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Reviewed by:
  • Voices for Humans, Ancestors, and Gods: A Musical Journey through India's Interior (East and North-East)
  • David Henderson (bio)
Voices for Humans, Ancestors, and Gods: A Musical Journey through India's Interior (East and North-East). Topic Records Ltd., 2006. One CD. 64.38 min. Recording, photographs, and text by Rolf Killius.

This is a welcome sampling of local song traditions from Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. The recordings—some made by SOAS graduate Rolf Killius on a 1997 research trip, others on a 2001–2002 trip—are uniformly clean. As is often the case with recordings done in the field, [End Page 219] though, percussion and wind instruments sometimes cut through the texture too stridently. The text and photos in the accompanying CD booklet provide useful documentation of the performances. As is often the case with commercial releases of field recordings, though, there is not enough information about song lyrics. Despite these drawbacks, this is a useful introduction to song from eastern and northeastern India, simultaneously opening up a window onto a portion of the extensive collections of the British Library Sound Archive.

I was immediately put off by the map inside the front cover of the CD booklet, which sketches the "musical journey" undertaken here: it shows clearly the Indian states represented, as well as showing India in relation to its two largest neighbors, China and Pakistan, but the outline of Bangladesh was curiously left blank, and Nepal seemed to have been taken over by China, for it had no outline of its own. The introduction also puzzled me, as the only scholarly reference was to B. C. Deva's classic Musical Instruments of India: Their History and Development—indeed an important work, but hardly the most relevant to the material presented here.

The first 2 tracks are described as "ballads" from Andhra Pradesh: one by daasari in Kurumbeta, the other by maasti in Palakonda. There is a curious mixture of terminologies in the CD booklet. It is not clear why the first track is a "ballad," "set to 3/4 and 4/4 times," while a later track is designated a "bhajan," "in ektala tala." The daasari performance has no accompanying melody instruments, which very nicely draws the listener into the CD's focus on the voice. Furthermore, the performance alternates between spoken and sung parts, between solo and group singing, between unmetered and metered sections, and between very short and very long phrases, highlighting the expressive range of the voice in South Asia. The maasti performance that follows unfolds similarly, with the addition of the wonderful sounds of the two jankili konda with which the singers accompany themselves.

The following 4 tracks are from Orissa: two examples of "Saora Geet," from Tame Gorjang village, followed by the bhajan mentioned above and a recording of "Odissi music" from Puri. Killius's descriptions of ethnic groups in his text sometimes seem to condemn them to a disappearing past. Here, the Saora "are an ancient community," while the Deori of track 11 also "are an ancient community." The emphasis on the immense age of these groups is unnecessary, for this is a feature of all surviving human populations, and it almost implies an incapacity to adapt to the present. Track 3, sung by a man calling himself Mr. India, is marvelously simple, although this is one of the places where the percussive sounds are particularly strident: percussion instruments that work very effectively outdoors do not often transfer well to speakers or headphones, and this is of course no fault of the recordist. Track 4, a "naming song," returns us to the purely vocal sphere. The vocal style of this short selection is beautifully [End Page 220] raucous, and Killius shows a good feel for album organization by following it with the more familiar genre of bhajan devotional song, which then gives way to the mellifluous voice of Chandra Mani Lenka, who here sings "Dutiya jaminire mo pranasahi," the most refined performance on the CD.

West Bengal is underrepresented in this album. Only tracks 7 and 8 are Baul songs from Joydeb-Kenduli, and the listener might be left wondering about the other...


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