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Category: indian music

Spellbinding, Cutting Edge Indian Music with Jayanthi Kumaresh at Roulette

It wouldn’t be absurd to call Jayanthi Kumaresh the Jimi Hendrix of the veena, the many-thousand-year-old Indian instrument that looks like a sitar with fewer strings. Veena music is rare these days: Indian stringed instrument players tend to go straight to the sitar, or even the surbahar with its extended low register. But the veena is all Kumaresh needs. Her concert last night at Roulette was awe-inspiring, in terms of fearsome technique as well as cutting-edge ideas and lyrical poignancy.

For the first hour of the performance, she played solo, pulling a symphony of ragas out of thin air. From the first uneasy chromatics of her opening phrases, it seemed that she’d chosen a rather dark path…but that would have to wait. Dynamically and methodically, she built a series of crescendos and lulls, never settling on one particular raga for long, yet frequently returning with variations on a theme. Wide-angle deep-sky rapture gave way to a jaunty bounce, jaggedly stairstepping interludes and finally wildfire intensity that was all the more spine-tingling considering the atmospherre she’d built around it.

It’s astonishing how much sheer volume Kumaresh gets from an acoustic instrument (for the record, the veena was miked through the PA). Not only does she pluck the strings, she swoops up and down the frets, feverishly building quietly looming ambience. Her vibrato was just as jaw-dropping to witness: much as she worked minute, quivering shifts in pitch, she also attacked the strings with a furiously tremoloing attack that in several instances evoked a theremin.

Likewise, her melodic approach is state-of-the-art. There was a point where she fired off a trio of riffs that were as sophisticated, and almost defiantly triumphant, as anything Charlie Parker ever played. She also slammed out a series of big, insistent chords during a handful of crescendos: who says there’s no  harmony in Indian music? With as much elegance as force, she finally brought her one-woman symphony full circle, to the enigmatic, chromatically-charged mode she began with. The audience was spellbound.

The second half of the program was anticlimactic. Percussion duo Jayachandra Rao and Pramath Kiran – on mridangam and tabla, respectively – went for drollery, which on one hand made sense since there was no way anyone was going to top what had just taken place, in terms of intensity. But there are a limited number of jokes you can tell with a jawharp, Kiran’s other specialty. Kumaresh finally returned to the stage for a more-or-less full-throttle romp packed with clever exchanges between all three musicians, up to a series of joyously tricky false endings.

Robert Browning Associates, who booked this show with Roulette, are winding up this year’s edition of what they call their World in Trance festival tonight, April 13 at 8 there with hypnotically whirling Pakistani sufi chants from Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers; $30 advance tix are still available as of this afternoon.

A Thoughtful, Joyous Finale to the Women’s Raga Massive’s Annual Festival

The grand finale to the Women’s Raga Massive’s annual Out of the Woods Festival Friday night at the Rubin Museum of Art wasn’t all about fireworks – at least until the end. It was about conversations, and interplay, and fun onstage. When improvisation is good – and when not everybody’s on the same page, it can be awful – it’s hard to think of anything more rewarding to witness. This was one of those rare moments when everybody onstage is listening as much as they’re playing.

The evening began with some of New York’s foremost Indian music talent taking turns onstage in a series of improvisations, followed by a jaunty raga by a brilliant santoorist. Coincidentally, most of those musicians are women.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive’s agenda is to take classic, traditional Indian sounds into the here and now. A large proportion of the collective is female: therefore, the Women’s Raga Massive. For three years now, they’ve celebrated that talent base with an annual fall festival that also includes top-tier performers from around the world.

When Roopa Mahadevan took the stage, solo, singing against a drone, the room was hushed; everybody knows that she can burn down the house like nobody else. With her hurricane wail and command of infinite minutiae, she might be the best singer in all of New York. She validated that argument, quietly and playfully this time, with a series of riffs and variations. She was eventually joined by Women’s Raga Massive honcho Trina Basu, whose bracing, wary violin lines created a dialectic. The mood was suddenly overcast: Mahadevan sang low, suddenly serious, off-mic.

