Bombay Dub Orchestra
Welcome to a world of cinematic lushness, orchestral delights, global voices, rhythms, vintage synthesizers and electronic bleeps. This is Bombay Dub Orchestra – the remarkable debut album from the U.K.-based duo of Garry Hughes (Björk, Sly & Robbie) and Andrew T. Mackay (VAST, Annie Leibovitz). Bombay Dub Orchestra is music that will stroke the senses and enamour the soul, with its uniquely brilliant crossover of orchestral arrangements, modern, lush beats and synthesizers and a heavy slant to the music of India.
That territory has been mapped by bands like Röyksopp, Air and Zero 7, but no one had dragged a 28-piece Indian string section into the arena before. And while the name "Bombay Dub Orchestra" conjures up visions of the garish pop of Bollywood's song-and-dance numbers, or the reverb-drenched, proto-psychedelic sounds of Jamaican dub, this music creates and sustains a very different mood.
It all began some seven years ago when producer Garry Hughes and string arranger/composer Andrew T. Mackay, went to India to record some of that city's top session players for a project by the London based Indian duo Spellbound.
"I produced and Andrew arranged," Hughes recalls. "It was a fantastic experience recording these guys, and on the plane coming home we thought how great it would be to make an orchestral chill-out record with these players."
This was easier said than done, since both Mackay and Hughes had other irons in the fire. Andrew T. Mackay, who is classically trained and is a descendant of one Luciano Francesco Paggi, "the Italian flautist, painter and revolutionary," has a busy career writing music for films, television, and artists as diverse as photographers Annie Liebovitz & Herb Ritts and the late actor Peter Cushing as well as arranging string orchestras for the likes of L.A. rockers VAST and '80s legends ABC. Garry Hughes, who claims to be a direct descendant of "a long line of horse thieves," had gigs as a keyboardist and producer with artists like Björk, Sly and Robbie, Garbage, The Pink Floyd Orchestral Project, and The Art of Noise. When they finally had a chance to work on their long-delayed idea, the goal, according to Hughes, was simple: "to explore music that no one else had so far done."
Mid-tempo trip-hop propels a rich tapestry of orchestral strings in "Compassion," with occasional wisps of Indian and Western instruments and subtle hints of '60s cinema. The slow groove on "Dust" fits neatly beneath the lyrical flow of the strings and dreamy keyboards. By the time you reach "The Greater Silence" later on the disc, the ambient dreamscapes have completely taken over. This is a pure, floating soundscape from an orchestra. In classic "dub" style Hughes and Mackay have also generously provided a second CD of remixed "versions" of the original music tracks. These mixes take the material into new sonic realms, traveling from upbeat dancefloor fillers to ambient tone poems, which strip the material down to orchestral textures.
The majority of the music was written in the U.K., in Hughes' countryside studio and Mackay's West London studio. Mackay and Hughes then worked on the intricate, cinematic arrangements 'faking' them up with digital samples. They ended up with a pretty fair approximation of what their Bombay Dub Orchestra would sound like. But there was no chance that the two producers would be satisfied with that. "I love samples and use them a lot," Hughes says, "but some things you have to do with real players." Mackay added " There are some truly amazing orchestral sample libraries out there but there is nothing like the real thing, especially with the wonderful Indian musical intonations!"
In March 2005, Mackay and Hughes finally returned to Bombay and began putting the final elements of their long-awaited debut album together. "During that week, we recorded a 28-piece string section (12 violins, 8 violas and 8 cellos) on 10 different tracks. We recorded the orchestra several times to achieve the multilayered arrangements that we had scored."
That was during the day; in the evenings, they recorded the best of Bombay's Indian classical musicians - including leading players of the sitar, sarangi, tabla, bansuri (wooden flute) and some memorable vocal performances. As Hughes explains, "the great thing about Indian classical music is that it's all about improvisation. With Western classical musicians, it's sometimes hard to give them a melody and say, run with it. But with these players, we'd give them the written parts or melody and in some cases the vaguest sketch of a melody and hit the 'record' button."
