Vishan Mohan Bhatt and Ry Cooder
"A Meeting by The River"
Water Lily Acoustics (1993)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
There is some incredible force that exists between born guitarists. I generally buy into science and things with reasonable explanations, but I think the bond that occurs when two guitar players riff off each other goes beyond the logic of rhythm and harmony. We've seen this already on the album "Chester and Lester" from Chet Atkins and Les Paul, and I was fortunate enough to see Neil Young and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach sustain a blistering jam off "Rockin' in The Free World" this autumn. All these guys are capable headliners, and can hold down a stage by themselves, but they cast egos aside and create music that is even more incredible, and off the cuff at that. Today's post centers on Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Ry Cooder, two guitarists who prove that this force can connect players from completely worlds, as well as completely different styles.
It's a slight misnomer to label Bhatt as a "guitarist," but for all intensive purposes, he is. His instrument of choice on "A Meeting by The River" is the Mohan veena, an instrument named after him (as he invented it). The veena is a hollow-body arch-top guitar, which features three melodic strings, five drone strings (for the typified ambience of Indian classical string instruments), and 12 "sympathetic" strings that resonate the tones of the primary strings. It's primarily played in the lap of the musician, much like a western slide guitar, which is where Cooder comes in. Cooder, like Atkins, specializes in the slide guitar. Despite musical upbringings that are vastly different, the two artists sympathize with each other's style and instrument, and create four tracks that sound as natural as cake and ice cream.
By natural, I mean that the two instruments work together; there's no discord between them. On the other hand, it's still a weird sensation to hear the tones mesh. For those who have watched the cult sci-fi show "Firefly," perhaps you've felt odd hearing the Western themes as they fly through space. It's the same idea here. Cooder's slide guitar has the Old West feel, but Bhatt's Mohan veena adds trippy ambience (Indian instruments have unfairly been associated with psychedelic music thanks to their popularity during the '60s. Most western listeners know what I'm talking about). During the titular opening track, the pair plays off of each other, sharing the lead, opening slow and building up speed until the end. "Longing," the follow-up, is "haunting by Moon's description, and gives off the vibe of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti-Western theme at its onset.
Unlike "Chester and Lester," the headliners are joined by a rhythm section here. Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari plays the tabla, the traditional Indian percussion instrument, and Cooder's son Joachim plays an African dumbek, a gourd-shaped drum (which, despite not fitting into either culture represented here, fits just fine). Both percussion instruments work well, on account of subtlety, and staying behind the leaders. On album closing "Isa Lei," a track in which Cooder handles most of the leads, the tabla gets a little too energetic, distracting from the centerpiece strings.
If you like country-western in the tradition of Marty Robbins, or if you dig Indian music, this is definitely an album for you to sample. If neither is your cup of tea, it's still worth a listen to hear how two masters can communicate beautifully with a pair of guitars and no rehearsal time. It's proof that music is a universal worldview.
It'd be nice if politics was this simple.
INTERESTING FACT: Bhatt's extended family is a musical parade of sorts. His nephew Satvik is among the most interesting, holding the title of world's youngest Mohan veeta player, and has also been able to identify 45 ragas at his young age, an even more mind-blowing fact.