New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: indian music

Rajrupa Chowdhury, Individualistic Virtuoso of the Sarod, Plays Ragas Tonight in Midtown

Tonight, June 25 at 7:30 PM there’s a rare chance to see a rising star in Indian music when sarod player Rajrupa Chowdhury makes an appearance at the Chhandayan Center for Indian Music at 4 West 43rd Street. She’s joined onstage by brilliant tabla player Samir Chatterjee; cover is $25.

Her album Evening Ragas came out in 2017 and is streaming at youtube. In general, she’s a very precise player who opts for subtlety, thoughtfulness and an often disarming directness in lieu of shredding. She plays raga shyham kalyan first, her lingering alap peppered with brief, restless phrasing and a persistent, lingering angst. As the music drifts into an anxious, anticipatory lull on the wings of Chowdhury’s gentle, questioning riffs, it’s nothing short of Romantic. From there she makes the lightning volleys of a lithely waltzing interlude seem easy. Her slow, graceful theme on the way out is a striking contrast beneath the flurries overhead.

Parimal Chakraborty joins her on tabla on raga rageshree: reduced to lowest terms, this 34-minute performance is a love song, sometimes coy, sometimes playful, with moments of exuberance and joy. Tantalizingly brief scampering runs, expectantly insistent melismas, bracingly shivery clusters and moments of subtle humor each figure in turn.

If you’d like to hear what she’s done since then, here’s a clip of her playing raga jaunpuri solo a couple of years ago. She uses the entirety of the fretboard, beginning with the lows and a suspenseful spaciousness: it’s stately and on the somber side. Moving from her meticulously steady attack, she veers away with sudden, breathtakingly impetuous intensity. And then does it again. Machete tremolo-picking, a devious glissando…and suddenly it’s over!

And in her take of raga bhairavi, from a year after she made the album, she builds a tender, mystical ambience, then follows a joyously, light-fingered, dancing trajectory. There’s plenty more of her up at youtube to inspire you for the show tonight. If you miss this one, the Chhandayan Center has resumed their regular series of mostly-bimonthly concerts which typically pair established artists with up-and-coming talent, often from the organization’s nationwide network of music academies.

Sonny Singh Reinvents Ancient Sikh Themes As Catchy, Slinky Dance Tunes

Sonny Singh is best known as the soaring trumpeter in New York’s well-loved, ecstatically brassy bhangra dance group Red Baraat. But he’s also a composer and bandleader. His debut album Chardi Kala – streaming at Bandcamp – resembles his main band in that the music draws on ancient traditions from the Hindustani subcontinent, but it’s less thunderously percussive and more enveloping. Tantalizing hints of the Middle East and Afrobeat filter in and out of the music as well. For lyrics. Singh draws on medieval Sikh chants which celebrate subversion and defiance in the face of repression: spot-on choices for this moment in history.

To open the record, Singh and ensemble make a ringing, resounding guitar rock anthem out of an old Punjabi melody. Red Baraat are a large band, and there’s a small army playing on this album. Singh sings, plays trumpet and harmonium, joined by the core crew on most of the rest of the tunes: Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Wil Abers on bass and Dave Sharma on drums, plus Ernest Stuart on trombone.

The title track is a balmy, lilting tune with brightly sailing trumpet. Track three, Ghadar is a darkly gorgeous bhangra-rock number with Andalucian-tinged chromatics and flaring Goldberger guitar. Singh makes a swaying, starry anthem out of a kirtan theme in the album’s fourth cut, followed by an undulating melody with bright horn counterpoint, swirly harmonium and stinging guitar from Nadav Peled.

After that, we get psychedelic trip-hop with swooshy keys; a bright Punjabi soul song; a chugging bhangra brass anthem that sounds like a Punjabi Burning Spear song; an ecstatic, dub-tinged ghazal; a revolutionary-themed Bollywood spy theme; and an airy coda. All of this you can dance to.

Singh’s next restriction-free New York show is July 10 at 5 PM in the parking lot at Culture Lab in Long Island City.

Breathtakingly Gorgeous Interpretations of Rumi Love Poems From Katayoun Goudarzi

Singer Katayoun Goudarzi‘s voice is Albert Camus’ concept of lucidité brought to life. She sings with a disarming, viscerally breathtaking, completely unselfconscious clarity and, ultimately, hope. Her latest album, This Pale – streaming at Spotify – is a series of incandescent settings of Rumi love poems, played by her longtime collaborator, sitarist Shujaat Khan with ney flutist Shaho Andalibi and tabla player Shariq Mustafa. Goudarzi took her initial inspiration for the project from the irony that Rumi’s work would be reaching a peak of popularity in America in the months after the 2016 Presidential election, when hatred and bigotry were seeping out from under every rock.

