Sales of our album Chakram are very healthy and the reviews have started to come in. The Vaishnavas seem to like it. Here’s a sample from ISKCON News in the USA:
And here is a rather amusing review from Sitapati Das in Australia:
In 2000 I was washing dishes in a kitchen in Wellington, New Zealand, listening to one of my favorite kirtan tapes. A visiting devotee from the UK said to me: “Who is that you’re listening to?“, so I told him: “Dude, that is like Krpamoya“, because in New Zealand we speak like we’re in Los Angeles.
He gave me a puzzled look. “Why are you listening to him?” Now it was my turn to give him a puzzled look: “Because he’s like, awesome“. Now his look turned pensive. “Hmm, I never thought people around the world would listen to his kirtan on tape. To us he’s just this guy who leads kirtan at the Manor.“
In millenial New Zealand Krpamoya was the name of a guy who lead an awesome Janmastami kirtan on a highly sought-after tape that was copied and passed around kirtan afficianado circles. The energy of the kirtan was palpable – it was massive, with a powerful bottom end provided by a lot of mrdangas, and Krpamoya effortlessly moved between melodies with a fluid grace and a voice that was liquid gold.
It was awesome.
Now fast-forward to 2011, and Krpamoya has released a studio album “Chakram”.
All I can say is: “What happened?“
No, I’m kidding.
But while I’m kidding around… there’s a famous scene in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap where the band are being presented with historical reviews of their albums and asked for their reaction to them. The reviews become increasing brusque until they reach the point of a single, dimissive sentence. Here’s my Spinal Tap review of Chakram: “Can’t wait for the movie to come out, can’t listen to the album without it“.
The album opens epic. It’s not a stretch to imagine the opening track as the extended mix of the opening credits to a BBC program. The dramatic drums and the sound of swords being drawn evokes the ITV series “Robin of Sherwood”, and Clannad’s album Legend, the sound track of the same.
Now I have a confession to make: Legend was the first record I ever bought, and I wore that thing out listening to it.
There are no sleeve notes for Chakram, no credits or musician listings. For some reason I imagine Krpamoya and Jayadeva (was he involved?) locked in a studio somewhere, and discovering a movie sound effects library, and just going nuts.
I couldn’t find the right context to listen to the album. But driving back from Sydney overnight (a 900km drive), I discovered the missing piece – a quest epic enough to warrant the soundtrack of Chakram.
Chakram, like Gaura Vani’s music, and like Akhanda Nam, is an interpretation of kirtan. Where Gaura Vani draws from a diverse base of traditional Indian and contemporary Western musical forms to create a familiar yet fresh pop experience, and Akhanda Nam draws on the esoteric with the idea that the more alien it is the more authentic it must be (or is that “the more authentic it is, the more alien it must be”?), Chakram draws on a different cultural base to find its unique take – the Indian movie soundtrack.
This is a kirtan album produced by the spirit of AR Rahman.
In the correct space to process the whole thing, as I drove through the Celtic Country of Northern New South Wales on an epic quest, I was able to fully savour the flavours of Chakram.
The opening track has all the hallmarks of an epic movie soundtrack, and a contemporary one at that, with the right kind of processing applied to the female vocal (Krpamoya’s daughter Tulasi?). That track is begging for a techno / dubstep remix. I’m serious. Listen to it.
Although there are no liner notes, I know that Chakrini provides vocals on the album, because Krpamoya was giving me a guided tour of the Manor when we ran into her, and she talked about it.
The second track on the album is a version of Narottama das Thakura’s Sri Rupa Manjari Pada flawlessly executed by Krpamoya and Chakrini as a harmonised duet. Each of their voices are gold, and together they are priceless. Harmony (disparagingly referred to as “Horror-mony”) is frowned upon by purists. However, Western music is based on harmony, and Western ears and minds are developed to appreciate, and even require it; and western ears will find much to be pleased with here.
