One of my favorite releases of 2013 was Spring, a beautiful and uplifting two-CD set by Katayoun Goudarzi and Shujaat Husain Khan. They have a new release out called Ruby, their fifth, and it’s definitely on my short list for 2015.
Goudarzi is an Iranian-American singer and interpreter of the works of the great Persian poet and mystic Rumi. The north Indian Shujaat Khan is a world-renowned composer and player of sitar, a former child prodigy and current avatar of a seven-generation dynasty of master musicians. Together, these two make music that is absolutely riveting in its conception and execution.
On Spring for the most part, the performances consisted of Goudarzi reciting Rumi’s ghazal’s over the music laid down by Khan and a tabla player. This time out, they’ve expanded the ensemble to include flute (Ajay Prasanna, also featured on Spring), sarangi (a bowed Nepalese fiddle-like instrument popular in North Indian music played by Ahsan Ali), santoor or hammer dulcimer (Prabhat Mukherjee) as well as tabla (Abhiman Kaushal) and other percussion (Amjad Khan). The main difference is that Goudarzi turned the poetry into songs this time, so she sings them to the accompaniment of sitarist Khan and the others. It makes for a radically different feel to the music in some ways. I was particularly struck by Goudarzi’s passionate, often erotic delivery of the Rumi ghazal’s on the previous album, her somewhat husky speaking voice a marked contrast to her soprano singing.
However, once I cleared that hurdle, I enjoyed this album immensely. Here’s what the promotional material that accompanied the release has to say about it:
Instead of using the emotions in Goudarzi’s voice as a springboard, the melodies on Ruby are carefully constructed. She prepared the texts in detail for Khan, translating and transliterating the words to give the rhythms, and he would compose the music.
“On this record I sing all the poems,” Goudarzi explains. “And we used different instruments – as well as voice and sitar, there’s bansuri flute, tabla, a sarangi, santur, and percussion. They bring different colors to the music, something new. Because of that, Shujaat and I had to find a fresh way of writing, one where we relied less on improvisation.”
The opening track “Adrift” is one of my favorite songs of the year, not least for the way it opens with a phrase of deliciously bent notes by flutist Prasanna. See what I mean when you listen to “Adrift” on Goudarzi’s website. “Clouded” contains some lovely counterpoint-like passages by the sitar and santoor, and then by sitar and flute, in the opening sections before Goudarzi begins singing at the three-minute mark. The flute and sarangi play a duet of sorts in the intro to “Not Taken,” the album’s all-instrumental middle piece on which all the players get to show off their virtuosity. “Whirling Tree” has a happy, worshipful feel to it, and the closer “Bound” is Goudarzi’s chance to showcase her ability to convey passion in her singing that equals that of her recitations.
After the flood of the two-disc Spring set, Ruby with six tracks of eight to nine minutes each is succinct. But it packs just as much emotional impact. The music of Khan and Goudarzi has brought me a lot of pleasure in the past few years. I hope this fruitful collaboration continues.
Here is a video about the making of this recording.