Wild, the album’s first track, has a matter-of-fact tenderness – and when Goudarzi becomes more assertive, the effect is breathtaking. Likewise, Khan develops a backdrop that begins starry, then he adds triumphant ornamention. Meanwhile, the percussion grows more energetic, Andalibi’s dreamy solo at the center.

The second track, One is more of an amiably lilting ghazal. Mustafa doesn’t waste his time bringing his flurrying beats front and center; Khan’s glistening solo sets up Goudarzi’s soaring crescendo. He takes a bright, tantalizingly curlicuing alap to introduce Tender: Goudarzi varies her vibrato from a resolute gentleness to a shivery expectancy.

Andalibi’s mystical, mysterious ney trades off with Khan’s bracing Middle Eastern-flavored modal work as Sweetest gets underway. Paradoxically, it’s the most hypnotic yet most energetic and arguably most straightforwardly beautiful track here.

Khan builds a barely restrained vigorousness to begin Still Here, then Goudarzi engages in wistful exchanges with Andalibi. Sitar and tabla join in a pensive, purposeful stroll, Goudarzi reaching for the night sky before the group calmly recede. She decided to record the final poem, All I’ve Got after hearing from a woman fan in Afghanistan who would sing quietly, in secret, around the house and hoped that someday Goudarzi would sing it for her. From Khan’s spellbinding chromatic intro, to Goudarzi’s resolute, impassioned vocals and Andalibi’s desolate ney, it’s a stunning way to close the album.

In the most troubled time in world history, we are fortunate to have artists like Goudarzi to remind us that the forces of love and compassion are infinitely more powerful than anything any wannabe tyrant could throw at us.

A New Album of Warm, Imaginatively Textured Sikh Spiritual Songs From Manika Kaur

For those who like the idea of Enya but find her music insubstantial and samey, singer Manika Kaur is your elixir. Her latest album Ek (“Oneness”) – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything that’s made her a favorite among fans of Sikh sacred music. It’s a mix of new and ancient kirtan themes and ambient music with occasional, playful hints of jazz.

The opening track has santoor, tabla, synth and Kaur’s airy, inviting, expressive voice. The second, spiced with melismatic violin and tanpura, is titled Magic Mantra – but it’s a lot more lively than that. After that, there’s a mix of harmonium, shennai oboe and glockenspiel, then acoustic guitar and veena: how’s all that for interesting textures?

Bansuri flute and strings? Check. Tender vocals contrasting with stark string orchestration? Doublecheck. Liberation theology? Check, check, check. There’s also a catchy folk-rock tune, a lingering, rustically rubato soundscape and a couple of quasi trip-hop anthems. Good stuff for unwinding and lighting up your chakras.

Aakash Mittal Reinvents Nocturnal Indian Sounds on His Magical New Trio Album

Musicians tend to be night creatures, and nobody knows that better than alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal. His new album Nocturne – streaming at Bandcamp – is a magical, evocative suite celebrating afterdark sounds, particularly several styles native to Kolkata, where he pursued an intensive study of Indian music and had many epiphanies along the way. It was a lot of fun watching him work up the material on the album in concert in venues across New York prior to the lockdown.

Mittal’s Awaz Trio take their name from the Hindi word which, depending on context, can mean sound, noise, or voice. Mittal is a connoisseur of all three. From Coltrane to Rudresh Mahanthappa, scores of reed players have used Indian music as a springboard for jazz, but Mittal’s alternately bright and mysterious sound is uniquely his own, in many ways closer to the otherworldly sources of the themes he draws on here.

The first sound on the album is Mittal’s Kolkata teacher Prattyush Banerjee urging him to keep his ears open. Mittal’s oboe-like, microtonal melismas over Rajna Swaminathan’s casually bounding mrudangam rhythm will give you goosebumps. He follows with the first nocturne and its contrasts between the insistence of Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki against his own wafting, fluttering atmospherics and semiquavers.

Mittal bookends a tantalizingly modal miniature, Street Music, with samples of Kolkata percussionists building a qawwali-like groove on the street outside a temple of Kali. Nocturne II draws on the restless Raga Marwa, an evening piece: the group circle through simple, clustering cell-like phrases, Mittal joining the interweave with gently assertive riffage, then hovering and bounding overhead. Those who don’t know the raga may not catch the Indian vernacular. Okazaki’s variations on what’s essentially a catchy, trickily syncopated bassline are a tasty touch, as is Mittal’s choice to go the mysterious route afterward.

