World Village
468022, 2003
label website

Born from an unbroken lineage of Indian master musicians that traces back to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, Imdad Khan, Inayat Kahn and his father, sitarist Vilayat Khan, Shujaat's Hawa Hawa album isn't a foray into deep Classical raga but rather, an exuberant light-hearted celebration of simple Hindi and Punjabi folk songs by Shujaat, self-accompanied on the sitar and with light rhythm support on the tablas. This literal return to childhood roots -- not concert halls but working peasant and rural back porch settings -- affords Westerners a unique and pure opportunity to sample the Indian equivalent of minimalist rocking-chair Blues. It's just one guy strumming and singing, with a friend on some spoons and other clankware hammering out the base beats.

Despite the setup, this isn't some ill-fitting put-on, of a highly accoladed concert musician attempting an open-for-all Sunday affair of less challenging material for the masses. Instead, it's a spot-on homage to his own past and formative makeup. Think of it as a sort of work-pantalones/clodhopper alter ego that coexists with the suit-dressed, sophisticated public persona most know of. Listening to it feels just as comfortable and natural as exchanging the sharply pressed dress pants and shiny Oxfords of the business dress code for the bare feet, wrinkly T-shirt and torn jeans which the sanctity of one's own home and privacy vouchsafe.

No serpentine improvisations then; no beatless abstract meditations on hierarchical tensions between intervals. Instead, circular melodies with repetitive stanzas; minimal chord progressions; simplicity of structure; basic beat keeping rather than Zakir Hussain flurries of impossible tabla showmanship. The same holds true for the singing which doesn't attempt to impress with high-speed vocal percussion tricks or the otherwordliness of Dhrupad-style singing. Alas, this extrovert simplicity is just as deceiving as playing Mozart on the piano. While Liszt and Chopin may seem far more demanding, interpreting Mozart properly is, certain technicalities aside, considerably harder.

While it's tempting then to think that Shujaat's classical background would have rendered this a walk in the park, illustrious precedents with non-illustrious results suggest rather the opposite. Singing a folksy love song is far harder to pull off for an operatic than seemingly non-trained singer. The prevailing ease and naturalness of Shujaat's performance on both vocals and sitar then becomes testament to a rather uncommon accomplishment, one which benefits from eager soulfulness and technical mastery alike. Unlike most Classical Indian music which is an acquired taste for unprepared Western audiences, Hawa Hawa is like halvah or baklava - though not indigenous to our culture, its sweetness instantly overcomes whatever alien conceptions we may have held. And rather than pretending to be a 40-pound designer wedding cake, it's simply a great-tasting sweet no matter what your country of origin. So think of Hawa Hawa as halvah halvah and take a good bite. You'll be happy you did.