Monday, October 05, 2009

Slide to FreedomII: Make a Better World- "Dobro means good in any language."

That’s an old motto of the Dobro Manufacturing Corporation- for any of you non-industry people less than 100 years old- the word ‘dobro’ itself a trade name, now property of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, which intends to vigorously defend its exclusive rights to the name btw. So sue me. If you’ve ever spent time in a Slavic country you might be excused for imagining that they’re a race of resonance-guitar lovers, but no, in fact the word DOES mean ‘good’ in nearly all of them, so you hear it frequently. I used to jokingly refer to this for my dobro-playing younger brother without even knowing that the Slovakian-born DOpyera BROthers indeed had this also partly in mind when they named their new company. The rest is history, but only part of it.

The intimate connection between blues-based slide guitar and country-based dobro doesn’t get talked about very much, much less expounded upon, but the connections are there, and it’s more than just the ‘tude. It’s the tunes. At the same time that the Dopyera Bros. and the National String Instrument Corp. were trading secrets, designs, and patents in factories and courts and board-rooms, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Robert Johnson, and others were doing something a little bit different with their guitars in the Mississippi delta. All of them had probably played with the ‘diddley bow’ (as in ‘Bo Diddley’) as children, a one-string toy instrument eerily reminiscent of some one-string African designs, played with a glass or metal slide…

The connection with Hawaiian slack-key style slide guitar is more remote, though, and India’s slide tradition hardly even known… until recently. Canadian slide guitar and Dobro master Doug Cox knows them all… and loves them… and can play most of them. But on this album he had to dig deeper into the corners to get just the sound he was looking for… on his gadgie, a resonance guitar even more obscure than a Dobro™ (satisfied now, Gibson?). “Slide to Freedom II: Make a Better World” is his latest collaboration with Indian sitarist and veena player Salil Bhatt, son of the master Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

One of the nice things about ‘world music’ is that because of the plethora of regions and cultures represented, there are no sharp divisions between classes, simply because they no longer have much meaning outside the local context. And I don’t mean social classes as much as I mean classes of anything. Everything’s connected. This is a good thing. Best of all you can be a nerd intellectual and still be cool, or you can be urban and still be country, or you can live simultaneously in about three different countries signing your e-mails with your current GPS co-ordinates (or maybe that’s just me). So you’re in a funny mood tonight and can’t decide whether you’d like to listen to some classical Indian music or some down-home folk blues? With the album ‘Slide to Freedom II: Make a Better World’ you can do both, where various versions of Indian slides on strings intermix effortlessly with their American counterparts.

The album leads off with the title song “Make a Better World” by Earl King and that pretty much sets the redemptive tone for the album- “sing sing sing… join hands, do yo’ thing, make a better world to live in,” or at least about half of it anyway. In some act of cosmic symmetry, whether accidental or intentional, the album is pretty much divided between modern covers and classical-Indian-inspired instrumentals. I personally probably reached my ‘Amazing Grace’ saturation point long ago, but I can always get up for one more, and the one here is a nice to-the-nailhead-point version. And it’s always nice to hear someone cover the late great George Harrison- another Shankar disciple, along with Salil Bhatt’s father- in this case ‘For You Blue.’ But the real chestnut of a cover song is ‘I Scare Myself’ by Dan Hicks. When’s the last time you heard someone cover that? They nail it, too, its spookiness only augmented with eerie gospel vocals.

A special note needs to be said about the accompaniment to the major collaborators Salil and Cox. Salil’s father and mentor Vishwa delivers a stinging almost ungodly solo on ‘For You Blue’- as though some buddy still had another lick to lay down- and Ramkumar Mishra maintains a tabla rhythm throughout the album without which it would not have been the same, nor nearly so successful. But the real revelation is New Orleans blues and gospel singer John Boutte’. After listening several times to the album without carefully perusing the notes and credits beforehand, I kept thinking, “Who is that ballsy blues mama doing the vocals?” Well ballsy indeed, imagine my surprise at seeing John Boutte’s name- and face. Little surprises like that are magical, like imagining that maybe Michael Jackson’s soul divided around 1990 and the sane half went to New Orleans and became a kick-ass blues-and-gospel singer, while the other half… you know. Tenors are not that rare, but for a blues and gospel singer? As with the tabla-based rhythm, it is excellent and serves to help define the album.

The album’s other half is pretty much straight-ahead Indian string-based instrumental, heavy on the slide, which, according to Salil Bhatt, has always been an element of its use. Thus “A Letter Home,” “Blessings,” and “The Moods of Madhuva” all allow your mind to wander while simultaneously blowing it, as you meditate on origins and endings and the ways and means to it all. The beauty is that- as Doug Cox put it- you really don’t know who’s doing what all the time, the parts fit so seamlessly together. Albums like this are more than just happy accidents and brilliant mistakes. There is purpose and vision behind it. As Cox himself says: “…the future of traditional music really lies in the coming together of cultures. Folk music until now came from isolated cultures developing their own unique style of music. That’s not going to happen anymore.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The album ends with “Freedom Raga” by Cox, which sets the still-yearning closing tone for the album, “I touch freedom, I smell freedom…” as if by simple affirmation we could correct all the slights and injustices that have ever been perpetrated in the history of the world. Would that it were that easy… Listening to “Slide to Freedom II- Make a Better World” is easy. Check it out.

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