Jason Singh & The Banwasi Collective – Travellers: Album Review

The raags of Rajasthan – brought to your living room, courtesy of sound artist and composer Jason Singh, his talented friends, and an impressive array of traditional Indian instruments.

Release Date:  22nd September 2023

Label: Hudson Records

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download / Streaming

Sound artist and composer, Jason Singh, is a busy guy.  The composer of the score for David Attenborough’s Green Planet series is also the man responsible for the sound installations at Kew Gardens.  What’s more, he’s a keen collaborator – the diverse list of artists he’s worked with includes names like George Ezra, Rokia Traore, Sarathy Korwar, Talvin Singh and Shabaka Hutchings.  Travellers, his latest project, is, I think it’s safe to assume, something of a labour of purest love; a collection of songs that focus upon the Sufi culture and the significant impact of climate change in Rajasthan, northern India, an area and community from which Jason is descended and which continue to provide comfort and inspiration to him.

In order to realise this ambitious project, Jason has enlisted the services of a collective of master musicians, most of them members of the Manganiyar community of musicians, based in Rajasthan.

Jason is, himself, based in the UK and his relationship with his Indian fatherland is both intimate and complex.  The atrocities and genocide that swept through the regions of Bengal and Punjab following the partition of India in 1947 forced his forebears to flee the region and, such was the impact of what she had witnessed, his grandmother advised her children and grandchildren never to return.  Jason did return, though; first, to accompany his parents on a pilgrimage to the spiritual centre of Dharamshala at the age of five and later, as an adult, to visit the Manganiyar community.  It was during this latter visit that Jason discovered the raags that form the basis for the songs that constitute Travellers.  The songs are sung in a variety of languages – Hindi, Urdu, Marwari, Sindhi and Saraiki amongst them – and, by way of the lyrics (for those familiar with any of these languages) or, through the power of the music, they take the listener on an immersive journey across religions, water and dry landscapes, between Bhakti and Sufi, mortal and divine.   And, it is the tremendous power of these tunes that makes this music as accessible to the determined westerner as to the engaged and already familiar Rajasthani.

Travellers is billed as “An ode to earthly and spiritual love, migration and the ever-changing landscape and climate of the desert state of Rajasthan,” and it’s a serious and hefty piece of work.  And, to help him to realise that vision, Jason has assembled a cast that is as imaginative as it is impressive.  Amiruddin Khan, from Jaipur City, is a master of the sarangi – the multihued violin of the desert.  Bhutta Khan is one of the finest vocalists to have emerged from the Manganiyar community in recent years – his vocal range is simply stunning, and he’s equally comfortable at each end of it, too.  Bhungar Khan is a master of the khartal – a castanet-like instrument – and Latif Khan is equally adept on morchang (an Indian version of the jew’s harp), bhapang, dholak (both varieties of drum) and khartal.  Manzoor Khan Manganiyaar is also an expert on the dholak, Nehru Khan Manganiyaar is a famed multi-instrumentalist and traditional singer and Safi Khan Manganiyaar is also a vocalist of note.  The picture is completed by British-Asian jazz clarinetist Arun Ghosh, jazz trio Floyer Sydenham, Joe Lee and Toby Comeau and last, but by no means least, composer, producer and bassist David McEwan.  Together, this ensemble goes by the name of The Baswari Collective.

Jason Singh & The Banwasi Collective

Travellers isn’t an easy listen, even to ears well-attuned to the limitless musics of the world, but it’s an immensely rewarding one for anyone willing to partake.  The album was recorded ‘in the field’ at Anokhi Farm in Jaipur and Jason has been careful to include snatches of birdsong and background noises to authenticate the sound of the farm.  And that’s a policy that is evident right from the very beginning of opening track, Runalayo.  Birdsong and murmured conversation give way to harmonium and the clear vocal tones of Bhutta Khan.  The percussion – the bhapang, dhol and dholak – sound fantastic, and it’s impossible to listen and not visualize the dance that would certainly accompany the tune – and the ‘whoops’ that are liberally scattered throughout the song are the sounds of sheer, unfettered, delight.

Arun Ghosh’s guitar and Dave McEwan’s bass are totally comfortable alongside the harmonium and Indian percussion of Prem Diwani, the album’s lead single.  The song’s lyrics, attributed to 16th century mystic and poet, Mirabai, tell the story of how Mirabai’s devotion to Krishna drove her husband to desperation, and they’re delivered by way of an enchanting chorale.

Travellers is an enticing blend of Indian folk music and a particularly ambitious brand of western jazz, and, with Gypsy, the Collective provides a wonderful example of how those disparate genres can fit together.  Clarinet, morchang and harmonium all merge to achieve an evocative tune that, in Jason’s own words, “…is absolutely the walk of the camel and of carts piled high, making their way across the desert. …It’s this or that rhythm of horses’ hooves.”

The atmospheric Memories of You was inspired by the late John Singh who, along with his wife, Faith, established the responsible textile company, Anokhi, in 1970, along with Anokhi Farm, the place at which Travellers was recorded.  The sounds of the farm are a feature of the track, and the album is dedicated to the memory of John Singh.  The power of Bhungar Khan’s voice is particularly evident in the epic Doonghar Dukham Dhey.  Flourishes of khartal replicate the fluttering of birds’ wings and dhol and dholak add to the substance of the tune.

A lengthy intro yields to a sprightly raag, with harmonium leading the melody and khartals providing most of the rhythm in Pir Jalani, a tune that is well-known in the Rajasthani culture.  At over nine minutes in length, it’s maybe a lot to take in, but it’s fast, furious and enjoyable and is one of the album’s real highlights.  And another highlight is Banwasi, the song that gave The Banwasi Collective its name.  The word means “forest dwellers” and the words to the song were written by the 16th-century poet-saint, Tulsidas, a devotee of the deity Rama.  Here, Tulsidas tells the story of Rama’s banishment to the forest for an exile that lasted 14 years.  The atmosphere of that mythical forest is enhanced by more of Jason’s field recordings of birdsong, whilst harmony vocals deliver the lyrics, to a backing of harmonium and a slow percussive rhythm.  I found myself closely following the dhol and dholak figures and marveling at their tone and precision.

And it’s perhaps with closing track, Maru, that everything on offer on Travellers comes together to greatest effect.  Sprinkles and splashes of cymbal from a western drumkit add an edge to the dramatic and slightly ominous harmonium intro, before electronic bass sounds join the mix and things start to get really interesting.  The tune gathers momentum as the sonorous bass and frantically shuffling drums provide a jazzy counterpoint to the anguished Indian vocals.  The tune gets faster and faster as it heads towards a frenzied climax – it’s the most exciting track on the album and an excellent way to wrap up an album that is bold, adventurous, rewarding and entertaining in equal measures.

Listen to Maru – the album’s spectacular closing track – here:

Jason Singh online: Website / Facebook / X / Instagram

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