Robert Johnson, the Crossroads and Malkauns

These past few days I have had the strong image of Robert Johnston, the famous blues legend, waiting at the Crossroads to meet the devil and trade him his soul so that he could play the guitar better than everyone.

The legend goes :

“If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ‘ fore 12 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”

In a directorial moment I have also been wondering just what are the possible soundtracks for Bobby Johnston sitting there at the crossroads? Other than the obvious strains of blues or wild heavy metal guitar. What melodies could be whispering through the trees and what rhythms are the tin cans blowing down the road? Hear me out on this one….


Indian music is not without it’s share of musical lore and one of the moody close cousins of the blues is the Raga Malkauns. Ragas, to be super brief, are musical scales with alot of rules attached to them and unlike Western classical music there is nothing written down in ‘lesson’ form. Ragas are passed from master and guru to student.

Straight out of the block you know Malkauns is a bad boy because it’s got the recommended time slot of between midnight and three in the morning. That should fit with the devils appointment that Bobby has.

Malkauns’ current manifestation, and this is shifting ground, has been traced back some 3-400 years. Connections with pre-history is that it was the very raga that Shiva performed the Tandava-Dance. At the starting point of all creation this dance of violent and divine energies was designed to arouse destructive energies and to work havoc on the foe; at the same time, it is the triumphant dance of the victor. It’s a rebirth thing and I’m feeling that Malkauns fits Bobby’s mood like a glove.

There is lots of voodoo surrounding Malkauns and superstitious musicians in India describe it as a raga with supernatural powers – believing that it can attract evil spirits. There is a definite danger and exotica associated with this raga and like all cultures it’s bad boy reputation means it’s popular. Indian Ragas often have pictures associated with them called Ragamala’s and they are a good giveaway of the story associated with the raga.

In ragamala paintings Malkauns is frequently portrayed as a heroic lord taking pan. Other depictions show him dressed in blue with dream kissed eyes. Sometimes holding a severed human head listening to music by maidens in the distance. Poets sing his praises. This cat is heavy and he’s coming to pay a visit to Robert Johnson sitting there under a tree in the night.

So other than the blues played by either Robert Johnson or the devil himself the I suggest that Malkauns is the perfect music for which to set that scene.

Check out a few wonderful raga Malkauns performances by the following artists :

Artist : Pandit Ravi Shankar Instrument : Sitar
Album : Sound of the Sitar

Artist : Hariprasad Chaurasia Instrument : Flute Raag : Malkauns
Album : India Night Live 88

Artist : Bismillah Khan Instrument : Shenai
Album : Malkauns and Dhun

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7 Responses

  1. Interesting article. I have a recommendation for you that you will LOVE: Pandit Pran Nath – Midnight This album has two performances of Raga Malkauns. The first from around 1971 and in San Francisco. The second from around 1976 in New York. They are absolutely dark and divine, or perhaps devilishly intense… FIND IT, if you like Malkauns you can't go wrong. I haven't heard anyone do that Raga like Pran Nath does here.

  2. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the comment – I'm going to check that recommendation right now !

    Drongomala

  3. At around 20 past midnight I got around to listening to this – it's the old school long raga form and it is full of the voodoo.

    His voice is almost monk like in the low tetrachord drones of Malkauns. It's not just mood but perception changing as the spell gets wound up.

    Good recommendation Steven.

    Drongomala

  4. Hi Steven,

    My order of that CD came through a week ago (not easy to find!).

    It's great that it's a double CD. One CD with a 'low tech' recording and one with a hi-tech. Thanks for the recommendation – they are both cracking renditions that are very powerful.

    Drongomala

  5. Hey I heard another dark performance of Malkauns recently by Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on the rudra veena. Unfortunately the recording is pretty bad, tons of tape hiss and such, but it's almost like hearing Pran Nath's recording transferred right onto the rudra veena. I can't remember where I found it so you may have to do a search if you're interested. However, there's another great performance from him of Malkauns or Panchamkauns – I'm not sure of the distinction really, and it's of very (very very very) good recording quality. It sounds amazing to be honest if you play it on a good stereo. The last part of the performance, the pakhavaj has the fullest, deepest sound I've ever heard in Indian classical music and the last few seconds blow me away every single time I hear it. It has a truly majestic feel, that performance. At a few points the wind can be heard soaring and the music sounds to be riding it like waves. Really incredible, moving stuff. http://rootstrata.com/rootblog/?p=1436

  6. Excellent – I will most surely check this one out too. I came to love the Veena after working with a number of musicians in Kerala but have not yet heard a version of Malkauns on it.

    Thanks again for taking the time to post. Why is your blogger profile not enabled – I'd like to subscribe;)

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