Talvin Singh Ha

It’s been a long three years since Talvin Singh released his debut album, OK. The excitement of the Asian underground has simmered down and tabla-breakbeats are about as unfashionable as the movement’s older cousin, drum & bass. But while Roni Size and others are struggling to stretch their 15 minutes of fame, the real music has just begun for Singh. Ha pictures him once again on a trans-national stage with an eclectic ensemble of friends (sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan, drummer Karsh Kale, vocalist Swati Natekar, freestylists Cleveland Watkiss and Ajay Naidu, among others) but this time around the group sounds more like an actual band. Crisp, junglist drums erupt out of a calm river-like tabla and 808 dub while fragments of Urdu poetry, stream-of-consciousness rap and exhortations of pure vocal passion unfold in the ambient realms above. Neither democracy nor anarchy, the sound on the rest of Ha is similarly cosmic. The tabla is still there throughout the disc, but Singh does not let the instrument (let alone himself) become the centre of the musical universe in the same way he did on OK (the photographs of himself pouting in his kurta are a different matter). In that way, he’s like Miles Davis; a good conductor who brings in the right people at the right time to show their stuff, but also translate them for a contemporary ear. On “Sway of the Verses,” he invites U. Srinivas to spark Carnatic phrases on the mandolin with an electricity that’s as acidic as a Roland 303. A cast of Middle Eastern musicians come in on “The Beat Goes On” and takes its electro b-boy style into an Egyptian swing. The mix is rich and in many ways it’s almost the kind of record Bill Laswell might give us: a series of grand musical visions that do not try to cause new beat sensations but instead goes deeper into older ones. And although Singh brings new life to old school breakbeat (“Uphold”) and even bhangra (“Mustard Fields”), there are moments when the songs suffer, as they become purely music for music’s sake (as is arguably the case for most of Laswell’s repertoire). What prevents this from totally happening is Natekar, the sweet Hindi soprano whose vocals of dreams, love and desire root the album with genuine emotion. Expect her to become the first female star of the new Asian scene. (Island)