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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Review: Debashish Bhattacharya and Driss El Maloumi break barriers with spellbinding string summit at NYUAD

Watching these two sets of brothers break out into ever-wider grins, passing phrases across the stage in musical conversation, there was something harmoniously heartwarming in this bottomless display of mutual respect and camaraderie.
Hindustani slide guitar wizard Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya and Moroccan oud master Driss el Maloumi at NYUAD. Courtesy NYUAD
Hindustani slide guitar wizard Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya and Moroccan oud master Driss el Maloumi at NYUAD. Courtesy NYUAD

“So, today is our exam,” joked Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, as he prepared to present a brave culture-crossing duet with Moroccan oud player Driss El Maloumi, at NYU Abu Dhabi on Thursday (October 27).

The two string virtuosos might have met musically on prior occasions, but this collaboration was fresh, the result of a six-day incubation period at the Saadiyat Island campus, which only made the academic test reference yet more apt.

Touchingly, both players were joined for the trip by their brothers – both also percussionists – lending a sense of synergy and symmetry to this spellbinding sea of shifting sounds.

First, each brother-pair presented a short solo set, Driss and Said El Maloumi opening the evening with the epic extrapolation Safar – appropriately, “travel” in Arabic. Utilising a brazen mix of ringing harmonics, muted staccato attacks, and vertiginous string slides – borrowing liberally from the worlds of flamenco, gypsy jazz and rock – El Maloumi took us on a journey far beyond the conventional confines of an oud recital. But for all the pyrotechnics, it never felt forced – such showy virtuosity shouldn’t feel this musical.

Comparisons prove pointless, but Bhattacharya’s work is no less captivating. He performs primarily on the chaturangui, a modified guitar he invented in 1978. Played in the lap with a slide, the eight main, melodic strings are supported by an additional 16 sympathetic strings, used to sustain the drone at the base of Indian classical music, not unlike those found on a sitar. It might remind listeners of the mohan veena, a similar instrument created by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and featured on his 1994 Grammy winning duet with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River.

Backed intuitively by his brother Subhasis’s tabla, the instrument allows Bhattacharya to carve out three simultaneous swathes of sound, kinetic lead slide lines, rounded with the harmonious plucked open strings, and underpinned with the hypnotic drone of the sympathetic strings. The effect is to conjure the spiraling, spiritual bliss of the raga, peppered with the passing, pleasing rural sensibility of blues and folk.

As if to prove all these strings are more than a fad or a cheat, Bhattacharya presented a beautiful version of Sufi Bhakti – from his 2009 Grammy nominated Calcutta Chronicles – on just a four string slide ukulele.

These appetisers gave the audience a taste of both artists’s backgrounds and comfort zones, before they jumped wilfully out of them for the main event, a genre-melding “string summit”. As well as meeting one another on a number of occasions since 2009, both El Maloumi and Bhattacharya have both pursued their own world fusions elsewhere, and bring a mature and gallant sensibility to the table. Despite being highly improvised, the pairing rarely felt forced, drawing deeply from both Arabic traditions and Hindustani classicism to create something new, rather than awkwardly fused, or flitted between.

As rhythms and melodies criss, cross, build and swell, the brittle brashness of the slide guitar, supported by its chiming sympathetic strings, at times overpowered the mellower sound of El Maloumi’s oud. In truth, both players’s technical gifts were on clearer display in the better-prepared solo showcases. But watching these two sets of brothers break out into ever-wider grins, passing phrases across the stage in musical conversation, there was something harmoniously heartwarming in this bottomless display of mutual respect and camaraderie.

rgarratt@thenational.ae