My intro to the music of Mike ‘Slo-Mo’ Brenner came a few years ago while listening to my favorite radio station, the University of Pennsylvania based WXPN 88.5 fm.
The offerings of this musical hybrid spanned several genres and caught my ear. Recently his music has taken another turn with the newly released Tripti which I think of as ‘musical masala’; a mixture of sonic spice, influenced by Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya.
Since receiving a copy last week, I have listened to it no less than half a dozen times in the car, several while lounging luxuriously, once while giving a massage over the weeekend and at the moment while typing this article. Its lush sounds carry with them the exotic flavors of India while appealing to the Western ear.
The opening piece has a feel reminiscent of The Paul Winter Consort with its soaring vocals.
Tut Tut ripples like a waterfall, with rapid fire tabla playing, beckoning chanting, and a whole lot of hip shaking.
The third piece entitled, “Chillium,” has a luxuriant groove to it that invites closed eyed swaying, solo or with a partner.
“Savor me on your tongue like I was candy… Flavor me with some strange exotic curry… you can taste it on my skin” is the delicious invitation of selection number four called “Savor Me.”
Ganga Lullabye sweetly rocks and cradles the listener. The most meditative piece on the CD is so nice, he played it twice (also as the final song).
Pagla Baba overlaps male and female vocalizations, winding and weaving them to perfection.
A singing slide guitar leads the listener into “Chai Blues” (which happens to be one of my favorite beverages).
“Mama Won’t You Hold Me Now?” is a plaintive song that carries with it the comforting line, “You whispered in my ear that there was nothing to fear…run your fingers through my hair.”
Chalo has a banjo-Blue Grass sittin’ on the back porch sensability.
Listen to this beautifully nuanced CD and you will certainly be satisfied.
I had the opportunity to interview the Philly local musician who hails from my hometown.
Please share a bit about your musical background and primary genres in which you’ve performed and the fusion of musical styles that you have become known for.
My musical background started with playing regular guitar in rock bands since high school. in the 90s, I had a pop/folky/acoustic band called the Low Road that reached some level of popularity in Philly. After that broke up in ’97 I was looking for a change and I gravitated to the squareneck dobro. I didn’t really know too much about bluegrass but my ears kept catching the sound of that instrument (mostly via Jerry Douglas) and I jumped at it and immersed myself in bluegrass/roots techniques of the lap style slide guitar.
How did you make the transition into playing Indian slide guitar? Is chaturangui another name for the instrument?
Around nine to 10 years ago, I was in a music store in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I saw a VHS tape that said “hindustani slide guitar” and pictured an Indian gentleman playing a pretty far out looking lap slide instrument. I bought the tape and that was my first introduction to Debashish Bhattacharya and his instrument, the chaturangui. I was very busy playing lap steel with a couple touring rock bands and my fascination with Indian slide was put on the back burner, although I would return to the video when I could. I found out that Debashish would be teaching in NYC for a week, so I crashed on a friend’s couch and and studied with him for five days. I was pretty hooked. He is an excellent teacher and an incredibly nice man. Several years later, I studied with him for another week in Connecticut. These teaching seminars take place while he’s on tour in the states
I acquired one of his instruments about three years ago. I had been playing on a Mohan Veena, another type of Indian slide guitar developed by Vishwan Mohan Bhatt, another excellent Indian player. Something about the chaturangui, specifically, the placement of the chikari or drone strings, appealed to me more. Some of my dobro/lap steel technique was adaptable to these instruments, but the touch and playing styles are very different.
Finally in 2010, I launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised some money to actually go to Calcutta and study at Debashish’s school. I really just wanted to study—the recording was just for the Kickstarter people, but the sessions in this tiny studio went so well that I knew I had something pretty cool to work on. Being in India for the first time was pretty amazing. Calcutta, or Kolkata, as it is known now, is a big, bustling, noisy chaotic city that quiets down and empties out at night, so it’s one extreme to another. I loved it after a few days of getting used to all the tumult.
I had some great friends I met at the school who showed me where and what to eat (and not to eat), so I stayed pretty healthy while eating and drinking pretty much everything. I found the Indian people in Kolkata to be very friendly to me. In the area where the school was located, there wasn’t much tourist activity so I really stuck out when I went to buy food or wander around. I took the subway to gigs that I sat in on and the entire subway car full of people stared at me—no hostility, but they definitely didn’t see white guys carrying guitars around too much. I would love to go back soon, maybe see other parts of the country as well like up towards Nepal and Mumbai.
Where did the title Tripti come from as the name of your latest CD?
“Tripti” means satisfied. It also is the name of Debashish’s lovely wife, but more significantly, it was the name of the takeout restaurant down the street from the school. They were very kind to me and I loved hanging out on the street while they cooked my meals and baked the paratha bread. So good. The music on Tripti, while being inspired by Indian music, was really inspired by Debashish’s playing and his instrument. His playing is so amazing and I had never heard lap slide played in this fashion. I certainly had heard raga music but when it was combined with slide guitar, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
What was the experience like immersing yourself in a new culture musically and personally?
I had some grooves and compositions that I felt were fairly Western in nature but were simple enough and open enough that the tabla (Debashish’s brother Subhashis) could find its place and there would be room for improvisation, both instrumental and vocal. I knew it went well (especially when Debashish added his tracks—superb!), but it wasn’t until I brought back the files to the states and started working on them with co-producer/cellist Alfred James that I really started to get very excited. We worked hard to frame the grooves/songs in an organic way.
When you listen to your creation, does it take you to a transcendent place as it does the listener?
When I listen to the CD, I feel the spirit of camaraderie of all the musicians and the excitement of being in India, tying to forge something cool. It puts me in a good place, makes me proud and peaceful at the same time.
I can imagine the CD being played in yoga studios worldwide. Do you see it being multi-purpose?
I’d love it to be played in yoga classes. Not my intention per se, but I certainly hear the appeal. It sounds appropriate.
What are the lessons you learned, from studying with Debashish Bhattacharya that went beyond the music?
Ultimately, the lesson I learned from Debashish and the trip was that even big dreams can be accomplished with hard work and planning and help from friends. I’m still kind of surprised it went as well as it did! Music can bridge so many gaps between cultures. People I met in India were so pleased to see I took studying seriously and treated their music very seriously because it is very holy and old and beautiful and mystical and mysterious. It can’t be picked up like some product in a store, you need a lifetime to swim in it and soak it up. I finished one journey and created a cool CD, but my journey into deep waters of Indian music and culture has really just begun
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Ed: Brianna Bemel