Music of the Himalayas
A better title for this album would be “music of Jammu and Kashmir,” since it focuses almost exclusively on the traditional folk and Sufyana musics of that region at the crossroads of the Middle East and South Asia. The santoor, a stringed instrument played with curved wooden sticks, has a sound akin to that of the hammered dulcimer, and like the dulcimer was long thought of as mainly a folk instrument. But Rahul’s father, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, almost single-handedly achieved acceptance for the santoor in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music through his brilliant playing. Now Rahul is becoming an acknowledged master of the santoor, which has become one of the most important instruments in Kashmiri music. For this live recording from a festival in Italy, Rahul is joined by Ustad Shafat Ahmed Khan on tabla and Pandit Bhawani Shankar on various folk percussion instruments.
Although the santoor has many similarities to a dulcimer — both combine strings and percussion, for instance, marrying elements of melody and rhythm in the same instrument — the santoor’s range is much wider (Rahul’s santoor has 89 strings), and its sound sweeter. On “Maqam-e-Navaa,” which draws on Sufi-inspired folk melodies, Rahul’s santoor sends notes swirling upward like incense and rushing down like crystal streams into pristine mountain valleys. The feeling of this track is bright and pure, the essence of nature and spirit expressed in musical form. Unfolding at its own easy pace, refreshingly unhurried, “Melody Of Kashmir” paints a joyous vision of green fields, blue skies, gentle breezes, warm sun, shining eyes, and laughter. The santoor’s notes cascade and shimmer, opening out into a very funky jam with tabla and other percussion later on, like a dancer spinning with their head thrown back, clothes whirling all around, pure ecstasy in music and motion.
The last two tracks, “Melody of Jammu and Kashmir” and “Melody of Kashmir in Contemporary Music,” were both composed by Rahul himself. The latter is a 35-minute showcase for the santoor, as well as for Rahul’s accompanists; occasionally it feels a bit self-indulgent, like the long solos taken by jazz or rock musicians at the end of a live show, but is still quite enjoyable — especially the thundering drums and the second, more introspective, section for the santoor, which feels like the slow, soothing approach of eventide. “Melody of Jammu and Kashmir” moved me deeply, from its slow and simple beginning, like the first tentative caresses of a lover, to the frequent conversational exchanges between santoor and drums, at times hushed, then surging with passion, just like love itself.