COLUMN 102, FEBRUARY 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
THE BENGALI BAULS AT BIG PINK
THE ALBUM COVER
[The following was originally written as liner notes for a record album called The Bengali Bauls at Big Pink, released on the Buddah label. Garth Hudson was the producer.]
It is December of 1967 and
the Bengali Bauls want to get it on.
The Bengali Bauls?
They are a street group
from the dusty ruts of Calcutta, where you can drive 70 miles out of town and
find yourself in posted Tiger country. Of
course you've heard of Ravi Shankar but what the Bengali Bauls play is India's
soul music. You really have to have
crawled through the black muddy bottom of the earth to become a Baul.
On the other hand you really have to be exalted.
They have been living in an
apartment over a converted barn down the road from
At the barn, everyone has
come around to meet them. Bob
Dylan, practicing each afternoon with The Band in the cellar of Big Pink, drives
over for a visit from his house on a nearby mountainside and poses with the
brothers Purna and Luxman Das in a Polaroid snapshot that is later seen by
millions on the cover of John Wesley Harding.
Purna sings lead.
Luxman plays the khrmack, which is like an inverted bongo drum
with two gut strings attached from the inside of the hide to the membrane on a
small cup. You put the bongo drum
under your arm, pull on the cup and pluck the strings with a khrmack
pick. There's also Hare Krishna
Das, who plays the dotara, a stringed instrument resembling a cross
between a mandolin and a banjo, and Sudhananda Das and Jiban Das, who play the
harmonium and the tabla, respectively.
All Bauls, of course, are brothers, although only Purna and Luxman, who
lead the group, come from the same father.
In their guest cottage,
they oil their bodies every morning, sleep each afternoon and cook for
themselves. Indians have their own
style of kosher. As den mother,
Albert's wife, Sally, goes around telling her friends about this strange brood
of house guests, with black shiny hair down to their waists and erupting smiles
of spiritual bliss. To explain
them, she gets a book by Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, scholar, and Nobel Prize
winner, who was a friend of Nabani Das, the father of Purna and Luxman:
"What need, say they,
have we of other temples? Is not
this body of ours the temple where the Supreme Being has His abode?"
The Bauls cut across the
lines that divide Hindu from Moslem and invite all the lowly to join them.
Are the Bauls a religion? The
street is their place of worship. God is their Man of the Heart.
If others look down on them, why, then, as Tagore says, "Truth
cannot be communicated to those on whom you look down.
You must be able to see the divine light that shines within them, for it
is your own lack of vision that makes all seem dark."
They have played the
Fillmore in San Francisco and Town Hall in New York and they have recorded an
album for Elektra. At Town Hall,
they were on the same bill with Paul Butterfield who had invited them to play at
the concert. At the Fillmore, they
appeared on the same bill with the Byrds after being whisked, practically, from
the airport to the stage, arriving from Calcutta just in time for the date,
exploding off the jetliner in the brilliant flaming orange of their dhotis.
Bauls deliberately wear the garments of both the Hindus and the Moslems,
no small provocation in a country where insanity is called "the wind
Only a few years ago, India
looked at the Bauls like punchlines walking around in search of a joke.
Now their music is considered a national treasure.
In his scrap book Purna carries photographs of the Bauls in Leningrad,
where they had performed as part of a proud cultural exchange.
He also has pictures of himself with Indira Gandhi.
He sits on the platform with her now when she goes campaigning through
his territory. It was a friend who
had brought the Bauls to visit Albert and Sally in their suite in the Grand
Hotel in Calcutta.
When they piled into his
room, it was with their instruments and a retinue. Albert ordered food. Purna
sang. In his head, Albert started
making arrangements for them to come to this country.
After their debut at the
Fillmore, the Bauls discovered America by driving cross-country with Tom
Donovan, a one-time Honolulu night club owner who had appointed himself road
manager and interpreter of the group in San Francisco, translating in pidgin
English that the Bauls themselves hardly understood. The Bauls are thigh-slappers.
Make them laugh hard enough, and they'll even slap yours.
When they can't find the right word to explain something, they'll touch you, and you'll know it doesn't matter anyhow. Driving cross-country, Donovan had to listen all the way to choruses of the Bengali equivalent of "Wow! Look at that!" In New York, the Bauls mooned out over the
in Woodstock, N.Y.,
the Bauls still get uptight
about tigers in the woods
bridges along the Harlem
River Drive. When they got to
Woodstock, they couldn't believe you could have that much forest without any
houses and not have tigers, too. Now it is December of 1967 and when Sally takes
them for a drive, they still get uptight about tigers.
