Few musical instruments on earth look as simple to play as the Indian bansuri, an alto flute created out of a single length of bamboo punctuated by six or seven finger holes. But looks are deceiving. The absence of keys over the finger holes, as we're accustomed to seeing on Western symphony-style flutes, means that bansuri players use highly sophisticated fingering and breathing techniques to make the instrument produce a spectrum of beguiling sounds.
And new recordings by Hariprasad Chaurasia, the world's most acclaimed bansuri performer, offer a dazzling opportunity for Western ears to gain powerful access to a little-known dimension of Indian musical tradition.
Chaurasia has been playing the bansuri for a half century. Hailing from a nonmusical family, the flutist began his childhood musical involvement with singing. That transition from vocals to flute before he reached his teens left its mark: You can hear this vocal foundation in all Chaurasia's recordings. Chaurasia has mastered the art of making bamboo sing.
The best introduction to Chaurasia's music is to first hear his selection on the new four-disc set showcasing the flutist as well as 30 other musicians, Anthology of World Music: North Indian Classical Music (Rounder). Two of the set's four CDs focus on vocal works, performances marked by a stunning range of vocal tones and extensive ornamentation upon words treated primarily as spiritually charged syllables.
That movement between rigidly defined formal structure and open-ended play is central to Chaurasia's art, represented in this set by "Raga Desh," a classical work based upon folk songs from the region of Rajputana.
If that selection whets your taste for more, don't miss the newest Chaurasia disc, Four Dhuns (Nimbus). "Dhun" refers to a light-classical style, looser than "Raga Desh" in conception - pieces often played in India (but rarely in the West) by musicians to relax themselves (since they're under the constraint of few musical rules to obey) as well as their audiences.