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Maati review: Gifted jazz pianist Ron Cha’s expansive new album leaves an impression

Maati album review: Ron Cha's latest is an engaging effort and a compelling tribute to Assam.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: July 2, 2022 9:59:14 pm
The album art for Maati.

Album: Maati
Rating: Three and a half stars
Artiste: Ron Cha (featuring Kalpana Patowary, Biren Deuri, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Mohini Dey, Alexander Toth, Lionel Loueke, Mylai Karthikeyan among others)
Streaming on: Spotify and iTunes

In Maati (Earth), the second EP by Assam-based jazz pianist Ronojit Chaliha aka Ron Cha, a song titled Lost opens with a piano riff attempting to emulate the sound of the xutuli – an age-old Assamese folk wind instrument that’s shaped like a half moon and is believed to have been brought to Assam by Sino-Tibetan groups centuries ago. Noted Assamese singer Kalpana Patowary sings this ditty — an Assamese folk passed down generations, it describes the story of a boat spinning in water, without any oars, uncontrollably. About a minute into it, Chaliha turns inward, taking the jazz route and goes into a sumptuous continuum of an interlude, returning to his Assamese roots just before Patowary is to start the stanzas. It’s wonderful to see such open-ended interplay of instruments — keys along with bass, drums, guitars and a nadhaswaram. What hits the heart and adds perspective to this song of suffering is a stunning solo on the nadhaswaram by the extremely talented Karthikeyan.

Lost is Chaliha’s hidden message to the world, where he highlights how beautiful folk ditties, tribal songs and borgeets — ones that intrinsically capture the lives of people from a complex state — have neither been heard by many, nor are they documented. And for that he has brought out Maati — Chaliha’s attempt to present folk pieces from his home state along with his jazz sensibilities. The EP revels in this mesh of sensibilities, instruments and thoughts while presenting it all as a comprehensive whole.

Lost and four other ditties in this EP not only give us a glimpse into the 24-year-old musician’s gifts as an artiste, it also drives home the point of how, unlike what’s voiced often, there are young artistes who are attempting to uphold this intangible heritage, document it and allow it to reach a wider audience.
In the western classical music circles, Chaliha aka Ron Cha’s reputation precedes him. The young jazz pianist came under the spotlight when in 2013 his final score at Trinity College of Music (Advance Certificate course) was the highest ever in India. He still holds that record. But in the EP, it’s not just about what he learned at music school but a lot about what he imbibed of his heritage; and this is what makes Maati special. The way he has steered his music, presenting it from two perspectives but making it sound like one, is a stroke of much ingenuity.

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O mur apuner dekh (O my endearing country) was penned over a 100 years ago by literary stalwart Lakshminath Bezbarua and composed by Assamese politician and Lok Sabha MP Kamala Prasad Agarwala. It makes its appearance on Maati as an instrumental piece on the saxophone along Chaliha’s piano. Almost hymn-like, the piece soon wallops into the jazz realm, swings around a bit and returns to the basic folk tune. It is perhaps the finest instrumental renditions of the iconic song.
The opening piece, Awakening, is stunning and Patowary’s seasoned voice goes to one’s heart’s depth, blending folk with contemporary, with freewheeling jazz in tow. Chaliha’s dexterity on the keys and his hushed vocals, give us a peep into the elegant phrasing he is capable of.

He also ropes in Biren Deuri, a folk musician from Major Chapori Gaon in Majuli — the largest riverine island in the world — which is within the Brahmaputra, has a distinct cultural heritage. Deuri sings Doi Roi Bidi, a Bihu folk that has Dey layer her powerful bass riffs with the drums and piano. Another tribute to the harvest season, called Bihu Blues, is sung by Patowari along Schwarz-Bart’s saxophone and Chaliha on the synth. While everyone does a fine job individually, the folk just doesn’t blend seamlessly with jazz and seems a bit stiff and coerced. It’s a song that doesn’t stay, though the brilliance of the musicians does.

Maati is an engaging effort and a compelling tribute to Assam. A glimpse into the state’s lovely folk and Chaliha’s own sensibilities and its possibilities in the coming years, this expansive exploration leaves an impression.

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First published on: 02-07-2022 at 09:33:41 pm

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