Mittal loves rarely-played late-night and wee-hours ragas, which have some of the most delicious tonalities in the raga cycle, evidenced by the third nocturne, which draws on Raga Bageshri. The dichotomy is much the same as the first nocturne; perhaps ironically, it’s more vampy but also more lively. The group’s build to a Morricone-esque taxi drive through a maze of Kolkata backstreets of the mind is irresistible.

A raucous found-sound street scene introduces the album’s acerbically gorgeous fourth nocturne, a mini-suite inspired by Raga Yaman, a piece for sundown. Mittal’s airy, microtone-infused lines over Okazaki’s spare, bristling incisions, a couple of bracing crescendos and persistent modal eeriness scream calmly for the repeat button.

The well-known Raga Jinjoti serves as the catalyst for the amiable final nocturne, a funky romp that’s the closest thing to straight-up postbop here, although once again, Mittal works the rhythmic/misterioso dialectic for all it’s worth.

The final street scene has a great backstory. Mittal’s Kolkata neighbor was a security guard who had plenty of time to practice his homemade shennai oboe, made out of “PVC pipe with drilled finger holes, utilized a metal cup as the bell, and was played with a double reed. The timbre was raw, buzzy and completely outside of any tuning system. His playing was a reminder to me that music and creativity do not need to be bound by rules: they are innate to our spirit as humans,” Mittal explains in his liner notes. His shift between calmly pulsing energy, aching modalities and a coy deviation at the end of the tune perfectly summarize his individualistic, boundary-defying, resolutely melodic approach, Assuming that best-of-2021 jazz album polls are still happening at the end of the year, it’s a good bet we’ll see this one on a bunch of them.

The WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble Reinvent Fascinating, Famous Themes From Their Home Turf

The WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble are famous on their own turf and deserve to be vastly better known around the world. 2020 was as hellish a year for them as it was for everybody other than the likes of Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates, and saw the ensemble pared down to a trio. Their latest album, Purnama – streaming at Bandcamp – was originally scheduled for release last year, and merges two themes. The first is the moon and the mysterious lore associated with it. The other is the music of the pre-independence era in Malaysia, where traditional native songs blended with influences from points on the Asian continent, from India all the way to China and around the globe as well.

Interestingly, Asian tonalities come front and center here less than half the time. Vintage jazz and blues vernacularss, and a lyrical neoromantic sensibility, are just as prevalent in these reinterpretations. The band open with an elegant, increasingly jaunty instrumental trio version of Hitam Mamis. a big 1950s hit for crooner R. Azmi. Pianist Tay Cher Siang adds graceful ornamentation to the pentatonically-infused melody, bassist Aj Popshuvit taking a dancing solo as extrovert drummer Adriel Wong – the Malay Rudy Royston – rises from a gentle jazz waltz to a sizzling coda capped off by the piano.

A lively, Brazilian-tinged, similarly crescendoing remake of another crooner hit from a few years later, Bing Slamet’s Lenggang Mak Limah features resonant guitar from Rizal Tony. Then the quartet shuffle jauntily through their reharmonized reinvention of the 1953 Ahmad Jaafar love song Ibu, up to an unexpected shift into swing ballad mode with Janet Lee on vocals.

Wong’s colorful, counterintuitive bursts propel Main Shayar to Nahin, a theme from the 1973 Bollywood crime movie Bobby, into unexpectedly animated terrain beneath the piano’s brooding neoromanticisms. Great song, great new interpretation.

Malay jazz hero Jimmy Boyle’s Putera Puteri also gets a memorably turbulent bustle from Wong, along with austerely purposeful alto sax from Yow Weng Wai. a powerful, McCoy Tyner-esque piano solo and a conversationally triangulated guitar/piano/sax outro.

The simple, folky guitar-and voice version of the love ballad Jingli Nona here – sung by Tony – draws on the bawdy Portuguese-Javanese patois version Siang heard as a kid. Tunggu Sekejap, a lament from the 1958 Malay film Sergeant Hassan originally sung by director P. Ramlee, gets a mutedly lilting piano trio remake with singer Izen Kong out in front. Siang’s scrambling solo comes as a real jolt.

Lee returns to the mic for a coy, knowing version of Penang Samba, a bouncy 1950s hit for Malay chanteuse Lena, referencing the city’s hotspots of the era. Jocelyn Wong sings another Lena hit, Hatiku Rindu, ranging from a mysterious hush to a moody intensity as the band sway matter-of-factly through its thorny, enigmatic chromatics. The duel between Tony and Siang before the last chorus is one of the album’s high points.

