Whether on the inside looking out (as Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale are) or on the outside looking in (as Madlib is) contemporary musicians are working with the expansive sonic palette of Indian music in ways that go far beyond the hippie-fied New Age-isms all too often associated with it. Shankar has steadily been moving further and further away from the classical sitar training she received from her father, and on Breathing Under Water she continues to incorporate tablatronics into her sound.
While her last album, 2005's Rise, was a solo album produced with the New Delhi-based electronic duo Midival Punditz, on this new disc she partners with Tabla Beat Scientist Karsh Kale, and, ironically, they create tracks with a more recognizably Western sound. Pop textures and warm, melodic vocals (courtesy of Sting and Shankar's half-sister, Norah Jones) dominate many of the disc's 13 songs, but it's on the more forward-looking and superficially "Indian"-sounding numbers that Breathing explodes sonic conventions. "PD7," a driving, atmospheric number that serves as the album's epic centerpiece, the glitchy "Slither" and "Oceanic" (a soaring two-part piece) have Kale and Shankar in full collaborative mode. On these numbers, the two mix recognizable Carnatic scales and tempos with progressive digital touches and elegant arrangements, resulting in a true fusion of approaches.
Elegance isn't really on Madlib's menu, but fusion most certainly is. For the second (or third and fourth, depending on how you count) installation of his Beat Konducta series of imaginary-movie soundtracks, the producer turns to Bollywood for inspiration. But unlike Dan the Automator's Bombay the Hard Way attempt to blur the line between the real thing and the new thing, Madlib makes it clear that what he's recording here is the score to his own movie, one that's so out there that even a Bombay producer would think it too surreal. Vintage clips are chopped up and pureed into a heady mixture that finds string lines and shrill vocal samples poking out of Madlib's own cauldron of hip-hop masala.
He has an unmistakable affection for the source material, a love that's rooted less in kitsch value or multiculturalism than it is in the fact that the movies coming out of Bombay in the '60s and '70s sure did have some funky-ass bottom ends. Madlib exploits that funkiness to his own purposes and comes out with a peculiar and personal sort of homage to South Asian sounds that in ways both similar and opposite to Shankar and Kale's rejects traditional perspectives on "Indianness" and aims simply to create great music.
Jason Ferguson writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.