Aashish Khan Plays a Transcendent Opening to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

by delarue

Anyone who doubts the curative power of Indian music obviously didn’t see sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan’s transcendent show at Dixon Place last night.

Chosen to open this year’s lavishly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and culture, things didn’t look good for the son of the iconic Ali Akbar Khan, heir to a musical legacy that dates to the 1500s.. “I wanted to cancel, but my word is bond,” he shrugged.

And then struggled through a relatively brief ten minutes or so worth of a spacious, enigmatic evening raga where the main theme seemed to be “let’s not go there.” Time after time, Khan reached for flurrying intensity and then pulled back. It’s not like he was dealing with a life-threatening illness, but he was having a hard time finding his game – and apologized prosueful to the audience beforehand for being under the weather.

Then he and tabla player Nitin Mitta took a deep breath and launched into a stark, distantly anguished, ultimately indomitable performance of a brooding south Indian raga which had made its way into the northern repertoire, he said.

As it unwound, was Khan going to put the finishing touches on a triumphant, bitterly chromatic crescendo that seemed to say, “Take that!” to whatever had threatened to reduce him to an inhaler-dependent, shivering mass?

Not yet, no way. If there was any takeaway from this show – other than the harrowing, lingering, Middle Eastern-tinged phrases that Khan parsed early on – it was how much of a force of nature Mitta is. After Khan had found new life and sank his teeth (and fiery fingers) into it, hard, he handed the biggest crescendos to his tabla player. And did Mitta ever deliver. Devious, rat-a-tat twelve-on-four riffs, droll spirals from the depths to the flitting outer rims of the drums, and a jet-engine crescendo out of a plaintive Khan phrase brought the energy to redline.

The other message, if anybody hasn’t guessed by now, is that if this is Khan at halfspeed, imagine the guy at full steam. Which he and Mitta finally hit, after a long, sepulchrally modal, eerily contemplative stroll through the sarod’s upper-midrange, Khan picking his targets and then leveling a savagely precise chainsaw attack. The two then exchanged a sardonic series of congratulatory riffs – holy smokes, we actually pulled this thing off! – and wound up the set in a final careening volley of notes, heavy metal as it might have been played in Punjab in 1600 but with better instruments.

The Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 22 at 6 PM with a killer twinbill: Hindustani singer Indrani Khare (cover is $15) followed at 7:15 by by rising star sitar player Kinnar Seen ($20 cover). And the rest of the week’s lineup is pretty spectacular as well. Dixon Place is at 161A Chrystie St., just a block east and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom. The closest train is the J//M to Bowery, but it’s also an easy walk from the B/D at Grand St and the F at Second Avenue