Intensely Tuneful, Paradigm-Shifting Indian and Middle Eastern Mashups from the Brooklyn Raga Massive
The Brooklyn Raga Massive got their start about five years ago at a ratty little Fort Greene bar. Since then, they’ve grown by leaps and bounds, made their Lincoln Center debut a couple of weeks ago, and have built a growing following via a popular weekly Wednesday residency at around 8:30 PM amid the spices wafting through the air at the comfortable, welcoming Art Cafe and Bar at the corner of Underhill and Pacific St. Cover is $15; the venue is roughly equidistant from the 2 train at Bergen St., the C at Clinton-Washington and the B at 7th Ave.
The group’s raison d’etre is to take the vast, richly tuneful universe of classic Indian sounds to new and exhilarating places. With its constantly shifting cast of members, the collective comprises a similarly wide swath of some of New York’s most adventurous Indian classical, jazz and rock talent. Last night was oud night. If you’re wondering what the centuries-old, otherworldly resonant low-register North African lute has to do with Indian music, there isn’t any historical connection…although this group is making it happen now. Ever wonder what a slinky levantine theme would sound like over a completely different but similarly snaky tabla groove? That was one of the mind-expanding mashups that oudist Brandon Terzic and tabla player Ehren Hanson tackled last night, to roaring applause.
Terzic explained that he was feeling especially psychedelic since he was jetlagged – although he didn’t seem any less energetic or wickedly precise than usual. As you would expect from a performance of Middle Eastern music, he opened a couple of numbers with brooding, slowly crescendoing improvisations lowlit with uneasy chromatics and microtones. Hanson matched the oudist’s energy with his steady, rippling rhythms, for the most part keeping a straight-ahead pulse going, at least when the two weren’t working a wry, polyrhythmic tug-of-war.
In case anyone was wondering why Terzic would switch to a completely different, West African tuning midway through the show, he explained that he wanted to make his oud sound like a kora since that harplike instrument can be so maddeningly difficult to play. Then the two romped through a lively, upbeat tune that could have been a Malian folk song. They reprised that vibe, a little more low-key, later on with a spare, dusky Nubian theme.
Klezmatics multi-reed polymath Matt Darriau joined them midway through, first playing flutes on a bristling, chromatically-fueled number that eventually morphed into a circling, crescendoing jam on what appeared to centuries-old carnatic riffage. It was a vivid illustration of how much cross-pollination there’s been between what was once the Persian empire and the Hindustani subcontinent. Given a one-chord jam to play along to, Darriau took the rhythmic route, hitting on the offbeat, then supplying tersely devious polyrhythmic accents rather than cluttering the tune. The trio wound up the set on an ominously relevant note with a Terzic number dedicated to the people of Syria, awash in grimly resonant grey-sky sonics over a stately, cautious midtempo beat, Darriau slithering through some of the evening’s most plaintive, subtly microtonally-infused washes.
Terzic’s next gig as a bandleader is Nov 22 at 7 PM at Barbes, followed by Brooklyn Balkan brass favorites Slavic Soul Party. Beyond his collaboration with Brooklyn Raga Massive, Darriau can also typically be found at Barbes, his main hang these days when he’s not on the road. His next gig there is Nov 17 at 10 PM with his amazing Who Is Manny Blanc project, resurrecting the twistedly irresistible work of the legendary/obscure Lower East Side psychedelic Jewish jazz/esoterica composer. The Massive’s next gig, next Wednesday, Nov 9 features innovative oudist Tom Chess and his quartet. If you wish you’d been alive to witness the birth of bebop in Harlem in the 1940s, you could watch a similar kind of innovation happen right here, right now.