The rest of the improvisations were just as much in sync. Tenor saxophonist Maria Grand teamed with mrdangam (double-headed barrel drum) player Rajna Swaminathan for a dynamically rising and falling set built around the bitingly bluesy tonalities that frequently bust through the ambience of Indian music. There was also a tantalizingly brief web spun by Basu and fellow violinist Anjna Swaminathan, along with a kora-and-tabla interlude that eventually was subsumed by the murky electronic rumble of a loop pedal.

The most wildly applauded mini-set of the night was when gospel singers Michael Wingate and Joshua Campbell joined the instrumentalists and singers – who also included Preetha Raghu and tabla player Roshni Samlal. To celebrate spring, they reinvented a stark, minor-key sacred heart shape-note hymn, mashing it up with a carnatic melody and then returning to its rustically bluesy early 19th century roots

The last time the headliner, santoorist Deepal Sanghvi Chodhari, played New York, it was at about seven in the morning, toward the end of the Raga Massive’s annual all-night raga party. That piece was mystical, a magic carpet of rippling tones. This time, she brought the party with a crystalline, joyously concise raga. She gave Samlal’s tabla plenty of room to add ballast and stormy clusters, threw a few striking cadenzas into her steadily bounding, crescendoing lines, nimbly accelerated and then slowed, finally teasing the crowd with a series of Beethoven-esque false endings.

This was it for this year’s festival, but the Brooklyn Raga Massive have a mostly-weekly Thursday night show at the Jalopy that starts at 8:30 and has an open jam afterward where musicians can join for free; otherwise it’s $15. And Rajna Swaminathan is playing the album release show for her debut as a bandleader, Of Agency and Abstraction at the Rubin Museum on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $30.

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

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.

The Women’s Raga Massive Put on a Cutting Edge Indian Music Festival Starting Next Week

The Women’s Raga Massive represent the female contingent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the intrepid collective taking traditional Indian music to new places. Since there are still as many problems related to sexism and the glass ceiling in Indian music as there are anywhere else, the Women’s Raga Massive play an important role in providing a platform for this city’s formidable female talent base. The Women’s Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods Festival starts next week, with a fantastic lineup of shows.

It kicks off on March 14 with a rare New York appearance by veena virtuoso Saraswathi Ranganathan, who’s playing two sets, at 7:30 and 9:30 with her brother, Ganapathi, on mridangam at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $20.

Then on March 16 starting at 11:30 AM, the Women’s Raga Massive are sponsoring a free roundtable discussion on empowerment, Metoo and sexism in South Asian artistic communities at the Rubin Museum of Art. It winds up at 2 with two of the world’s most lyrical, captivating Indian carnatic violinists, Trina Basu and Anjna Swaminathan “engaging together in an improvisational dialogue with an art piece of their choice during a special museum tour.” The concert by itself is $19/$14 stud/srs, but participants in the roundtable get to watch for free.

On March 21 at 7 PM there’s an extremely relevant immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. It tells the story of writer Sahar Muradi’s tumultuous journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens. “Along the way, following an age-old practice, she turns to the book of poetry by Hafiz for advice. The answers are revealed through songs composed and sung by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance choreographed and performed by Malini Srinivasan, with music by Adam Maalouf, Trina Basu, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein.” Cover is $20.

The festival winds up back at the Rubin Museum on the 29th at 7 with a performance by the Women’s Raga Massive featuring an especially potent lineup: santoorist Deepal Sanghvi Chodhari  – star of the early morning party at the 2017 Ragas Live Festival – plus powerhouse singer Roopa Mahadevan, with Roshni Samlal on tabla and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam. Cover is  $30

The Women’s Raga Massive compilation album got a rave review here last year. In addition, many members of the Women’s Raga Massive are represented on the Ragas Live Festival compilation album, streaming at Bandcamp. That one’s almost sixteen hours of live performance at the annual allnight party that began in the WKCR studios in 2011 and includes material from the following six years.

It’s an embarrassment of riches. Having listened to about half of it since getting it last fall, it’s a mix of classic ragas played by some of the biggest names in Indian music, plus state-of-the-art originals and a handful of strange cross-genre collaborations that usually work. If you want to get somebody hooked on Indian music, introduce them to the Ravi Shankar performance of Raga Bhimpalasi at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and this. And then bliss out with them.

