A Meeting by the River - Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #75

I’ve long expressed my interest in music from other cultures and unfamiliar styles, and something I like just as much as that is whenever this sort of music is blended with something more familiar. You could think of it as safer: a gentle little introduction to an otherwise completely unknown territory, just testing the waters a little bit, although I prefer not to. I prefer to see it as some otherwise unrelated musicians with completely separate ideas and mindsets and skills joining together to create a product of their own differences: a unique sound unlike anything heard before, music that exists not as the spearhead of a new movement or even something that can be replicated: something as unique as a fingerprint or a snowflake. And A Meeting by The River is just that: two masters of their own very different genres, pioneers of their own delicate sound, coming together to complement each other and build something that would be impossible to do on their own. The album title couldn’t be more appropriate: a meeting, as if to suggest a casual encounter, reflects the improvisatory nature of the album, (apparently the two musicians met less than an hour before the recording of the album and that the entire album was “unplanned and unrehearsed”) and a river, this most natural and pure of environments, suggests the gentle natural flowing of life and music, tranquil, clear and soothing.

I wasn’t lying when I said these men were pioneers of their sound. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt actually plays an instrument of his own invention on this album: the self-named Mohan Veena: a cross between an acoustic guitar and a traditional Indian instrument called a Vichitra veena. The result of this strange combination is a remarkably crisp, clear tone; purer than an acoustic guitar, more precise than a slide guitar, and that Eastern twinge from the sympathetic strings creating a resonant drone. His virtuosity and confidence on this instrument is astonishing. Enter Ry Cooder: one of my favourite musicians and a genuine admirer and embracer of many kinds of music: here, Hindustai Classical, and he’s elsewhere collaborated with African guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, Cuban musicians on Buena Vista Social Club, Irish traditional group The Chieftans and a few others. His voice on the guitar is instantly recognizable, and it’s nice to hear him on this record shining and also leaving the floor open for Bhatt when required. The music on this album is definitely more East than West, yet Cooder has no problem keeping up and whipping up his own storm on these four tracks. His playing is the yang to Bhatt’s yin, the perfect musical compliment and a source of some relief from Bhatt’s often broody, haunting explorations. Longing, the longest track, exemplifies this perfectly, it’s nuanced introduction giving rise to contemplative, almost philosophical improvisations, a quiet tabla appearing in the background as perhaps the unconscious instigator of these pensive meditations. Unsurprisingly Bhatt’s playing is rooted in Indian improvisation and Cooder’s takes on a bluesier role, but what’s astonishing is how these styles come together so flawlessly. Also of note: Ganges Delta Blues, a fantastic name showing the merging of the two styles of music. With its recurring theme and more intense exposition, it also gives rise to some of Cooder’s most memorable soloing; gentle, brimming under the surface, then rising in fury like the waves crashing against the levee, with Bhatt’s veena playing the torrential rain that feeds the river till bursting point: interrelated, co-dependent and striking with a strong natural force that nobody would dare try and stop it. Yet the overwhelming abundance of natural furor doesn’t detract from the stateliness of their playing, nor their sincerity. As all great forces of nature are, A Meeting By The River can be both majestic and timid, grand and small. As with a river, its banks can be bursting or it can be serenely flowing and giving life to all its surroundings, and this album embraces this completely. It’s a celebration of that clever natural entity, and epitomizes the significance of the great things to be found from unlikely collaborations: whereas Cooder and Bhatt’s styles might be different, their ethos is the same, and together they have made an album that transcends culture and background. Ultimately it removes the shackles of classification from the music and takes it back to its roots: music is, after all, an extension of feeling, one of the most natural expressions known to man. Ry Cooder and V. M. Bhatt are just doing what they know best, expressing themselves, and when the depth of their expression is so deep and effortless, the style doesn’t matter, it’s their sincerity that does. And their sincerity overflows in abundance.
A Meeting by the River - Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt play away.

Words – Adam.

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