Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Look up the phrase “musical polymath” in the dictionary, and more than likely, you'll find Peter Gabriel's grizzled, grey-bearded mug next to it. It might be a cliché to say that the ex-Genesis frontman is one of the few Western rock veterans to successfully delve into the diverse realm of the worldbeat genre (Paul Simon and David Byrne also come to mind) without stooping to the level of condescension, but the fact remains that Gabriel has done more than any other major artist to bring the nuances of world music to the charts, for better or worse.

Notwithstanding the more regrettable side effects that this effort has produced (the profusion of inane, commercialised and highly hyped Latin-pop acts, to name one), the contemporary music scene has become a richer soundscape with the brilliant inroads made by illustrious luminaries like Youssou N'Dour, Hossam Ramzy and the late, lamented Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Gabriel's Real World record label and annual Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals are enduring high points in the worldbeat environment, with notables like Geoffrey Oryema, Sheila Chandra and Ustad Nusrat himself all getting their initial big breaks in the rock world through contracts and appearances at these institutions.

So, it was appropriate enough that it was Gabriel that Martin Scorsese turned to when he was looking for someone to score his controversial motion picture "The Last Temptation of Christ" way back in 1989.

Having been brought abroad, Gabriel then cleverly eschewed the usual orchestral click tracks that more orthodox composers like John Williams and Trevor Jones normally utilise to shape a film score.

Instead, he chose to meticulously create a jaw-droppingly lavish tapestry of music and sounds inspired by the film's epochal accents, in the process engendering a landmark recording that is so amazing and breathtaking in its breadth and depth, that it has become the definitive yardstick in the continuing evolution of worldbeat thus far. It also deservedly won a clutch of awards, including the Grammy for Best New Age Performance in 1990.

The evocative strains of a doudouk, a traditional Armenian woodwind, provide for an otherworldly start to "The Feeling Begins", the leadoff track, joined a few bars later by an ominous electronic drone and a rousing phalanx of surdus and tablas that rush the track to its sudden, dramatic halt. This goes on to the brief but effective "Gethsemane", where flitting flute samples chase each other in an enclosed space, making for an almost spiritual musical phrasing.

Next up in this remarkable batting order is the Byzantine instrumental structure of "Of These, Hope", employing the anxious chatter of an African talking drum as its primary voice, and also includes a Turkish ney flute, Carnatic double violin and a true-blue electric-guitar riff. Meanwhile, the percolating layers of percussion loops piled on top of each other in "A Different Drum" are enriched by stalwart Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour and Gabriel's improvised vocalese tradeoffs.

Other tracks can be downright spooky, especially the menacing "Troubled", with its restless clatter of various types of percussion played by three stellar musicians (Gabriel, Hossam Ramzy and jazz great Billy Cobham), and also the booming percussion bedrock of "Zaar", which is enhanced by unearthly double-violin ululations and funereal synth chords.

Gabriel also puts more thoughtful ideas into play here, with the meditative, medieval-era melange of oboes, cor anglaises and sampled harps on the heartbreakingly beautiful "With This Love"; the plangent, resonant finger-cymbal clicks that form the foundation of "Before Night Falls" which has master flautist Kudsi Erguner's birdlike ney-flute lines gliding on top; and "Stigmata", featuring the palpitant pluckings of the kementche, the Crimean version of the Greek lyre.

The most remarkable track here has to be the eight-minute title track, anchored by a sombre, reverberant drone, adorned by Ustad Nusrat's sturdy, powerful qawwali wailings, treated trumpet moans and grinding Brazilian percussion. The phenomenal proceedings are brought to a dramatic close with the triumphant piano arpeggios of "It is Accomplished", accompanied by distorted percussion fills and a guitar-feedback loop.

Only one word can aptly be used to describe "Passion": timeless. Timeless in its polyglot musical reach, and timeless in its amazing ability to realistically evoke the sights and sounds of a long-bygone era. There has never been a soundtrack like "Passion" before it was initially put out, and no other film score has come close to matching its ingenuous combination of Eastern esoterica and Western firepower since then (not to mention its panoramic, haunting atmosphere). A monumental achievement, any way you look at it.


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