The Women’s Raga Massive are well represented on it. Basu is all over it, most strikingly in an an absolutely gorgeous suite by her string band Karavika, moving from a wistful pastorale to several spine-tingling crescendos. Mahadevan delivers volley after volley of shivering, meticulously nuanced melismatics throughout a marathon forty-minute raga. And another fantastic singer, Mitali Bhawmik – who is not part of this spring’s festival – delivers calmer rapture throughout a similarly epic take of Raga Bihag.

Sameer Gupta Keeps Taking Indian Music to New Places

Sameer Gupta is one of the prime movers of New York’s most innovative Indian music reinventors, the Brooklyn Raga Massive (whose female contingent, the Women’s Raga Massive, have their amazing Out of the Woods Festival starting next week). Gupta is typical of the members of the collective in that his musical background encompasses both Indian music and other styles. He’s jazz pianist Marc Cary’s main man behind the drumkit, but he’s also a composer, bandleader and tabla player. He’s doing double duty this Saturday night, March 9 at 7:30 PM at the Chhandayan Center For Indian Music, 4 W 43rd Street #618, first in a trio set with sarangi player Rohan Misra and then with sitarist Rishab Sharma. Cover is $20.

Gupta’s latest album A Circle Has No Beginning is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of the most intricately trippy, dreamlike releases of the last several months, validating the argument that great drummers have the deepest address books because everybody wants to play with them. In this case, that means Cary plus Raga Massive peeps.

The opening track, Little Wheel Spin and Spin comes across as a swirling, psychedelic Indian update on bluesy, oldtime Appalachian music. Jaunty, acerbic violin from Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu soar along with Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over Cary’s bubbly Fender Rhodes piano, with an austere Marika Hughes cello solo in the middle.

With its tectonic sheets of violin plus ripples from Cary’s Rhodes and Brandee Younger’s harp, Taiwa alludes to the Doors, the Exorcist Theme and the Hollywood hills boudoir soul of Roy Ayers as much as any classic Indian carnatic theme. A bristling nocturne, Innocence in Harlem is an intoxicating blend of echoey Rhodes, stark violin and cello over matter-of-fact syncopation and a mutedly punchy Rashaan Carter bassline. Saxophonist Pawan Benjamin fuels a big crescendo amid the growing storm.

Come Take Everything opens in an echoey haze of atmospherics, then evokes the drama and majestry of classic Bollywood, then goes all dissociative and opaque before Gupta’s flurrying drums pull a series of fluttering voices back toward a punchy, syncopated center and finally a big cinematic coda. Two Faces of the Moon is much more easygoing, bansuri and violin intertwining elegantly, with some wry wah-wah in the background.

Tyagaraja Dreams in Brooklyn is as enveloping as it is insistent, a mix of leaping bansuri and string riffs over a straightforward pulse contrasting with busy bass. Likewise, With Blessings kicks off with a bass solo punching through the haze, then the bansuri and violin build a stark but anthemic interweave. A long, shivery solo from Gandhi introduces a little Jethro Tull into the mix; Gupta’s scampering drum solo enhances the playful vibe.

Crows at Sunset slowly coalesces out of a nebulous intro, then shifts between an uneasy string theme and kaleidoscopic atmosphere that eventually echoes a somber Coltrane classic: it’s rare that so many people can be soloing at the same time yet blend as well together as this crew does. Run for the Red Fort is the band at their most squirrelly and surreal; the album ends epically with almost twelve minutes worth of Prog-Raag Bhimpalasi. It’s here that the Raga Massive’s influence is strongest, from the flickering, droning but propulsive first part to the fluttering variations on the rather stern central riff, guest Neel Murgai’s sitar and Benjamin’s sax weaving amid the careening ambience.

