In the late nineties a duo that called itself Ghazal issued an album that, out of the blue, got the high critics of the American media singing. For several years, at irregular intervals the little group issued more records that continued to win hearts that otherwise would have had no interest in eastern music. Now disbanded, Ghazal’s contribution to that unwieldy commercial genre of “world music” is but a footnote. But for those handful of years when they were active, Ghazal made some truly enchanting music.
The critics, in their rave-ups about the records, often commented on “two very different musical traditions” coming together to produce this unique sound. Kayhan Kalhor, Iran’s best-known musician in the West brought his virtuosity on the kamancheh (Persian violin) together with the equally splendid sitar work of Shujaat Husain Khan (the son of grand master Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan).
But for listeners from India, the music of Ghazal was nowhere as odd as mixing Hindustani classical and jazz or African rhythms with tablas. Rather it was somehow organic, with roots that burrowed deeply into the consciousness of South Asians from the northern parts of the subcontinent. The sound Ghazal created, like the best of all “fused” traditions, was new yet powerfully familiar.
Ghazal at first glance might seem a rather bold name for the group, given the almost commonplace nature of the popular genre. Yet, the vision of Kalhor and Khan was grand ‒ to create a glorious sonic ambience. They tried to construct a true mahaul-e-mausiqi that evoked a time when the Silk Road was the main connector of cultures and when Safavid Persia and Mughal India were the dominant forces of the Orient.
The poetic ghazal form, of course, is one that is beloved in Iran as well as Pakistan/India/Bangladesh and has always blended subcontinental sensibilities with Persianised vocabulary and adornments. So all in all, these guys knew what they were about. Yes, Ghazal was indeed, an expansive, ambitious project but in these clips it is hard to argue that they didn’t succeed.
The Rain (Live)
The kamancheh, which is related to the rubab and the hoary Indian instrument saaz-i-kashmir, is among the most beautiful instruments that is played in all those countries influenced heavily by Persian culture (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Kurdistan). Traditionally the instrument had three strings made of silk but modern ones employ four steel strings, which give it a bold clear sound. It is played with a bow (hence its reference to being a violin of sorts). Kayhan Kalhor is a Kurdish Iranian who began playing the kamancheh at the age of seven. Formally trained in the radif tradition (loosely similar to the Indian raga-based system of musical organisation), he also learned European classical music in Italy and Canada. An artist with an inquisitive nature and collaborative mentality he has performed not only with giants of Iran like Shahjarian, but with cellist Yo Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet.
Traces of the Beloved
Shujaat Khan imbibed the sounds of the sitar from one of the very greatest Indian sitarists, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan. He met Kalhor in New York and was instantly drawn to the idea of blending the musics of the two great traditions. In this track, in addition to some spectacular playing, Shujaat adds vocalisations that are almost scat-like. But rather than being non-intelligible sounds, they bring out the main event, which in this case is the instrumental music. Khan sahib sings in a languid way, not bothering to enunciate with great clarity (a key success factor of commercial ghazal singers) but rather to enhance the mood. As you listen to his singing, you can’t help but conjure up a dark room somewhere along the Silk Road, where merchants and pilgrims have gathered to listen to a passing troupe of troubadours and Sufis. Like the dark kohl that accentuates the eyes, this singing brings the beauty of the music into high and intense relief.
You are My Moon
From Ghazal’s debut album, which put them on the map of the musical pundits of New York.
This column was first published in September 2014