The Funky Guru

Finding out about international acts performing live in Malaysia can be a bit like playing with the lottery: you never know what to expect. There are the popular, well-advertised stadium shows, like the Pussycat Dolls and INXS, of course — but more interesting are the smaller shows, promoted through word of mouth at far more intimate venues. And while the jazz scene frequently throws out these overseas gems, it’s rare that we see any genuine stars from the sphere of world music.

Prem Joshua, a German disciple of famed sitar proponent Ustad Usman Khan, has, to date, released more than a dozen albums fusing the music of East and West; sales for these have made him the number one best-selling world music artist in India — odd, that Indian classical music should be classed as world music in India. Anyway, this is a moot point: given the reception Joshua received from the several-hundred-strong crowd assembled at the Petaling Jaya Civic Hall auditorium on October 11, 2006, he obviously has a strong and loyal following here.

Prem, a collaborative performance with the talents of the Temple of Fine Arts’ Jyotsna Prakash, Prakash Kandasamy and Kumar Karthigesu, was part of that foundation’s fund-raising efforts in building a new five-storey ‘Sanctuary of the Arts’ — as such, the night of music began with a 15-minute Powerpoint presentation, with requests for participation in a charity raffle. Strange, of course, but it’s all for a good cause — and judging by the crowd, TFA was already speaking to the converted.

Fusion Mysticism

It’s easy to scoff at Westerners who whole-heartedly embrace European mysticism — and the smattering of middle-aged Europeans in saris amongst the audience that night testified to this difficulty — so when the curtains rolled back to reveal Joshua (or Prem — he reveals that his assumed name is Hindi for love) on a raised platform it was somewhat unsurprising to find he looked like a more grizzled and relaxed version of Richard Branson.

However, in spite of the New Age hippie-speak coming from his lips, there was something genuinely grounded and likeable about Joshua, not least in his down-to-earth humour and very natural interaction with the crowd.

Joshua’s opening number set out the evening’s agenda: tabla, flute, piano, sitars — and mysterious beats from fellow German collaborator Chintan ‘Digital Dervish’ Relenberg at the far end of the stage. While the instrumentation, rhythms and lyrical chants of Joshua’s music are largely sourced from the Indian subcontinent, Prem‘s melodies definitely hail from a more Western perspective, with a jazzy approach to key signatures and tempos.

The night’s opener, with Jyotsna’s piano and Chintan’s keyboard as a driving force, brought to mind the sort of fusion that artists like Ananda Shankar were making in the late 1960s, on the American West Coast, taking motifs from Indian ragas but spinning them round to the palates of the (then) subculture.

After this two-song section, Joshua performed the opening track of his latest album, Ahir, a smooth piece entitled ‘Namaskar’ — which he explained comes from a reference to the Sufi mystic Hafiz: “The subject tonight is love.” With a similar ingredient mix to the previous material, it was left to a layer of programmed beats to elevate the track into a very pleasant, Cafe Del Mar / Ibiza-like slice of ambient pop, with the piano again bleeding in some much needed jazz edginess.

It was at this point in Prem that one of the most sublime moments in Prem, for me, occurred. A single red petal floated down from the roof of the stage, above the performers’ heads, picked up by stage lights. Whether intentional or accidental — and I don’t think it was something that most of the audience picked up on — that little bit of drama added a subtle piece of theatre to the performance.

Keeping It Cool

Joshua is a master of between-song banter: sitars need careful tuning every so often, and at one point he casually mentioned that he was once told he didn’t play as good as Ravi Shankar. “But,” said the critic, “You tune faster.”

With the band largely seated alongside Joshua onstage, it was down to interaction between the players to generate much of the show’s tension. This was hardly lacking: it was clear that Joshua and Relenberg enjoyed their interaction with the players, part of the TFA’s Inner Space sub-troupe all — especially during Prakash’s driving tabla sequence, and the solo sitar duels between Joshua and Kumar.

While this writer is no expert, it seems clear that Joshua is a virtuoso of classical Indian instruments, effortlessly switching between flute and sitar amid-piece, often cradling the latter as he gently played with the former. Less convincing were his soprano sax parts — not because of any lack of technical skill on Joshua’s part; just that, at a fusion performance such as this, it is an instrument that reminds us too much of Kenny G.

One criticism of Prem may be in the seamlessness of the show. While it’s fantastic to be able to transition seamlessly from one track to the next, this does suggest a certain monotone similarity — we were only really sure of how many tracks we’ve heard at the end of a section when Prem stopped and let us know.

And that’s what bothers the most about the evening spent with Prem Joshua: there’s just not enough edge, not enough danger. Everything was a little too smooth. While we applaud the way he has embraced concepts like peace and tranquillity, audiences need something more exciting in a live show: we want something that stands up and assaults us — more like that frequently supplied by the Malaysian Dhol Foundation, in fact; several of whose members of were in that night’s crowd.

Prem Joshua is a great musician, and he and Relenberg have crafted some great Buddha Bar style tracks — and a potential anthem, in the form of the celebratory ‘Funky Guru’: “Many of us need gurus,” said Joshua by way of introduction, “But don’t find a guru that is boring, find a guru that is fun.”

Fun, indeed — it featured a comical voice-percussion sequence courtesy of Prakash, mimicking the tone of a sagely maharishi. This penultimate piece had audiences itching to get out of their seats and start dancing. It was the kind of high-spirited energy that Prem, as a live performance, required; and Joshua, as a performer, clearly possessed — it just took time to shake it out.


Matt Armitage has been in Malaysia for seven years and is an avid fan of live music.

First Published: 24.10.2006 on Kakiseni

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