Whether you call this Indian music, psychedelic rock, funk or jazz – and it’s all of those things – it’s absolutely unique and characteristic of the kind of alchemy that the Raga Massive can stir up.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s Next at the Miller Theatre? High Voltage Indian Jazz

In Sanskrit, “agrima” means “what’s next.” That’s the title of whirlwind alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s 2017 album with his Indo-Pak Coalition: guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss. The trio are bringing their sometimes raptly hypnotic, sometimes wildly intense show to the Miller Theatre at 8 PM on Feb 9. You can get in for $30, which by ever-more-extortionistic Manhattan jazz club standards isn’t bad. And you won’t get hustled to spend more on drinks, either.

All three of the band members have been involved with very diverse projects over the years: this may be the best project Weiss has been in, and Abbasi has never played more resonantly or tunefully than he does here. The album opens with a lingering, suspenseful, rubato overture simply titled Alap (referring to the improvisation at the beginning of a raga). From there Mahanthappa hits a rapidfire bhangra riff and they’re off, into the ominous, modal melody of Snap, Weiss’ cymbal crashes leaving no doubt how epic this will get. A scampering, bristling conversation between guitar and sax; a Mahanthappa solo packed with his signature, unwavering wind-tunnel microtonal attack; a gritty, more enigmatic one from Abbasi; and a long, somewhat wry crescendo based around a popular carnatic riff ends it in a tightly wound frenzy. if this doesn’t raise your heart rate, you aren’t alive.

Showcase has an oldtime gospel/blues sway anchored by Abbasi’s prowling rhythm, the bandleader fluttering brightly overhead, Weiss’ clave taking it in a more latin direction. The album’s title track expands from a hypnotic, motorik intro to a rather joyous theme, Abbasi’s burning, sustained chords holding it down. They take it halfspeed, then back, with another adrenalizing crescendo.

Can-Did, a steady, disquieting stroll, has uneasy, sustained Abbasi jangle against Mahanthappa’s resonant lines, until the band brighten and shift in a funkier direction. The trio begin Rasikapriya as a gorgeous mashup of rustic oldtime blues and ominously modal raga melody, then dip to an opaque, atmospheric interlude. This time it’s Abbasi’s jagged solo fueling the upward climb.

Revati, the album’s most epic number, has a surrealistically techy solo guitar intro, moodily circling sax and numerous tempo shifts, Weiss alternating between tabla and a full drum kit. The long trajectory before a series of false endings is more blithe and also more predictable than anything else here. The final cut is Take-Turns, with insistent, minimalist sax contrasting with scampering guitar; then the two switch roles. Whether you consider this raga music with jazz instrumentation, or jazz based on Indian themes, it’s the best of both worlds.

Now…other than the vinyl record, which a lot of people will want, where can you actually hear this? Not at Mahanthappa’s Bandcamp page, or youtube, or even Spotify. That was a problem when the album came out and that’s why it wasn’t reviewed here. For now, try Soundcloud and good luck.

Reinventing Indian Music at a Well-Loved Red Hook Institution

Pretty much every Thursday, the Brooklyn Raga Massive take over the Jalopy. While many members of the vast Indian music collective play traditional repertoire on Indian instruments, the organization dedicates itself not only to preserving those traditions but also taking them to new places. The eclectic series of special guests, who play at 8:30 PM followed by a jam session, bring jazz, Americana, Middle Eastern and Balkan sounds to the music, and vice versa. Cover is $15, but if you’re a competent musician, bring your axe: admission to the jam is free after 10 PM. Just be aware that while some of this hemisphere’s foremost Indian musicians often join in, this is neither a cutting contest nor an open mic. Rather, if you have some familiarity with Indian music, or you’re at least comfortable being directed to play in a given scale or mode, it can be like getting a free master class from some of the best in the business.

This week’s installment on Jan 17 features cellist George Crotty, whose eclectic career spans Celtic and traditional Jewish music as well. If you were one of the dedicated crowd who made it out even deeper into Red Hook last October for the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon, you have some idea of what to expect.

In 2017, this blog was in the house for the marathon’s overnight segment, from about half past two to nine in the morning on a Sunday after a memorial service for a friend. This may sound cliched, but the often haunting modes of those morning ragas – played by a succession of string and wind instrument players and percussionists – had a viscerally healing effect.

