Robert Johnson, the Crossroads and Malkauns

These past few days I have had the strong image of Robert Johnson, 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 your 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 paper. 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 is still ready to roll for Bobby as he emerges from the other side as the victorious bluesman with new hands and ears.

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. This might be the same dude 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


2 Responses

  1. It’s JOHNSON no “T” in it, and the “legend” is a quote by Tommy Johnson(no relation). Other than that I just Love The imagery and the expressionism in the painting.

    • Hey Robert, well spotted and duly fixed. I recommend listening to Malkauns at midnight for the Eastern take on the devil and music.

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