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01/30/2015
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Fusion done right

Mekaal Hasan Band - has been different. It has succeeded where others have failed. It has consistently produced good music under the banner of fusion.

Smart, creative and a little irreverent, the band’s music is fusion at its best. The band borrows judiciously from a variety of genres and styles to define a new sound – unique, fresh and original – that is as charming as it is fascinating. With their third album, Andholan, the band establishes itself as one of the finest in Pakistan and India, and one that is destined for international success.

Andholan is a very good album.

It features musicians from both India and Pakistan, and songs that are firmly rooted in Hindustani Sangeet, the music of Pakistan and Northern India, but employ sounds, styles, and instruments from all over the world.
The opening track of the album, Ghungat, is a kafi written by Baba Bulleh Shah. The song, set in raag Kirwaani, is haunting, intense and passionate. Kirwaani is very similar in structure to the harmonic minor scale of western music. Mekaal Hasan employs it in its fifth mode – the Phrygian dominant scale – by making the Pancham (fifth) the tonal center. The shift adds a naughty piquancy to the underlying scale. Mekaal Hasan and Muhammad Ahsan Papu play remarkable solos on the guitar and flute in the song. Their deft, energetic and highly accurate execution of the tandem solos is the biggest strength of the emotionally charged Ghungat.
The second track begins with a short poignant aalaap (introductory portion of a song) on the flute, and uses traditional lyrics depicting the lonely night of a woman without her lover. Feelings of melancholy and sadness pervade the song based on raag Champakali, originally from the Carnatic music tradition, and rarely performed in Pakistan. Papu plays some fantastic interludes on the flute in Champakali, showing his virtuosity in both melody and rhythm. The song is set to dadra (cycle of six beats) but the guitar and flute pieces include some very complex structures not employed often in the generally simple dadra.
Bheem is a complex composition on raag Bheemplasi (and not on Bheem) and set to teentaal (cycle of sixteen beats). The song features a number of tempo and melodic changes, which would be ruined in the hands of lesser musicians but succeed here due to the skills of Mekaal Hasan, Muhammad Ahsan Papu and percussionist, Louis J. Pinto. Vocalist, Sharmistha Chatterjee skillfully combines two traditional bandishes (fixed melodic compositions) in the track. One is a bandish, Ja Ja Re Apne Mandarva, composed by the great musician Niyamat Khan Sadarang who served in the court of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeelay in the eighteenth century. The other is a Bandish Ki Thumri (romantic semi-classical song), Bansiya Baji Mohan Shaam Ki, from Lucknow. She sings both competently and executes some intricate taans in her rendition without compromising the integrity of the raag. She adds variety and charm to the song by introducing shades of raag Bilaskhani Todi towards the middle of the song. A complex composition, Bheem is executed very well by the musicians of the band.

Sayon is a popular kafi of Baba Bulleh Shah, Aao Saiyo Ral Deo Ni Wadhai, which has been sung by a number of vocalists over the years. The Mekaal Hasan Band approaches the poem in a fresh manner using an unexpected scale and relatively slow tempo. Composed as a successor to the band’s hit song, Jhok Ranjhan, Sayon is upbeat and uplifting, thanks to a classic rock treatment.

Maalkauns is one of the most popular raags in India and Pakistan. It is said to have paranormal powers which can invoke spirits when rendered correctly. Great skill is required to evoke the deeply somber and contemplative mood of the raag. The track is daring, dramatic and adventurous. The song successfully blends the improvisational strength and musical intricacy of jazz, the raw energy and primeval fire of rock, and the contemplative discipline and emotional depth of Hindustani Sangeet.

Sindhi is based on raag Sindh Bhairavi and set to teentaal. The raag is a variation of the immensely popular raag Bhairavi and allows the use of both forms, the komal (flat) and shudh (natural), of the Rikhab (second), Dhaivat (sixth) and Nikhad (seventh) notes. The raag is generally employed in songs with spiritual themes but the band uses it for a song celebrating love. A classical bandish, Main Bal Bal Jaoon Balma is used as the song’s lyrics. The brilliant riffs played on the bass and lead guitars over changing chords are the highlight of this simple song.

The rhythmic structure of Megh is rare and unusual. The song is set to ten beats. The introductory passage of the track is clearly set to jhaptal (cycle of ten beats) structure (2 + 3 + 2 + 3) but the rest of the song follows varying structures, all in ten beats, that take considerable but welcome liberties with Jhaptal. Sharmistha’s singing skills are best demonstrated in this song. Megh is very close in structure to raags Brindavani and Madhmad Sarang; maintaining its identity during fast passages presents a challenge to musicians. Sharmistha does well here by maintaining fidelity with the raag.
The final track in the album, Kinarey, is a song in the popular raag Aiman. Sharmistha Chatterjee sings a famous bandish, Kinaray Kinaray Kinaray Kinaray Dariya Kashti Bandho Re, which was composed by Ustad Tanras Khan who was a musician in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the founder of the original Delhi gharana. Sharmishta includes the original but relatively unknown manjha (second portion of cadence) of the bandish: Mauj Aaye Behr-E-Ulfat Mein Khizar, but curiously sings an antara (second portion of composition) from the Patiala gharana, Khaiwan Haar Ki Laaj Tumhi Ho, instead of the original antara, Is Qadar Meherbani Bekunay. The composition is calm and peaceful and Sharmista sings it with a confident sensitivity, with Papu adds to its beauty via an exceptionally melodious accompaniment.
Sharmista deserves praise for her vocals in the album. The tracks, I am fairly certain, were originally recorded for vocals with a base note higher than her tonic by a note. Sharmista was, therefore, required to sing in a range that does not come naturally to her. That she did it well is a testimony of her expertise as a vocalist.

With Andholan, the Mekaal Hasan Band achieve success in the genre of fusion music, proving that they have the continued ability to produce albums of quality with consistency. After Sampooran and Saptak, Andholan adds to the band’s credentials. They now face the challenge of making sure that their next album, Kalam-e-Khusrau, meets, and preferably exceeds, the high standards the band has set for itself.