Last October, the game plan was to catch the beginning of the marathon, staged at Pioneer Works. The show began with the Pradhana Dance and Music Company (sounds like an all-purpose Kolkata entertainment conglomerate, right)? This group actually hails from these parts. Kathak dancer Jin Won spun with an airy effortlessness, bringing to life the kind of classic mythological poses that decorate ancient sacred sites throughout parts of the Hindustani subcontinent. Percussionists Michael Lukshis and Kaumil Shah gave her a groove; they were later joined with a similar terse elegance by sitarist Indro Roy Chowdhury.

The next ensemble, Raman Kalyan, played one of the traditional early-evening ragas, characterized by an uneasy quality meant to depict the tension in the shift between night and day. Flutist V. K. Raman was joined by violinist Arun Ramamurthy, making the first of his many appearances in a 24-hour span, playing subtle flickers and wide swaths of melody over the rhythmic rises and falls of Akshay Anantapadmanabhan’s mridangam.

Riveting, magical singer Mitali Bhawmik held the crowd rapt for the next hour, backed by Anirban Chakravarty on harmonium and Dibyarka Chaterjee on tabla, finally building to a meticulously modulated, shivery crescendo of microtones. After a set of more American soul-flavored originals by singer Ganavya and her backing unit, slinky allstar string band Karavika took the stage.

“I haven’t seen these guys in ages,” a raven-haired beauty in the crowd remarked to her neighbor in the crowd, an oldtimer wearing a hat with a minor-league Mets logo and nursing a 24-ounce beer. He admitted to not having heard them in ages either: both were visibly psyched to see them play (much as it seemed that he was going to be there for the duration, she outlasted him).

Frontwoman/violinist Trina Basu led the quartet through mesmerizing thickets of counterpoint and intertwining melody, cellist Amali Premawardhana adding some striking, unexpected cadenzas, bassist Perry Wortman keeping the hypnotic pulse going in tandem with mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan. Most of the themes, from lowlit nocturnes to a cinematic storm suite, were originals; they ended with a couple of expansive, dynamically shifting variations on ancient carnatic melodies. 

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.

The Flute Raman Trio Weave a Magical Textural Web to Close Out the Drive East Festival

Yesterday evening was the final night of the New York edition of this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at LaMaMa. Lucky residents of the Bay Area will get to witness the debut of the California version of the festival, which begins Aug 22 at 7 PM with a performance by sarod virtuoso Alam Khan at the Goode Performance Group, 401 Alabama St. in San Francisco. You can get in for $28; keep in mind that year after year, many of the shows here in New York routinely sell out fast

A pickup version of bansuri flutist Raman Kalyan’s Flute Raman Trio gamely rose to the challenge of closing night festivities here. It seemed that the bandleader had brought his whole arsenal of axes, in various shapes and sizes neatly arranged at the front of the stage. He ended up using just four of them, mostly a standard-issue model but also a misty-toned bass flute and a small model for some especially high notes during a crescendo in the evening’s big central number.

The trio began with a relatively brief raga in the north Asian pentatonic scale, the violinist shadowing Kalyan’s spare introductory phrases. As the call and response developed, there came a point where his glissandos and short bursts became impossible to replicate on a stringed instrument, so she backed toward the shadows with more spare, resonant washes. Through rises and falls and hypnotically spiraling motives, they wound up joyously and ended with a flourish.

The centerpiece of the night was raga Rasikapriya, the very final raga in the 72-raga cycle. Perhaps because it’s at the end of such a vast lineage, it’s a gorgeous, often very saturnine theme. Kalyan and the rest of the group seemed to revel the most in the moments where it took on a chromatically slashing, Middle Eastern intensity. The violinist anchored her shivery, sharp ornamentation with grave, low washes while Kalyan spun effortlessly from silken spirals to moody resonance. The mridangam player got plenty of chances to show off every possible variation on the central sixteen-beat cycle and made the most of it, urged onward by bandleader.

The three closed with a medley of catchy carnatic themes, including an especially energetic, downwardly cantering melody recognizable from the previous evening’s concert. The Flute Raman Trio get a second challenge, providing a coda to the San Francisco edition of the festival on Aug 26 at 5 PM; cover is $21.