Abdul Karim Khan - 1934-1935 [Important Records - 2012]
History has it that Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was among the most incredibly talented virtuosos ever to grace India with his voice. This new release '1934-1935' is a collection of 10 tracks recorded in the span of those two years, apparently his artistic peak, immediately preceding his death in 1937.
Certainly, I can see what all the fuss is about. There is a remarkable effortless whimsicality in everything Khan sings, not to mention a glowing androgynous sweetness in his high notes, which can be quite high indeed. He sings with an incredible amount of naked sincerity, as if he cares little if anyone is listening to him, and sings purely for himself.
On the other hand, this is a very monotonous set of songs. The tempo and pacing of all 10 pieces is the same. They are lullabies mostly made up of heady scalar improvisation which remains at a single energy level, lazy but reverent dances through consonant ragas. It's music so soporific drooling is inevitable, not least of which because the singer sounds in a trance state himself.
These observations would not be complaints if the recording was better... With a clear recording of such music, one would quickly become lost in the steady, refracted pulsations of warm golden timbres and Khan's beatific, never-ending melismas. Of course, hearing the man in sing in person would have been nothing short of a truly spiritual experience.
But the audio fidelity here is extremely fuzzy and lacks body, so much so that any listener of music would find it hard to ignore, audiophile or not. The instruments lay buried beneath the voice, and the voice is reduced to a ghost of itself. The rhythm, the groove of the music has been totally lost. It's a sadly inadequate attempt to preserve something clearly once radiant and powerful. It could indeed be this is the best that could have been done considering the source material, and if so that's a shame. In any case it means this album remains primarily an archival document, rather than something easy to actually 'listen' to.
As someone who approaches music from an anthropological standpoint, I'm glad I heard this record. It's always good to know what music was at a particular place and time, and who it was that previous generations lauded as the most talented, but I feel only a small fraction of the power of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan comes through on "1934-1935". This record is more a curiosity than something I return to for listening pleasure. To rabid fans of Indian classical music history, I recommend this, but to everyone else, I'd suggest something a better recorded compilation of more diverse music.Josh Landry