Five years ago, the Indian musician V.M. Bhatt suddenly found himself the center of considerable western attention, when an intriguing, and unassuming duet with Ry Cooder caught the ear of a sizable listenership. Meeting by the River, on Waterlily Acoustics, managed to magically document the interaction of American, world-oriented guitar hero Cooder and Bhatt, who possesses a stunning mastery of the refitted slide guitar he calls the mohan vina. There followed several meetings by various idiomatic rivers with Bhatt, including sessions with Taj Mahal, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck, all recorded in a naturally reverberant church with the assiduous, live-to-tape purity that the label is grounded in.
The latest Bhatt recording from the Waterlily Acoustics trove, Saltanah (Waterlily Acoustics ES 51; 67:49) is a must-to-own, actually recorded not long after the Cooder confab, in 1994. This is a fascinating recording, in which Bhatt, rather than politely bowing to western folk ideals, explores his own improvisational Hindustani raga tradition, while Arabic oud and violin player Simon Shah plays in the Maqam tradition. The Indian connection is accented by the occasional presence of Ronu Mojumdar and violinist Sangeeta Shankar, but the emphasis here is on crossing over borders.
Though from disparate musical lineage, the players share enough common ground in terms of modal improvisation to find plenty to talk about. It is a meditative and delicately ornamental conversation, but also one with fire and some amount of the built-in competitive spirit of strong improvisers goading each other on in active dialogue.