The song is carefully scripted and has a pretty standard arrangement. Many times interpretations of traditional songs founder on the fact that the structure is plain. It’s the same thing repeated several times. If you don’t speak Sanskrit, then it all sounds like gibberish, so the only thing you have to appreciate is the melody. And if that is just repeating, well then it’s boring.
The titles of the songs on the album are all in English, but the songs are all in non-English languages.
However, a careful listening reveals several very interesting and emotionally provoking tweaks in this version of Sri Rupa Manjari Pada. There are points where the harmonies diverge in an interesting fashion, creating and resolving tension in interesting ways. You may not understand the words, but you can feel the rasa. One of the verses has a 6/8 phrasing that gives it a staccato feel that sets it apart from the rest. Small tweaks like this combine to create a very subtle yet powerful effect.
It’s slick in its sound, and slick in its production.
Krpamoya has an interesting interpretation of the song “Ajna Tal” following this, which he titles “Dancing in the Streets“. The opening to this song uses space and reverb, with a woman’s voice, to paint an aural picture with a palette of raga. Moving through the Northern New South Wales countryside at sunrise, it makes a perfect sound track.
Krpamoya has eschewed the traditional instruments associated with the musical tradition that he is reinterpreting for a contemporary audience – for example the mrdanga drums, and instead uses the sound effects that he found in the movie sound track library. I’m kidding again. The Song “Ajnal Tal” (Dancing in the Streets) is traditionally performed with a 6/8 feel. This is hinted at by a drum – is a darbuka or similar goblet drum, or a bodhran, or both? Here’s where liner notes would provide a clue. Whatever the drum being used, it is skillfully woven into the background, and doesn’t at all sound out of place while driving through Celtic Country. Nor does it produce the “wtf?” experience that western audiences, conditioned to 4/4 pop music or 3/4 ballads, typically have when a hardcore head-wobbling Indian 6/8 rhythm kicks in. It remains true to its roots while remaining subtle and non-confrontational.
Another track that deserves a special mention here is “Let the Bee of My Mind Fly to the Eternal Lotus”, traditionally known as “Krishna Deva Bhavantam Vande“.
This track begins with another soundscape painted with a female vocal (this time I believe Krpamoya’s daughter Jahnavi), and an innovative use of space, reverb, and ambient effects. Whoever produced this has some serious mad skills and sensibilities. The colours of the raga are intriguing also. The meaning of the mantras is obscure (liner notes!), but the music conveys the emotional message without the necessity of rationality. When Krpamoya begins to sing the song, it is the perfect resolution for the tension created by the opening scene.
The next track – “Father, what is Spirit?” – is the only English track on the album and is a spoken word piece where Krpamoya gets a little preachy, but in a delightfully English way. It’s kind of “Hinduism as presented by C.S. Lewis”. And I think Krpamoya, aside from his musical contribution, is kind of like the C.S. Lewis of ISKCON. Maybe the movie that goes with this album is kind of like a Narnia movie, but I digress.
The album, once I got past the epicness of the opening track and found the right space to experience it in, was a very rewarding experience. The guest vocalists are superb. The production is impeccable and the arrangements are reinterpretations into contemporary western musical vocabularies that remain faithful to the originals.
Verdict: Get the album, go on an epic quest and play it as your personal sound track. Alternatively, add it to your existing collection of movie sound tracks and C.S. Lewis spoken-word records.
Disclaimer: In the interim between hearing the Janmastami kirtan and listening to Chakram, I visited the UK and met Krpamoya, staying with him and his family at their home in a quiet cul-de-sac in the English countryside. They all have red hair, and one of them is Jahnavi, the violinist in As Kindred Spirits. Musical ability runs in the family as much as devotion does.
Update: Apparently the CD comes with a 16-page booklet. I should have downloaded the *other* torrent. ;-) (Actually, I got a complementary copy, which didn’t include the liner notes.)
You can check out the musicians, the producer, the engineering, and all the technical specs here.