Draw Your Strings

When I was in school and college, my friends and I used to debate on end the relative merits of the big names of the guitar world as known to us then – Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Stevie Ray Vaughan…And for long, we swore by these and a few others. Every other guitarist was just a pale haze.

I cannot speak for my friends of back then – there’s no one of that group that I’m any longer in touch with – but fortunately for me, my ears and heart were opened to a reasonably wide spectrum of music and musicians from different parts of the world over these many years. There are so many greats out there that these ‘All-time Best’ lists that eminent members of the music/entertainment media produce are an exercise in silliness, even outright meanness.

I first heard/saw Canadian musician Jesse Cook on CNN’s ‘Worldbeat’ program many, many years back and I was hooked. Over time, I’ve picked up almost all his albums. Without quite knowing it, there are millions and millions here in India who are familiar with at least one of his tunes, ‘Mario Takes A Walk’ which is the ‘inspiration’ (I’m being very polite here) for the theme song of the movie ‘Dhoom’ and its sequel. You’ll find Flamenco, Moorish, African, South American, Jazz influences in Jesse Cook’s works. One of his characteristics that I admire is the amount of space he gives to his group of gifted accompanying musicians when he could otherwise (as often virtuosos do) completely occupy centre-stage with the other musicians just as soundscape fill.

A dear friend, Navin Ramankutty (I owe you for this one, if nothing else), introduced me to the world of the great Ali Farkah Toure. He became better known to the world outside his own when Western audiences were exposed to this brilliant musician at about the time he was 50. Rarely have I heard the guitar being adapted to a world outside of Western music with such facility and accomplishment that it feels like an altogether new instrument. I’m not particularly religious, but when I hear this man play, I like to believe there’s some divine power. How else could I explain what this quiet rice farmer from Mali does with his music? I remember being in a state of numbness when I read news of his passing away in 2006.

Another of those rare instances (in my limited knowledge) of the guitar’s successful adaptation to a form of music quite different from what it is normally associated with is Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s Mohan Veena. He not only adapted the guitar to India’s Hindustani classical form but he upgraded it to an even richer instrument. Apart from his Indian classical work, of particular joy is his album ‘A Meeting By The River’ with slide guitar great Ry Cooder, who said of the Indian maestro that the likes of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani could take a few tips on picking speed from him.

I was shocked when I first heard Funkadelic’s instrumental (well, 99% instrumental) title track of their album ‘Maggot Brain’ recently. How had I not even heard of it before? I’m still amazed that such a fine rock guitar solo remains relatively unknown. What added to my surprise was the kind of music George Clinton’s ‘mothership’ band, Parliament was known for – mainly funk/R&B (the two bands are so tightly linked that references are often Funkadelic/Parliament). I stumbled upon Eddie Hazel’s guitar work as a result of my ‘discovery’ of Clinton’s bizarre rambling at the beginning of this track (through a series of mostly happy accidents) which promised to be a lot of trippy fun. That monologue is only a very short part and then Hazel takes over for the next almost 10 minutes. Clinton apparently had told Hazel to play this piece like his mamma had just died. And the grief comes pouring out like molten metal, searing your soul. Pain is good, yes.

I could use up an entire year’s set of weekly posts on this subject – there are so many brilliant but less known guitarists out there. The intent of this post was to share but a few of those with you. I’m sure you have so many more examples which it’ll be great to hear of. So do send in your comments.

The songs featured in the samples file here are:

1. Mario Takes A Walk – Jesse Cook
2. Ali’s Here – Ali Farkah Toure
3. Ganges Delta Blues – Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Ry Cooder
4. Maggot Brain – Funkadelic

Draw Your Strings.mp3