Nishat Khan Brings His Electrifying Sitar Virtuosity to Midtown

by delarue

This October 8 the World Music Institute is bringing sitar player Nishat Khan, scion of a long, long Indian music legacy to Merkin Concert Hall at 7:30 PM. $25 seats are available. If tradition is any indication, the show will be a program of evening ragas, which are especially interesting because they tend to be uneasy, caught between daytime bustle and nighttime calm.

Khan’s latest album Heart of Fire – streaming at Spotify   is a dynamic mix of wild, volcanic, virtuosic party music and darker, more pensive material. It comprises Raga Desh, Raga Pilu and a shorter piece, Maand. Backed by tabla, Khan doesn’t waste any time with a lengthy intro to Raga Desh, taking one blistering cascade up and down the scale as the sitar’s sympathetic strings ring and clang – and sometimes rattle and flurry – as Khan’s lightning fingers fly across them. After he finally goes way up the scale to a big crescendo, there’s a momentary lull before the raga picks up steam again. It’s in a mode that, in western terms, is somewhere between between major and minor, creating all sorts of delicious tension.

Searing upper-register riffage contrasts with methodical midrange suspense, a succession of rising waves punctuated by enigmatic pointillism, a momentary starry interlude and then a wry false ending or two as the tabla races toward the finish line. Khan’s shuddering melismas grow absolutely fearsome as the ending arrives, a thief in the night.

By contrast, Raga Pilu – which has been ripped off by a million rock bands starting with the Beatles – is all lingering anticipation, not all of it optimistic, as Khan alternates between thorny clusters and more lingering phrases. A steady, brooding stroll develops, Khan hinting more than once at a haunting anthem and then backing away into the shadows, Over a steady, resolutely swinging beat, Khan’s deep-space phrases alternate with deep space, even when he raises the intensity and sprints up and down the scale – a classic evening raga, beautifully and austerely played.

The final cut is a steady, catchy anthem, clocking in at a relatively brief eight minutes. Does it share some ancient African ancestry with delta blues, transported over some long sunken land bridge for thousands of miles? Could be. All of this and more could come your way on the 8th at Merkin Hall. 

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