Prana and Drum
(Dor, 1999)

Koan's album Prana and Drum is one of the most intriguing world fusion CDs I've heard recently. It strikes a perfect balance between being intriguing to listen to carefully and appreciating its nuances, and acting as a calming yet energizing background to other tasks. Kuljit Bhamra and Martin Lee-Stephenson combine musical and rhythmic elements from around the world and mix them in ways that combine worldbeat with a nod to techno.

While there's a danger that blending such diverse elements will result in confusion, Bhamra and Lee-Stephenson have a clear result in mind, and all the pieces add to it. While playing much of the music themselves, they bring in drummers and vocalists to round out the sound. The production values are excellent, too, making an album that is one of the most solidly and elegantly put together that I've heard. The album's eight tracks cover a lot of ground, and provide over an hour or music, and the long songs are sufficient time to explore an idea in depth.

Polyrhythms drive all the tracks, and are the album's connecting thread. While I'm used to and love complex polyrhythms as the force that drives a piece, I was fascinated by Koan's addition of some techno elements. The rhythmic base is slower than techno's, and not at all mechanized. The wordless singing, the electric instruments like keyboard and bass, and some of the chaotic interjections remind me of techno, and it's exciting to hear these in such a different context.

"Pantacle" is an exercise in anticipation as it slowly builds, and has a strong Middle-Eastern flavor with an Indian touch. "Chan" has a strong bass theme, with rhythmic and musical embellishments explored over its long, eleven-minute running time. "Goat Shepherd, the Cypress Tree" plays our expectations about rhythm off against each other, accompanied by a haunting recorder melody with a Greek feel.

"Sati" is my favorite track. I love the way the polyrhythms and the bass -- two of my favorite musical things -- intertwine and respond to each other. "Fetish in Dream Time" is a long piece -- almost ten minutes -- that explores variations, beginning with an approach that's reminiscent of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum and moving back and forth into techno territory.

"Anagarika" particularly rewards careful listening, with all the different embellishments it puts over a basic beat which itself morphs. "Shirk" is especially danceable, with a more pronounced bass and guitar presence and a strong techno feel, accented by the slightly more rapid beat. "Theme for an Imaginary Romance" has a magical and Mediterranean sound, reminiscent of Spanish music with a Moorish influence.

I recommend Prana and Drum wholeheartedly to everyone who is interested in world fusion, or who appreciates Mickey Hart's polyrhythms. Koan is more electric than Hart, but they share a sensibility. Koan's album is a worthy addition to this eclectic and exciting genre.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]