This Year’s Out of the Woods Festival Opens with a Rare, Riveting Performance of Classic Indian Veena Music

by delarue

This year’s edition of the Women’s Raga Massive’s annual Out of the Woods festival is even more diverse and exciting than last year’s installment. The collective – comprising the female talent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, who play both traditional and very untraditional Indian and Indian-inspired sounds – put on a series of shows that feature their own talent base along with the most spectacular female players in Indian music from around the world.

Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery, the festival kicked off with what Women’s Raga Massive honcho and violinist Trina Basu described as a “mind-blowing” set by veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan. That description fit Ranganathan’s late set as well. Joined by her percussionist younger brother Ganapathi on mridangam barrel drum, she played with as much savagery as dreaminess in a rivetingly dynamic set based in compositions that ranged from the seventeenth century to the present.

The veena – the many-thousand-years-old ancestor of the sitar – is an increasing rarity in Indian music. Most people who play sit-down Indian fretted instruments learn the sitar instead – and these days, if you want the real maharaj of instruments, you go for the surbahar, with its wide range.

But the veena is special. Maybe more than any other Indian instrument, it has a singing quality, with a range comparable to the cello. Another point of comparison is the slide guitar, something Ranganathan is keenly aware of. She’s well versed in the blues – being based in Chicago might have something to do with that – to the point where, during two concise pieces utilizing modes very close to the American blues scale, there were moments where the music sounded like Chicago blues legend Hound Dog Taylor taking a plunge into the raga repertoire.

Maybe this is also a Chicago thing, but Ranganathan is also very funny, with a relentless, down-to-earth, self-effacing sense of humor. And it runs in the family. While most of the show was all about thrills and suspense, there was also a ridiculously vaudevillian duel between brother and sister: his boomy buffoonery clearly won that one.

Although the pieces on the bill were on the short side, comparatively speaking, typically in the ten to fifteen minute range, they seemed to go on much longer considering the dynamics Ranganathan packed into them. In lieu of the big chord-chopping crescendos that sitarists typically employ, she relied on ornamentation that was more tremoloing than shivery, along with some spine-tingling glissandos and triumphant, almost snarling curlicues as she’d end a phrase.

Her opening number, in as steady a 7/8 meter as you could possibly imagine, dated from the 1850s – a particularly turbulent time in Indian history. Her concluding tune was a catchy, insistent ode to prosperity from about half a century later. In between, she built brooding nocturnal ambience with modes that corresponded closely to the Arabic maqamat before lightening the mood yet at the same time picking up the pace in tandem with her brother. They got a standing ovation from an audience full of some of New York’s most formidable musicians.

The Out of the Woods festival continues this Thursday, March 21 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with a potently relevant, immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. Based on author Sahar Muradi’s haphazard journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens, it draws on the age-old tradition of turning to poems by Hafiz for advice. There are songs by by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance by Malini Srinivasan, and a band which also includes Basu, Adam Maalouf, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein. Cover is $20.