Edward Powell,
(independent, 2010)

Ragmakam is a very good album, especially considering that the two musical styles Edward Powell is attempting to bridge -- the improvisational Indian raga and the more formal Turkish makam -- use different modalities in their composition. That Powell has even made the attempt to seek out the similarities between the two styles is admirable. That he has actually gone out and invented his own instrument in order to facilitate this -- a double-necked, fretless amalgam of the sarod and the oud called a ragmakamtar -- is either the sign of an obsessive or a genius. Given the results Powell achieves with Ragmakam, I'm inclined towards the latter, for the CD is an undeniable success.

There seems to be more raga than makam here, at least at first, which is interesting in that the musicians and instrumentation are largely Turkish -- the ney and the kemence, underlaid by tabla. It's not until the second track, "Yamani-Nikriz," that Arabic flavors start to creep into the music. After that the two strains of music begin to intermingle more freely and build upon one another. At times the effect is very stirring; tracks such as the slow-building "Bhinn Hicaz" and the energetic "Bayali Darbari" are impressive, both in their compositional dexterity and in the willingness of the musicians to thoroughly explore and exploit the new musical ground Powell has created. Kemence players Sercan Halili and Selcuk Erarslan each get turns to shine on these tracks.

The blending of styles reaches its apex with the tracks "Huseini Sahana" and "Jog Evic." In the former, Powell and ney player Nurullah Kanic come together over Sri Partha Mukerjee's astounding tabla work and create a swirling, fiery song that practically begs for a whirling dervish to dance to it. In the case of the latter, Kanic joins Powell and Mukerjee for what starts as a long, slow, sensuous workout that suddenly sparks into an energetic dance between Powell and Kanic halfway through. You can really hear both the Indian and the Turkish phrasings at once as the two musicians trade off, and it becomes something of a revelation to the ear once you start to pick out the disparate strains of music working together to become a cohesive whole. The track ends with a long ride-out on Mukerjee's tabla; Mukerjee is really the unsung hero of the CD. He's a true virtuoso, and provides a strong rhythmic backbone for the other musicians to work with. Powell and the other players are highly skilled as well, but it's Mukerjee who stands out repeatedly.

I said at the beginning of this review that Ragmakam is a success, and it succeeds on more than one level. Not only does it meet and in many cases exceed Powell's stated goal, but it also does something uncommon in world music today; it takes two familiar forms and transforms them, finds something new in them, and shows the listener something new in the process. And that is laudable indeed.

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music review by
Jay Whelan

30 April 2011

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