The results were exactly what the producers wanted. And beyond this, some of the sessions inspired Mackay & Hughes to rescore and arrange several of the tracks. The vocals on "Feel," by Rakesh Pandit, a young Bombay-based singer brought in by engineering legend Daman Sood, were a complete surprise: he eventually leaves the melody completely and begins improvising in a beautifully energetic yet still somber way. The song would later have to be rebuilt when Mackay and Hughes got the sessions back to England, but it was worth the effort. "It was the most exciting week I've ever spent in a studio," Hughes states. "Then we took the whole lot home, and we spent some time extending the intro, outro and middle section to accommodate Rakesh's inspiring vocal performance."
What they made of it is a surprisingly varied group of pieces, given the overall mood of the album. "The Berber of Seville," for example, features not only a wacky pun in its title, but some killer North African singing by Khalid Kharchaf (who really is a Berber singer from Morocco via London's Portobello Road). "To The Shore" has a simple but appealing flute melody, supported by a striking orchestration of dulcimer, choir, strings and piano, all driven forward by steady percussion. And then there's "Beauty and the East." This epic mix of Indian instruments with electronica is one of the pieces that was further worked on in Hughes' studio out of the sessions recorded in Bombay and additional soloists recorded in London. Sitar, voice, tabla, bansuri, santoor and violin appear in rapid succession, over shifting electronic drones and a sturdy, rocking tabla and rhythm track. A sitar melody alternates with strings over redoubled percussion; the opening theme returns, and a solo Indian-style violin floats over a rich layer of drones.
Bombay Dub Orchestra also includes a few pieces that share in the album's more stark classical mood but which offer a surprising contrast in sound. "Sonata" is, as the name implies, a piece in more of a Western classical mode, featuring Andrew T. Mackay's piano. Even more striking is "Remembrance," a lovely, sparse piano solo, in a style that recalls the likes of Debussy, Fauré or Satie. The connection to the rest of the project may not be immediately obvious, Hughes says, but it's there: "My home is opposite an old church. Andrew went over one Sunday - it was Remembrance Day here (the U.K. equivalent of Memorial Day) and the pastor's theme was remembering the troops. He said that a lot of those people came from places like India and Africa and it was important to remember this when topics like immigration and racism come up. Andrew came back and wrote this piece." Violins followed by violas glide in at the end of the track seemingly from somewhere 'over the Himalayas' and then vanish as quickly as they appeared leaving the gentle yet poignant piano bare and fragile.
Garry Hughes is no stranger to Six Degrees fans: he has worked on recordings by Euphoria, Bobi Céspedes, and Continuo, among others. So while he didn't have a contract when he and Andrew T. Mackay were putting the Bombay Dub Orchestra together, he says "I did have Six Degrees in the back of my mind." He also says the experience of working with the musicians in Bombay was so rewarding that they're eager to do it again. The first sessions were filmed, so a visual document of the project may be in the works, and as for a potential follow-up, Mackay simply says, "much more of the album will be written in India and we certainly aim to get out there much earlier in the process."
Taken from Six Degrees Records
CD: Bombay Dub Orchestra[657036 1120-2]
Released 7/06 on Six Degrees Records. Written and produced by Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay. My expectations for this album were very high from the onset, given the quality of Garry Hughes previous excursions on Six Degrees Records (see Euphoria and Continuo). And so to say that I wasn't disappointed is the understatement of the century. After a sixty minute soaking of majestic Eastern tinged strings bathed in rich, aromatic orchestral soundscapes, I was already convinced that I was listening to the album of the year. And that was only disc one.
Over on the second disc the self-produced dub remixes on offer somehow elevate a handful of tracks from disc one to phenomenal new heights, with the Diamond Cake Mix of 'Feel' and the Marine Drive Traffic Jam mix of 'Beauty And The East' standing out as obvious highlights, although I feel spoilt for choice and somehow wrong for selecting favourites from such a talented class.
In previous years the genre of down-tempo electronica has been swamped with a deluge of ethno-lounge as chillout was engineered to be cool. In a bold, single stroke, Bombay Dub Orchestra have wiped the floor clean and raised the stakes with their remarkable self-titled debut album, establishing themselves as outright masters of the house of global electronica. Needless to say an essential album for the collection.
For further information on Bombay Dub Orchestra see their official web site.