London-based songwriter and bassist Shez Raja made a name for himself touring with Elephant Talk, Loka and MC Lyte before embarking on a solo session and career.
His previous records featured stellar musicians such as Wayne Krantz, Trilok Gurtu, Mike Stern and Randy Brecker, and his new album, Tales from Punjab, continues to explore a rich range of musical and cultural inspirations.
The album, the result of Raja’s 2020 visit to Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab, has a crowd of guests. These include bansuri flute player Ahsan Papu, sarangi player Zohaib Hassan, tabla maestro Kashif Ali Dani, singer Fiza Haider and cajon guru Qamar Abbas.
If you’re not familiar with these instruments, or even how a bass guitar fits into them, you’ve come to the right place, because the man himself is here to explain how it all fits together.
Tell us about the inspirations behind the new album, Shez.
âAt the start of 2020, just before the pandemic, I went on an adventure traveling in the Punjab. My dad is Asian and what I wanted to do was explore my Asian heritage as a musician. I had only been there a handful of times in my teens, so one way to do that was to immerse myself in music. It has been incredibly inspiring. â
Where did you register?
âIn Lahore, which is an incredible city. I have associated with amazing musicians and have been honored to perform with them. I met them in the recording studio and practically recorded. We started playing and I knew within moments that something really special and magical was happening. â
Tell us about the instrumentation.
âThere is the bansuri, which is a bamboo wood flute. He was played by Ahsan Papu, who is a legend. He has performed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the legendary Qawwali singer, and is not only a master musician, he makes his own instruments. He brought about six of them to the studio. Then there is the sarangi, which is a bowed string instrument without frets.
âI love the sound. There is a vocal quality – a real shimmering sound, almost like a horn. You hold it vertically and play it with a bow. The guy who played it, Zohaib Hassan, is an innovator, because you normally play this instrument with three fingers on your left hand, and he uses his fourth finger, which opens up a lot more possibilities. â
Is there a tradition of the bass guitar in this kind of music?
“Not at all. The other musicians said to me, ‘This is completely new, this music has never been made before.’ I was just following my heart with this album. â
So how does the bass fit in?
âIn a really organic way. The instrumentation is drastically different from my previous six albums, because instead of drums we had tabla, and there weren’t any harmonic instruments at all. Not only that, everyone was playing on a continuous drone from an electronic drone box. Also, when I was working solo I was putting on more double stops than usual and surfing in multiple modes. â
Tell us about the theory behind the music.
âWe used western scale shapes on the album, but I was also using Hindustani thaats from northern India, which is what they call ‘parental scales’. Ideally, six of these are the first six modes of the major scale that we use in the West.
âThe other four are super interesting. You have the Bhairav ââscale, with a flat two and a flat six, and the Poorvi, Marwa and Todi scales. I’ve been playing these scales for several years anyway, but now I have the opportunity to do it in a pure context. It was so much fun. “
And the rhythms?
âWell, the harmony in Indian music is super simple, but where it gets mind boggling, incredibly interesting, is the rhythm and the melody. Not only do you have things in hand, but the interpretation of the melodies is also rich in ornamentation, which gives the music expression and emotion.
âIn Western terminology we would call it grace notes, glide notes, and vibrato, but vibrato is a special type of oscillation using trills and microtons. And on top of all that, there are hundreds of ragas, which are essentially sequences of notes, or rather interpretations of thaats. They have very specific conventions around the order in which you play the notes.
âFor example, if you go from the fourth to the second, you can never play the third in between, or if you go from the fifth to the octave, you can only play the sixth or the seventh between them. All of these rules are designed to produce a certain emotion in the player and the listener. Melodically, it’s just another world. â
What amazes me is that your bass parts on the album are really fast and smooth, and yet you navigate through these strict and complex conventions as you play.
âWell, this music is in my blood. I learned to appreciate his musical language by osmosis as I grew up. â
At the same time, you had to work hard to get it under your fingers.
âOh yeah, exactly. For years, I would wake up in the morning, do meditation, and then spend crazy hours on bass. I mean, hours and hours! â
What bass equipment did you use on the album?
âI used my Fodera Emperor custom five-string in tenor tuning, which really suits my style as I like high register solos. It was also useful for the chord vocals on this album, while also being perfect for tons of low end groove. I also like that kind of hypnotic groove. My bass has a wenge touch, which gives me all the warmth that is a property of this wood. I am also Aguilar approved and use DR strings. â
Effects in the chain?
âMy effects setup is at the heart of my sound, so I use a Boss GT-10B multi-effects unit. My goal with the effects is to create a distinctive sound for each composition. The reason I use this particular unit is that it has two channels. I keep one channel for my pure and clear sound and the second for my effects.
âOn this album, I was looking for a more natural and earthy sound, so I used the effects in a very subtle way. How do you get your tone clear? When it comes to sound, I think the equipment is crucial, but 70% of your sound comes from your musicality, what goes on in your brain, the musicality that you develop over years of experience, by interacting with other musicians.
âObviously the mechanics of your technique with your fingers is very important. I have had the chance to travel to Cuba several times. I did a stint with a band on an island just off the Cuban mainland, and these guys were using amps that were in terrible shape, but they sounded awesome, with incredible musicality. Their timing, their choice of notes and their passion were all there – and it was a very interesting lesson for me. “
How do you find songs?
âI’m a serial jammer and I have two or three jam sessions a week, often with drummers but also with other musicians. I use them to test new ideas and make new suggestions on how ideas can be developed, playing without an agenda in a totally free, organic and liberated way.
âI apply certain tricks like playing in total darkness because it encourages and invites error. Something I’ve worked on is the limitation – I find it can be an incredible artistic boost. â
In what way?
âWell, I remember talking to a lot of bass players at a Masterclass at the London Bass Guitar Show a few years ago about the Apollo 13 space mission and how it had been doomed since the beginning. start, because everything that could go wrong went wrong. . Their oxygen tanks exploded and the reserve tank was square in shape and was to be installed in a round shaped circular port.
âMission control solved the problem of installing a square peg in a round hole with a very creative solution, due to the limitations imposed by the resources available on the spacecraft. To extend this idea to music, the specific limitations I might impose could be a particular rhythm, or playing a very small number of notes. I demonstrated this by playing an A minor over a D7 groove, limiting myself to two notes, A and G. I had to dig really deep rhythmically to make it sound interesting to me, let alone the audience.
âOne of the great advantages of this approach is that it can produce new and tangible ideas that you might not come up with if you had more options. Another is that when you do this over time, more sophisticated rhythmic ideas become part of your improvisation vocabulary. Your subconscious generates these interesting ideas which should make your solos more interesting. â
Do you sometimes use a looper when coming up with musical ideas?
“Totally. If I find a cool harmonic idea with a chord progression that inspires me, I record it, loop it, then try out various melodic ideas. When I find a melody that I really like, I go then propose one or two different chord progressions, loop the melody and change the chords below.
Thanks Shez. The new album is great.
âThank you. People seem to get a lot of joy and a sense of peace in music, and I was like, ‘What better time than a pandemic to listen to it?’ If that can appease people in any way. either, or make a little difference for a handful of people, then its job is done.
âYou know, I think every time you play music with anyone, in any style of music, there is a spiritual connection whether you like it or not. I was in a state. meditative most of the time while we were recording, and that connection between my emotions and the songs is why it’s the most heartfelt music I’ve ever produced. â
- Tales from Punjab is out now via Ubuntu Music.