The world is a swirling arrangement of sand and water, elements that sing and crash. From the deserts of the Sinai to the drowned islands of Indonesia, these fluid forces of life and destruction guide the emergence of a new post-cataclysm harmony of people and music, serenity from out of the deluge. Kartick and Gotam pull the threads of this microcosm and weave them into a new tapestry as a gift to the world on their latest creation, Business Class Refugees (U.S. Release: May 11, 2010), from Chennai-based EarthSync. Business Class Refugees features not only their groovy downtempo style, reminiscent of Zero Seven, but also a host of South Asian artists who take center stage and lead the listener on a journey of experiential discovery. K&G-as they're called for short. Their January 2010 U.S. debuts in NYC's Drom and The Shrine music clubs-during the APAP (Arts Presenters) conference-were packed and very well received.
Gotam (Yotam Agam), one half of the Israeli duo, grew up on an island in the desert. He learned to listen, first to the music of the Bedouin, then to the roar and hum of the sands as they moved, sometimes frighteningly, sometimes almost imperceptibly. "There is something very unique in such a quiet ambience," he reflects, shaping a cosmos out of the vastness. "Because of the silence and open distances, you become aware of otherwise unheard sounds at any given time of the day." The ad hoc warp and woof of the desert revealed, slowly, its own internal improvisation, and Gotam grew into an audio engineer.
Kartick (Patrick Sebag), who met Gotam in the studio, grew up close by but worlds away in the multicultural salad bowl of a modern Israeli city. He trained his ears to the bustle in a dozen languages, to the music brought from all corners of the world, now tinkling out of the windows of apartment blocks. For years, they experimented together in the room between extremes, between the urban crowd and the sun-slow pace of the desert. Some of the tracks on Business Class Refugees have been almost a decade in the making: "Boye Boye" was based on a song by an Arab singer, and then spent a while as Hebrew rap. "Finally," says Kartick, "we met a family from Tajikistan who sing folk songs in weddings, and they gave it the strong signature we were looking for."
Kartick and Gotam found the mix that would define their sound when they were called to service as musical specialists in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia. Both were working on projects in India when they were approached by Sastry Karra, a philanthropist, about joining the Laya Project , an effort to document the musical cultures of Southeast Asia (a DVD and album that will be released in the U.S. by EarthSync on April 13, 2010). The first stop was Sri Lanka, where the duo traveled into the villages far in the south, uncertain what they might find. "The first song we heard was sung by a person who lost his wife in the tsunami, and he sang about her spirit in the sky," Gotam recalls. That was their inspiration for this new chapter in their musical careers, their ascent to the ranks of global communicators. "Our team consisted of people from all over the world from different backgrounds and religion, and we were there in a village sharing a magic moment through music."
The duo began their quest to make music that reproduced that moment in time. "We try to deliver an experience to the listener more than a message," philosophizes Gotam, "as we believe that music can be exciting to anyone in any genre or language."
Kartick and Gotam have spent their entire lives as nomads, possessing roots in everything and nothing. Here, in Sri Lanka and beyond, around the rim of the Indian Ocean to the countless islands of Indonesia, they found the focus in that field of sand and water, a way to make the looseness beautiful. Yet, even in this world of thin and porous borders, reaching one's destination can be less than easy. One day, in the airport in Singapore, the intrepid pair was first upgraded to business class but soon found themselves stranded, with neither a visa nor a flight to board. They became, that day, business class refugees, people who associated in comfort with the downtrodden and uprooted. They spent the day working, bohemian maestros in a postmodern age, from their laptops and over wireless, the way they often collaborated before and since. These musical ambassadors defaulted to the only life they know: using the resources at hand to build a bridge between threatened music and a modern audience.
Back in the comfort of the studio, Kartick and Gotam began to recreate their journey of sound. For Business Class Refugees , they brought in Mahesh Vinayakram, a master of Carnatic Classical music and the son of the legendary Ghatam musician Vikku Vinayakram, deep voiced Anuradha Vishwanathan, and Ariel Alayev, a Tajik singer and accordionist. These accomplished vocalists chill on their respective perches in a musical Zen garden raked by Kartick and Gotam. The swirling of the sands, now in the capable hands of mature electronica magicians, sweeps around these traditional performers, incorporating them into something distinctly "electro-folk."
Business Class Refugees is no piecemeal collection of disjointed ideas, no exotic adornment of pedestrian electronica, but a solid mix that respects the ideas and attitudes of its source material. The album is rounded out with Naveen Lyer on flute, Mishko M'ba on bass, KV Balakrishnan on tabla, and Yoav Bunzel on drums. "Tamil Bossa" is immediately recognizable as an old melody, with the scales and beats of India, but Kartick and Gotam have transfigured its basic substance into hooting and rolling pipes and bass. "We called in Mahesh, the vocalist," explains Kartick, "and asked him to lay some lyrics on the groove. He closed himself in the room for three hours, came out and said, ‘I'm ready!' With his vocals, the groove became an inspiring song based on a traditional devotional Sanskrit piece. Naveen, the flautist, then laid on his interpretation which led to a beautiful conversation of flute and vocals." The same goes for "Vellai Thaamarai" and "Heer," pieces with minimal instrumentation that give texture to their lead vocals. Kartick and Gotam owe this approach in part to their inspiration, the work of Shubha Mudgal, an Indian musical legend with what they call an "awe-inspiring repertoire" ranging from Indian classical, to experimental, to pop, to devotional music.
Even "Door Open Door," which may remind listeners of the raga-inflected sounds of late-sixties rock, favors the fresh emergence of sound, new performance within a traditional paradigm. Kartick and Gotam recorded this piece in a small studio in India in 2004. "I think it was the first session with Indian musicians," recalls Gotam. "We laid some groove for them to improvise on, and they gave the first inspiration, which I think stayed as a strong signature in the song." The track gathered electronic dust until one day when they were working with Abhijeet Tambe, lead singer of Bangalore-based rock band Lounge Piranha. Abhi improvised the lyrics, which reflect the idea behind the original song.
Here, in the garden of Kartick and Gotam, traditional musicians are not showpieces - they plant their seeds and arrange the flowers. Then there enters the Dao that courses through Kartick and Gotam's musical feng shui, their careful arrangement of lines and textures to guide the emergent sound. These electronica shamans have learned control of the forces of nature, to direct the desert to sing. Kartick and Gotam use their powers to make music a gift from the world to the world, to recover life from out of the tsunami.