If Shez Raja's previous album, Journey To Shambhala (2019) "looked East", as Rob Mallows suggested in his KoJ review, his latest, Tales From The Punjab, sees him dive deeper into his heritage to great effect. “In early 2020 I went on an adventure, travelling around the Punjab to explore my South Asian identity and immerse myself in the musical culture of my roots. Whilst in the vibrant city of Lahore I was honoured to collaborate with some of the most accomplished musicians of the subcontinent, from young virtuosos to veteran classical musicians."
He is joined in these tales by vocalist Fiza Haider, Kashif Ali Dani on tabla, Ashan Papu on bansuri flute, Zohaib Hassan on sarangi (a bowed, short necked instrument) and Qamar Abbas on cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument, more often heard in Latin American music.
The Raja original, Angel's Tears, opens the album, and provides a good introduction to each of the musicians, with Raja, Dani and Abbas laying down a simple but cool rhythm, before Haider joins with a haunting vocal. Raja takes a superb solo, which sounds almost guitar-like, before the haunting sarangi comes in and the percussion heats up. Papu contributes a brief bansuri solo, too, before Haider comes back in with her wordless vocal. It's a intriguing, haunting opener, that sets the tone for what follows.
The improvised Adventures in the City of Wonders follows, and almost sounds likes two pieces; the opening section brings to mind a dawn call to prayer, with Haider singing over the drone of the sarangi and Raja's bass, but this soon gives way to a more upbeat section, as though the city is coming to life, driven by Raja's simple but funky bass line. The change is very effective, with the stringed sarangi soloing over the infectious percussion.
Listen to Adventures in the City of Wonders here:
Mantra first appeared on Raja's Gurutopia album as Shiva Mantra, but this reinvention works very well, with Haider replacing Monika Lidke on vocals, and Papu effectively replacing tenor saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos. Maye Ni Main Kinu Akhan is again improvised, and the opening features Haider singing a traditional melody with words by the poet Shah Hussain. Raja's bass and Dani's tabla then establish a gently funky groove, over which Hassan and Papu solo.
Maharaja also previously appeared on Gurutopia, and features more of the deft, funky playing that we normally associate with Raja. There are also some electronic treatments on here, which lend the tune more of a fusion flavour, without detracting in any way. Enlightenment brings the album to a close, and as the title suggests, slows the pace, with Papu's bansuri playing over Raja's bass and Dani's exceptional tabla.
The album is short by modern standards, at less than thirty-five minutes, but never outstays its welcome. I loved it, and preferred it to Raja's more fusion-oriented albums. It's more delicate, less showy, and shows another side to Raja's playing which I had not fully appreciated. It will be interesting to see how he brings this album to a live setting when things open up. Highly recommended.