Sally, they call "sister" now. Albert is a
after three months they want to get it on. The
Band invites them to visit Big Pink. Tommy
Donovan drives them over.
Big Pink sits atop a
mountainscape in Saugerties, outside Woodstock. The Band rents it at $125 a month, a house that you'd more
likely expect to find in development row on some horseshoe street in suburbia.
Upstairs, the furnishings include a knick-knack shelf.
But downstairs is The Band's equipment, with enough electronics to raise
a baby satellite.
When the Bauls come over,
they look at the pictures on the walls, drink cognac and generally loosen up.
Imagine, if you can, a group of wind-afflicted Indians sliding down
banisters in a house that doesn't have any.
They get hung up in some bubbling water and dancing lights in a beer
display that's been taken from one of the local gin mills and posted over the
mantelpiece. When they play The
Band at checkers, naturally they lose. They
begin to argue among themselves. About
what? Who knows?
Hare Krishna Das turns out to be the life of the party.
name?" someone asks him.
With a little research, The
Band learns that Hare Krishna is as common a name in India as John Smith is here.
They exchange addresses and telephone numbers. Finally, they take the
cushions off the sofa in the living room and bring them down the cellar so they
can sit comfortably on the floor. When
they perform, it's cross-legged. At
first, The Band joins in. Charles
Lloyd, visiting with his saxophone, is also there.
But The Band isn't interested in raga rock and neither are the Bauls.
Nobody seems to know what's going on, so The Band gets up and lets the Bauls
Garth Hudson, The Band's
organist and technician, turns on the tape recorder, a simple stereo Ampex that
pianist Richard Manuel had picked up somewhere for $140. Garth twists and turns the dials to get the right levels.
Meanwhile, the Bauls warm up in steps of talent. While the recording gets better, so do the Bauls.
According to an unwritten
law, the worst singer of the group goes first and the best sings last.
Everyone seems to know his turn without being told.
really to say," remembers The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, listening
to the tapes months afterwards, "except that it really did happen that way.
They were playing for themselves, they weren't playing for us."
Sudhananda Das sings first,
two long solos:
"Alone, I have caught
a fish. The fish akes Hari's
And then: "Praise my
beautiful birth land... For you the world cries, but who will the world cling to
Luxman is second:
"With what flower shall I worship your feet"... The flower that blooms in
the name of Hari and the flower that blooms in my tears..."
Hare Krishna is the third
singer, and by now everything's cooking.
"My boatman friend off
the ferry crossing... When you are the boatman, my friend of the poor, will my
day go wasted like this?"
At long last, it's Purna's
turn, Purna, the greatest of India's Bauls, who has walked since childhood
across his country's tear-stained face at the heels of his father, Nabani,
learning 5,000 songs of the soul, with each one now at the tip of his tongue.
"Say Hari, mynah
bird," he sings. "...I give you gold, I give you silver, you can't
deceive me... Nobody else cries my tears, your days are numbered so say Hari,
He tosses his head, his
voice reaches up toward heaven.
At the end you can hear
bass guitarist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm joining the rest of The Band in
"Nice!" they say.
This tape was stored away
with all the other Big Pink tapes like home movies and snapshots for a family
album never mounted. Some tapes of
The Band and Dylan that were made at Big Pink were stolen or copied to be
bootlegged on the Black Market. Probably
the Baul tape would have been forgotten except for Tommy Donovan, who demanded a
copy for himself.
After the Bauls went back
to Calcutta, Donovan sent the tape to a studio to be processed for the stereo
deck of his convertible. Afterwards,
he would ride through downtown Woodstock with the top down and the volume at
full-blast, a full-fledged believer in a four-wheeled hi-fi.
Of course, he played it loud enough to someone else to hear it, or this
album never would have come out. Stereo?
Garth considers the tape to be as good as any field recording, but listen
to the tabla, which sounds like huge bubbles coming up through a deep
pool of bass. Listen to the
presence and the separation as the Bauls dance out of your speakers and you will
hear why this record can become a classic just for sound freaks alone.
The Bengali Bauls?
"The waves of love
river are heavy," they sing. "How
will I ride on it? Your crazy
servant of God waits for you on this side of the river..."
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