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Published: 2006/05/14
by Karl Kukta

Broken English – Karsh Kale

Six Degrees Records 361124

Ever since George Harrison lent his novice sitar skills to “Norwegian Wood,” Indian and Asian instruments have been used by Western musicians to exotify’ and spiritualize’ their music, and supporting these fusions has been one way (practicing yoga and wearing saris being two others) for Western audiences to express their affinity for Eastern philosophies and distaste for crass materialism.

With the emergence of the Asian underground scene in London in the mid-'90s, though, the whole scenario inverted: artists like Talvin Singh, Transglobal Underground, Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation were being inspired by the Western dance-club revolution to urbanize their indigenous sounds and to utilize the hedonistic as the avenue to reach the diverse, youthful audience of the club scene. These artists, for the most part immigrants, were able to stake a more authentic claim to the fusion sounds than their Anglo predecessors, but as the scene grew and became the Asian Massive, the artists have had to address the issue of bastardization — of watering down the music from their homelands to suit the glowstick-waving WASPs.

In the US, the figure looming largest over Asian electronica is Karsh Kale (pronounced Kursh Kah-lay), who just recently released his third studio album, Broken English. The album’s title hints at the expanding purview of Kale’s music, which has evolved beyond the mere synthesis of electronic music styles with traditional Indian instrumentation into a sound that is at once more personal and global. More so than his previous releases, these new tracks draw on the many musical influences Kale has soaked up during his years in New York City, for the purpose of finding a sound that unites listeners through its universality, and that puts behind him any allegiance to a particular movement.

To do so, Kale makes two significant changes to his music: the addition of English-language vocals to his tracks and the emphasis on songs’ rather than instrumental moods and grooves. Wisely, Kale employs a number of vocalists on Broken English, including Crystal Method collaborator Trixie Reiss, Ekova’s Dierdre Dubois, MC Napoleon, and newest band-member Todd Michaelson. The disc opens with “Manifest,” a hip-hop call to action featuring Napoleon and Kale’s propulsive dhol-programming that imbues the album with a sense of purpose right out of the gate.

All of the characteristic Kale touches are present on Broken English — the skillful tabla work, stutter-stepping breakbeat & jungle programming, middle Eastern chants and ornamentative string accompaniments. Employing these in a more pop-oriented format, though, runs the risk of sounding trivial, and occasionally (as on “Louder than Bombs”) Michaelsen’s vocals waver too far into the exotic adult-contemporary world that Sting has occupied of late. The anthemic breaks of “Dancing at Sunset” is likely to be the most polarizing song, with some being unable to stomach Michaelsen’s blissful vocals about being at a rave and others drawn back to it for the very same reason. But no one will be able to resist “Innocence and Power,” a downtempo jungle tune on which Dierdre Dubois steals the show from Broken English’s other vocalists. The song, which can loosely be said to be about’ the process of immigrating, so completely captures a sense of melancholy and heartache that it transcends all cultural barriers, moving at least one listener to tears.

Broken English concludes with “Rise Up,” an intentional bookend to “Manifest” that sends the listener off feeling rejuvenated and empowered, all to the steady, affirming rhythm of the dhol and the funky bass beats of the city. It is a confident send-off, as it rightly should be. Kale may not have made the masterpiece that he was striving for, but he has found a direction with limitless possibilities and has put the biggest hurdle behind him. With Broken English, Kale is most certainly on his way to mastering his own musical language.

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