INDIA/UK: Real Sugar - Paban Das Baul & Sam Mills
Updated: Apr 10
This East meets West album does far more than introduce Westerners to the beautiful Baul music tradition - it enables both artists to truly shine
We recently featured an album showcasing one of UNESCO’s masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity with the Rustavi Choir’s Georgian polyphonic singing taking centre stage. The album Georgian Voices was grounded in traditionalism, in an attempt to honour the ensemble’s forefathers by preserving the practice with an almost academic rigour. Whilst Real Sugar also exhibits a marvellous musical practice deemed worth of protection by UNESCO, where it differs from Georgian Voices is that the record uses the ancient tradition on display not merely as a means to preserve the accuracy of it but rather to reach a wider global audience who may never have heard it otherwise.
“South Asian music has long been connected to Western psychedelia, and with good reason.”
Baul songs from the Bengal region of South Asia, Bangladesh and parts of India, are not associated with one faith like other musical practices from the continent but rather are sung by Bauls who are Hindu, Muslim with its origins even incorporating elements from Buddhism. Though not indicative of the entire Bengali population, Baul music has played an important part in rural Bengali culture for centuries. Lyrically related to mysticism, focused on the philosophy of Deha tatta, which is a spiritual practice focused on the body rather than on metaphysics, the lyrics can be tough to understand without the assistance of a guru. Nevertheless, the sound of Baul singing is rather heartfelt, and from this perhaps more meaning can be ascertained. Enter Paban Das Baul.
Das Baul was brought up destined to be a wandering Baul singer, much like his father and those in his immediate surroundings. The Bengali singer has an incapsulating voice and it is therefore no wonder that when British experimental guitarist Sam Mills heard him, he wanted the world to hear it too. This is where things get complicated. The aforementioned Georgian Voices album and other folk records embedded in the accuracy of historical practices are by some seen as holier than thou, almost as if they are the only way in which ancient traditions are worthy of being presented. With this in mind, it is therefore unsurprising that Das Baul and Mills received their fair share of criticism for the 1997 album.
Now, I have a confession to make. When I first heard this album, I felt relatively unmoved by it and somewhat critical that Das Baul’s vocals seem to play second fiddle to Mill’s musicianship. A year and a half later, I feel totally different about the record. My frustration of Das Baul not being front and centre of proceedings the whole time was massively unjustified. Firstly, Das Baul is central to everything good about the album; in fact, they both are, and that is where the beauty of it lies. What I mean by this, is that this album is the pinnacle of what a fusion record is about. Both artists compliment each other perfectly but in particular the psychedelic aspects of the album. South Asian music has long been connected to Western psychedelia, and with good reason. Legend of psychedelia, and most other genres under the sun, George Harrison, recognised this link over half a century ago, with artists following this exploration both in and outside of India from Ananda Shankar to the Australian outfit The Bombay Royale.
What’s more, and this is a message directed to myself in the past as well as anyone who criticises any fusion album for not being authentic enough, if an album that sets its stall as being a fusion record fails to feel traditional enough that is the problem of the listener rather than the fault of the musicians. Fundamentally, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen to it and we live in an age in which traditional folk records from practically every culture are readily available due to the magic of the internet. Berating an artist for trying to bring his or her music to a new audience is a trite position and frankly there is space for everyone. Fusion is neither better or worse than wholly accurate traditional music, it is simply just different. In fact, when fusion music works as well as it does on Real Sugar what it has in its favour by marrying the old and the new together is not just that it attracts new audiences and sparks a curiosity in the tradition but can create a hauntingly beautiful sound.
From start to finish this album is full of heart, soul and more than anything unbelievable talent. Both Das Paul and Mills prove themselves to be superb musicians in their own rite. The opener Dil Ki Doya is probably my favourite song but the album is stacked with so many different styles that there will be something in there for everyone. From the plinky-plonky sound of Porojonome, the bluesy Mon Fakira to the jazzy Gopun Premer Kotha there is so much going on in the album. Yet, don’t be afraid by the eclecticism as the pair, whilst free-spirited and experimentational, manage to create a record that works as a piece in its entirety. Simultaneously peaceful and energetic, Real Sugar is a sublime piece of work that makes me want to explore Baul music further and listen to more psychedelia – a win for both sides of the East-West divide if you ask me.