Friday, 6 April 2012

Chasing Camels On The Karakoram Highway

This post had been sitting as a draft copy for about three weeks. Someone suggested giving this to The Malaysian Insider, so I did. Once again, TMI has been very kind.

Also, special thanks to an ex-colleague who introduced me to this band via a copy of their first album, Into... AkashA, back in... nuts, I can't remember when. ...I didn't do anything with that album back then, so I'm glad I could do something for this album now.

Chasing camels on the Karakoram Highway
first published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 April 2012

When I heard it, my jaw dropped. "Returned?"

"Cannot sell, so the boss said, 'Return them'," said the store assistant who looked overqualified for his position. With the beard, glasses and ponytail he might as well be the store's walking catalogue and go-to guy... he probably is.

"I put them everywhere," he added. "But cannot sell." His reply was no comfort.

In the end, it was at Rock Corner, The Gardens that I found a copy of AkashA's Karakoram Highway, going for RM38.90 each.

Cover of AkashA's 'Karakoram Highway' album
AkashA's Karakoram Highway, from Rock Corner, The Gardens.
Shop at Rock Corner for all your musical needs.

My appetite for things AkashA began from a borrowed CD, what I believe was their first commercial CD, Into... AkashA. The promise of more of such delights as "Bourbon Lassi", "Esperanto", "Brickfields Blues" and "Ants in My Turban" in the next then-rumoured second album were whetted further by a YouTube sampling of a lively number called "Ipoh Hor Fun".

Until my first slurp of "Bourbon Lassi", I didn't think a sitar could stand in for a sape or a gu zheng, or even fit into a blues band or an Irish ensemble a la Riverdance. It just works.

How many of you who've seen Amir Muhammad's Malaysian Gods were stunned by the Indian fellow playing local rock group Search's "Isabella" on an er hu? That's what AkashA does. Nowadays some of my better writings were done under the influence of this group's piquant and sometimes playful compositions.

Named for the highest paved cross-border road in the world, the album's contents represent fine examples of cross-culture interaction facilitated by its namesake, which traces part of the ancient Silk Road.

CD of AkashA's 'Karakoram Highway'
Come in - a cross-cultural musical adventure awaits

The CD starts with the fast-paced, jaunty "Chasing the Camel" which sends the listener on such a pursuit from 00:01. The composition switches fluidly between Middle Eastern and Indian, punctuated with violin solos by musical wunderkind Wang Lee-Hom. Just as animated is the title track, which sends one careening across a dusty highway that snakes along mountain ridges on a packed, rickety bus ... are those deftly plucked notes coming from the roof?

Similar out-of-body experiences may happen with the beguilingly mystical "Qawali Dhun" or the soulful Sarawak-inspired "Santubong". The festive "Bafana Bafana", with the shrill of what sounds like a vuvuzela at the beginning and the end of the track, conjures a carnival-like celebration of football's thrills and spills; the track is named after the Zulu epithet for the South African football team. "Zapin Untuk Mariam" and "Bison Blues", meanwhile, are the guys' trademark nods to the respective musical genres. "Rondo Kirwani" didn't quite work for me, though.

I was also a bit disappointed that the unmistakably Chinese "Ipoh Hor Fun" wasn't carried by a whole sitar solo like in the YouTube video, but the feeling disappears quickly and by the third repeat, who cares? Every time I play it, it's Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Meh and the Mooncake Festival all over again. ...Is anybody hungry?

No sophomore slump here. AkashA still delivers the goods - better than FedEx even. And you come away thinking, maybe, you can make an Ipoh hor fun with an Indian accent, or a real bourbon lassi.

"...cannot sell..."

The words of the assistant at the store which shall never be named still rings in my head. It stings. Like the pain a dedicated, OCD single origin coffee grower feels as he watches customers add sugar (gasp!) and milk/cream/soy (hrrk!) to his product ... and puts it on ice (Medic!).

It's a paradox isn't it? The money we throw at foreign acts who are already famous, making millions or both could be used to further the dreams of our own home acts who really, really need our help.

But perhaps it's only after wandering in the wilderness for a while that we develop an appreciation for what we have back home.

...Now, if you'll excuse me, gotta go. The "Karakoram Highway" beckons.


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