RichMix in East London recently paid host to sitar maestro Baluji Shrivastrav launching a compilation album celebrating an extraordinary musical career. Accompanied by Sanju Sahai on tablas, the musicians played a night of mesmerising Indian ragas. Review by Stephen Portlock
“A blind person asked God what could be worse than being blind and God answered having no vision.” Such sentiments might come across as a tad clichéd coming from someone else but there was a serious agenda behind the words of the endearingly unassuming and remarkably gifted multi-instrumentalist Baluji Shrivastav. As he told an East London audience, there is still a common assumption that without sight it is not possible to play music.
Himself the victim of discrimination, Baluji made a plea at a Royal Festival Hall concert last year for blind musicians to be viewed as equal to their sighted peers. On the evening of Sunday 26th February he announced his next step in bringing about that social change.
Between 11am and 4pm on fortnightly Mondays starting the 13th March and running for a year, the Inner Vision Orchestra will be at Rich Mix rehearsing and developing new projects and everyone, blind or sighted, is invited to watch proceedings taking place.
This concert celebrated the international launch that evening by world and ethnic music label Arc Music of The Best of Baluji Shrivastav. The album features a selection of tracks from Baluji’s previous recordings including The Art of the Indian Dulruba and Goddess: Indian Music in celebration of Goddesses around the World.
Admittedly this was an album for purists with none of his collaborations with popular artists like Massive Attack and Stevie Wonder. The spirit of ‘East meets West’, however, is very much present in other regards.
Collaborations with the Inner Vision Orchestra and Re-Orient are included, and One particularly pleasant track, written by Leela, the daughter of Baluji’s wife Linda Shanson) has the feel of a Western melody given an Eastern spin through Baluji’s playing. Linda also contributes to the album, singing in English to one particular track which she wrote. Baluji’s playing is firmly rooted in an Eastern tradition but Western-style instrumentation is very strongly felt on certain tracks.
Baluji was recently awarded the OBE but he asserted here that his fellow blind musicians were just as deserving of that accolade. This was a concert of two halves with the more challenging first half comprising ragas performed by Baluji, accompanied by Sanju Suhai on tabla. After an interval and a short documentary (thankfully audio described) on the Inner Vision Orchestra, Baluji returned, accompanied by eight members of that ensemble.
Part of the pleasure lay in hearing individual members explaining the meaning and background to specific pieces. So, for example, Nigerian Christian soprano vocalist Victoria Oruwari explained the inter-faith multi-lingual song To God which she had written. That message appeared to tie in with the spiritual dimension to Baluji’s work. Yet arguably even more important than religious harmony is the call for social justice, as represented in world class blind musicians defying prejudice and showing their versatility.
18th March: Best of Baluji: The Cut, Halesworth, Suffolk
4th June: Double Bill with Azaadi Freedom at Rich Mix, London
5th June: Breathe Arts – National Glaucoma Day
3rd July: Inner Vision Orchestra looking ahead gig at Islington Assembley Rooms, London
For more information please visit www.baluji.com