I spent many late nights in the early 2000’s sitting in my parents’ basement in Scarborough with my headphones on, brow furrowed in concentration with my mind intently focused on unlocking the mysteries of this incredible music that I had newly discovered. Elusive and ethereal, like a beautiful ocean creature that appears just below the surface but can’t quite be identified.
That’s how I began my joyous journey of a lifelong appreciation of Indian classical music. Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was an integral part of that voyage of discovery.
As a self-taught guitar player, the home base for my training were the giants of the folk revival – Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger. I certainly was no stranger to slide playing either being quite enamoured with the sound of rock and blues slide playing.
But the moment I heard the steel guitar in the hands of the man from Jaipur, I was hooked. With no disrespect intended too the other maestros, Bhatt seemed to elevate the music to territory that seemed never to have been explored. His playing was other-worldly. Long intricate phrases like a cool mountain stream that trailed off into smaller more tranquil pools of water – eventually, through some magical process, the water turns into fire, with rapid musical sentences sparking and sputtering and igniting the treetops, threatening to engulf the entire forest with its ferocity.
Bhatt’s instrument, which he designed and christened the “Mohan Veena”, is not really a steel guitar in the traditional Western concept. He has modified the traditional “archtop” guitar and, for lack of a better term, found a way to “Indian-ize” it. Whereas a traditional guitar has 6 strings, the Mohan Veena has a whopping 19 strings in all – three melody strings, four drone strings and twelve sympathetic strings. Bhatt has engineered an instrument that can serve as a sarod, sitar and standard veena all-in-one – the ultimate Indian instrument, one might argue. A beautiful creation by a very gentle Dr. Frankenstein.
In 1994, Bhatt recorded an album of collaborations with the renowned American slide guitar player Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club). With tracks such as “Longing” and “Ganges Delta Blues”, the album immediately found an audience within the world music community. Winning a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1994, the album is still hailed as a beautiful example of two musicians with different backgrounds and training coming together and creating their own musical vocabulary. The sound of the Mohan Veena strikes a chord (pun intended) with audiences all over the globe.
Bhatt is steeped in Indian classical music – he took his taalim from the musical giant Ravi Shankar, and is one of the most sought-after performer in India and abroad. He is to be honoured later this year with the title Padma Bhushan by the President of India. Toronto audiences will have an opportunity to listen to this great artist on April 22nd.
Michael O’Hara is on the Board of Raag-Mala Toronto
When and where?
Saturday, April 22nd 7:30pm
Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto
Inquiries: Zahid 416-995-3968