No Ryan in Bollywood Arabia

(As published in India Currents)

The travellers and tradespeople make it across the make-shift gates just as dusk settles in. The dust stirred up by their carts and animals makes the warmth of the sun linger just a moment more. The eye catches the glint of embers being coaxed into cooking fires; aromatic wafts cradle the senses as a quiet spreads through this transient community. A calm that is soon tempered by reedy sounds of a rustic flute, the tinkering of strings, a melody here finds its echo there, a refrain ignites another in this caravan serai (caravan palace), along the Silk Road, circa centuries ago. Sounds like Bollywood Arabia, like a set from movies such as Abdullah and Khuda Gawah?

Woven Landscapes by the Karavan Sarai group, an album of the then, now, and forever or here, there, and everywhere, will take you into that time and space. It’s creators are two-time Grammy nominee artist/producer Carmen Rizzo and composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Narayan Sijan.

In the popular music world, Rizzo is known for his contributions to TV series CSI Miami and True Blood; he has worked with AR Rahman and Dido for the song “If I Rise” from the movie 127 Hours.

There is a story behind Narayan Sijan. In his words, “I was born with the name Ryan. When I first went to Calcutta in 1994, we were on an old beat up bus. One hour into the journey, the bus broke down. Everyone exited the bus. As my foot stepped on the earth I felt a big wet sensation on my head. I had a bird dropping in my hair. Suddenly a group of young men circled me with serious but friendly looks in their faces. The brave one that spoke English asked “You first time India?” I hesitated, trying to wipe the poo out. “Ummm …Yes!” Their faces lit up with joy, and they grabbed my hand – as not to wipe any more. They then hugged me, telling me what good luck I have for having the Gods bless me on my first time in India; this must mean that I lived in India in my past life and now India is my home. They then asked “Brother what is your good name?” I said Ryan, they tried to repeat it Riiian, Rayon, Rayaan. “No Ryan” I tried to tell them. No Ryan… Na-rayan, with great joy they thought they had my name correct. 6 months after that first day I was still in India and still trying to get across my correct name. When an old Indian ex-professor at a University asked my name, I said with my new habit of a head wobble “Narayan” and a smile. He asked how you have Indian name? you have Guru, teacher?, born in India? I said the people of India gave me that name! He smiled and said “Very good Narayan” and walked off. So it has been Narayan since then.”

Sijan spent more than a decade in India and Nepal, studying in China and Central Asia. He also lived in Cairo, visiting the Middle East, Turkey, and Israel.

“When I was in India I learned quite a few traditional songs from gypsies in Rajasthan,” Sijan recalls. “I spent two weeks with them at a festival in the Thar desert. A few years later when I was in Turkey I heard someone singing a piece with almost the same melody, just changed a little by the culture. That was a real inspiration to me, I realized how music can bridge time and distance.”

So, fans of Bollywood Arabia listen up! In the track “Road to Hijaz” you can become a grain of sand in those movie-sets, the score conjures up drama with every turn of the musical cycle. “Schirin” evokes moonlit sands, silhouettes of camels, and musicians lilting in a resplendent shamiana. “River Bend” is more modern and contemplative with some string sophistry. “Caspian Sea” is a lament in folk- it could just as well been a titling score for a South Asian movie, it’s universal in its sense of sadness followed by drama. In “The Journey,” we hear Persian tones in the instrumental backdrop supporting Indian folksy chorus.

Woven Landscapes has eight tracks in all. The album is great for when you are feeling a bit nostalgic, maybe feeling straitjacketed by the everyday and yearning for a bit of gypsy. The Arabic-Persian influences ensure drama, the Indianness creates a familiarity- Cleanse your humdrum with these mystical, haunting sounds.

Available on iTunes and amazon.com

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