Various Artists

The Essential Guide to India

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Trying to fit the "essential" music of India into three CDs is no less impossible a task than, say, putting the "essential" music of the United States into three discs. Instead of judging this on the grounds of whether it's the most "essential" three-CD anthology of Indian music that could possibly be compiled (it isn't), it's more reasonable to evaluate it as a bountiful taster for listeners who aren't experts in the genre, but want a lot of it. On those grounds, it does a reasonable job, though the packaging isn't going to win any awards. At least some effort was made to group the tracks thematically, with one disc devoted to "Bollywood Gold" (Indian movie soundtrack music), another to "Classic Acoustic" (or more traditionally oriented sounds), and the third, least impressive one to "Desi Beats & Beyond" (or cuts that make more use of modern electronic dance beats and technology). A few names known to Western listeners (Ravi Shankar, Asha Bhosle, Najma, Ananda Shankar, A.R. Rahman) are sprinkled through the set, but largely these artists will be unfamiliar to people outside India -- which makes it all the more a shame that original release/recording dates are supplied for so few of the tracks, though there's a paragraph or so of liner notes about each selection. It can be deduced that the tracks do cover a wide time frame, spanning (at the very least) the late '50s to the early 21st century.

Even after weighing all of those shortcomings, this is still a decent, and quite lengthy, wide-ranging set of various facets of Indian music, and very useful for those who aren't so fussy about documentation of historical context. The Bollywood disc may be the most enjoyable one for Western listeners, with its mixture of indigenous Indian styles, cheesy dramatic cinematic orchestration, melodramatic vocals, and bits of pop, jazz, and go-go music. Ananda Shankar's "Streets of Calcutta" is the clear standout on that CD, with its mixture of keening electronics, sitar, psychedelic rock guitar, and raw, pummeling rhythms. The material on the "Classic Acoustic" disc, while certainly more respectful of Indian traditional sounds, is pretty diverse, offering much more than the sitar music that many people think of as defining the genre (though there's some of that as well, including a selection by the most famous sitar player of all with Ravi Shankar's "Reflection"). The disc of "Desi Beats" might disappoint some Western listeners (and this anthology is geared toward a Western audience) looking for something different than the usual stuff you hear in North America and Europe, as there are plenty of thumping club/hip-hop/electronic beats and textures. Nonetheless, these recordings are a legitimate expression of branches into which Indian music was evolving in the years immediately preceding this 2006 anthology. Too, like the other discs in this set, it packs considerable variety into one CD, often retaining a distinctively Indian character in the vocals and many of the instrumental elements, even as it borrows heavily from Western trends.

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