become five players smacking the watery palm while slapping resonant copper in seamless orchestration. Once merely an accompanying instrument, famed sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar had Ustad Allarakha perform it with solos. This changed the presentation of the classical pantheon and was to inspire endless young musicians to fuse tablas into creative electronic soundscapes.

New York-based tabla player Suphala learned from the best, studying with Ustad Allarakha and his son, Zakir Hussain, the latter a leading proponent of this digital adventure as a member of Tabla Beat Science. A hard working prodigy, she has played worldwide, taking the tablas on unique adventures, including stints with Perry Farrell, Vernon Reid, Sean Lennon and Timbaland. Like her mentors, she's interested in creating a new paradigm for this expansive drum to be remembered by. So on The Now she's invited members of numerous worlds to help break ground.

With such a far-reaching cast of characters - Norah Jones, guitarist Vernon Reid, vocalist/composer Salim Merchant, DJ/vocalist Vikter Duplaix, Si*Se's Carol C. - you'd expect an amazing foray of explorative mindbending songs. Instead we find the sort of cut-and-paste kitsch of most New Age undertakings, believing "transcendental" poetry and soothing synthesizers to be a gateway to some sort of timeless bliss. Through most of the record I found myself not only fully in my body, but using it to hit "next" on my laptop.

If we are to speak of Suphala's tabla playing, the performance is applauded. The opening "Transport" tastefully lays her drums into lush textures of reverberant rhythm; the production is simply excellent, although we're left wanting to hear more Norah. Not that it has to be a "song" in verse-chorus format, but having her voice match the whining wa-wa guitar, fading in and out of the percussive drill is not all that interesting. There are other moments of brilliance of drums, including the beautiful violin/tabla interplay on "Memory" and trombone/tabla dialogue on "Secret Language."

Then comes the rest of the album.

Getting back to perspective, we have to put this in context. The Now is on Rasa Music, a label that has released some of the most dreary, "soul uplifting" yet, in reality, spiritually void music in the country. Wearing the New Age as a shroud of pride they have released records like Samsara, Relax, Rasa Mello and the poetry albums set to "music," including Deepak Chopra's The Soul of Healing Meditations, A Gift of Love (actors and actresses reading Rumi love poetry) and Chakra Balancing. They market records with burlap envelopes, incense and candles, and attach cute quotes about contacting the soul plastered inside every release.

Industry StandardOne of the first rules of music journalism is to criticize sounds, not surroundings. Yet, for some reason, the two are married on The Now. The packaging is purely Rasa - Suphala done up in heavy make-up and brightly colored, with aforementioned quotes about being in "the now." Even the record itself sounds like a fragment of other releases, and in fact is: she spliced pre-existing poetry by Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith into the bell-chiming, eerily-feedbacked-sounding mix. Hearing El Mariachi claim "I am seduced by our omnipotence" over something that sounds like Brian Eno having a bad acid trip in Bombay is not, exactly, transcendental.

Nor is taking credible artists - Vikter Duplaix and Carol C. - and making them sound like Donna De Lory chanting southern country in nuevo-Sanskrit. For the entire middle of the record I searched for an impressive beat and could not find any, at last reaching the last two songs, "Meeting" and "Destination," where Brookyn-based DJ Kiva created nice sonic alchemy for Suphala to drum over. Even here, with Suphala's closing tals, we hear an overproduction of reverb on the vocals - an occurrence which persists throughout The Now's 54 minutes.

Of course, as we began, we end: this is just perspective. Coming from fingers that have traced the history of global electronica for the last four years there's a fair amount to compare to. For those sitting in the middle of America with little knowledge of the expansive genre-less genre of South Asian digital music, and really enjoyed reading The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, this is your record. In fact, The Now may even be the soundtrack to that book. So while you're tuning in, I'll see you the later.

ethnotechno rating: 5 out of 5
buy now

  1. Transport (pick)
  2. Memory
  3. Wind Farm Harvest
  4. Forever Maybe
  5. Piscean Dreamer
  6. Twin
  7. Secret Language
  8. Lover
  9. Hallway Man
  10. Night Flower
  11. Meeting (pick)
  12. Destination (pick)