Kedar Naphade Opens This Year’s Drive East Festival with Elegance and Purposeful Virtuosity

by delarue

Before launching rather suspensefully into an evening raga to open this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music last night at LaMaMa, harmonium player Kedar Naphade cautioned the crowd that things might get a little uneasy. And they did. Early on in his opening alap (taqsim, or solo improvisation), it was almost as if he was playing major on minor, a hallowed trope in western horror movie music. He’d explained that since evening ragas reflect a transitional time of day, those melodies tend to bristle with disquieting accidentals.

Much as it might seem unusual to open a weeklong celebration of Indian music and dance with a classical harmonium concert, instead of, say, Bollywood or bhangra, it was a counterintuitive success for the festival’s organizers. The show wasn’t sold out, but there was a good crowd, an impressively diverse mix of the many cultures that continue to defy the odds to make this city such a rich cultural melting pot.

Naphade was joined by tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee, whose elegantly pointillistic phrases somewhat ironically brought a calming, hypnotic effect to the music when he first joined in, along with Rohan Prabhudesai, a fellow harmonium player moonlighting on swaramandal and adding the occasional starry glissando to drive a phrase home.

While Naphade has a lightning right hand, he took his time, matter-of-factly building to where he could ornament the music with some spectacularly rapidfire trills, playfully balletesque spirals and long cascades. He and Chaterjee traded solos as the music rose and fell, at one point reaching a groove that would have been a perfectly solid swing jazz shuffle. That long, serpentine road eventually led to a vivid series of variations on an enigmatic fanfare riff of sorts. It was only at this point that Naphade introduced any harmony or chords, but even there kept them terse and unresolved.

The trio wound up the performance with a couple of more recent works. Introducing the irst, Naphade poignantly related how his great-uncle, whom he first knew as a shy, retiring family elder, was actually an important figure in Indian music, a pioneer who helped introduce western orchestration in the 1950s. That number turned out to be a broodingly swaying, chromatically charged clip-clop proto Bollywood groove punctuated by lively leaping phrases. The night’s final piece was variations on a bouncy, acerbically spiraling musical theatre tune from Naphade’s home state in India, Maharashtra, dating from around the time that audiences were abandoning the music hall for the movie theatre with the rise of Bollywood. The only thing that could have made this concert more interesting or fun would have been more music.

The Drive East Festival continues through this Sunday, August 28 at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. Tonight’s lineup begins with a dance performance by Sahasra Sambamoorthi backed by a live orchestra; tix are available here. And speaking of tix, this blog still has a few free tickets to the festival to give away; the shows and information on how to claim your prize(s) are listed here.

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