Siang’s emphatically articulated chromatics fuel an aggressive take of Joget Malaysia, a 1964 P. Ramlee shout-out to post-imperialist nation-building: it’s the best instrumental on the album. Song of Crossing at Dawn is based on a funny don’t-want-to-wake-up folk song from the Chinese immigrant community, Tan Jie’s frantic shakuhachi giving way to Siang’s insistent piano and a growing monsoon from the drums. This dude does not want to get out of bed!

The band wind up the album with the title track, mashing up a 1954 film musical number with Debussy. Tan Chee Shen’s dramatic vocals and Ng Chor Guan’s theremin add a chilling Lynchian edge. What an absolutely fascinating and unique way to end a fascinating and unique album.

Magical Middle Eastern Dichotomies on Opium Moon’s Lavish New Double Album

Opium Moon picked a good bandname. They play rapturous, often haunting original Middle Eastern themes with influences that span from Egypt, to Iran, Israel, Turkey and sometimes India. Their music is psychedelic, otherworldly and infused with the occasional dubwise touch. Their new double album, Night and Day, is streaming at Bandcamp. They love long songs: pretty much everything here isn’t finished until after the seven-minute mark. The first disc is nocturnes, the second a party record which in many ways is a reverse image of the first.

They open the record with the title track, a spare, slinky nocturne which rises almost imperceptibly out of a one-chord jam, Lili Haydn’s violin soaring over a backdrop of MB Gordy’s boomy dumbek, Hamid Saeidi’s spaciously rippling santoor and Itai Disraeli’s warpy, hypnotic fretless bassline.

Wisdom is slower and even more mysterious, Haydn’s gentle, graceful chromatics wafting overhead, throughout more than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping rapture. They pick up the pace with Dhikr (Night), violin and santoor elegantly exchanging phrases over a suspenseful flamenco-tinged drumbeat.

Likewise, the group make a dusky flamenco-tinged theme out of an ancient Jewish prayer in Ahava Ve Shalom, a tantalizingly brief santoor solo at the center. They slowly coalesce out of an Indian-flavored theme in When Their Wings, swooping bass contrasting with the violin’s terse resonance. With Messengers, the group take a stab at making Indian carnatic music out of a famous British folk theme and follow with I’ll Wait For You, a quasi trip-hop number and the album’s most hypnotic interlude.

The second record begins with a lively clip-clop depiction of birds in flight: “They’re smoking the opium of pure freedom,” Disraeli asserts. Dkihr (Day) is a brisk, psychedelic Balkan dancefloor variation on its parallel theme from the first disc, with some wryly amusing flourishes from the bass.

Likewise, they take the first album’s carnatic melody and make Feast of Sevens out of it. With its blend of Indian and classical influences, Dream is much the same. La La Lai, a pulsingly joyous chromatic romp, features Turkish-Kurdish ensemble MiRaz as well as two of the album’s most adrenalizing santoor solos. The final cut is 100 Ways to Kiss the Ground, which seems to be more about kissing the sky. Despite global conditions that have made it almost impossible, so many groups have put out transcendent albums this year, and this is one of the best of them all.

A Characteristically Soulful Alice Coltrane Rarity Resurfaces

While Alice Coltrane did not live in the shadow of her iconic husband, her work is too often overlooked. During her life, she was revered as a creator of longscale, spiritually-inspired jazz compositions. She was a talented improviser on the concert harp, organ and piano. There’s a reissue of an obscure, limited-edition 1981 Alice Coltrane album, Kirtan: Turiya Sings, just out and streaming at Spotify. If her better-known music resonates with you, this a special treat because it’s a rare opportunity to hear Coltrane on both vocals and Wurlitzer organ.

Coltrane shared her husband’s love of Indian music and spirituality – her son Ravi, named after Ravi Shankar, produced this album. Here, she takes her time with a series of ancient Indian kirtan themes, singing in Sanskrit in a modulated, often stark alto voice over slowly shifting organ chords. The music draws more on the blues and 19th century African-American spirituals than it does the Indian carnatic tradition, often very anthemically. Listen closely and you’ll discover variations calmly unfolding. And the hypnotic sixth track could be a Doors song. Essentially, these are hymns, easy to sing along to as part of a yoga practice, for meditation or as just plain good chillout music.

A Stunning Ravi Shankar Rarity Rescued From Obscurity

There’s enough Ravi Shankar online to listen to for a year without a break. Needless to say, pretty much every time he sat down with his sitar, the J.S. Bach of Indian music was spine-tingling to witness. Today’s album is a rarity. Ravi Shankar Live in Hollywood 1971 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded at a house concert and only released posthumously. It’s Shankar at his most succinct. In concert, he could and would often go on for hours, but three of the four ragas here are especially brief for him. Poignancy, humor, relentless suspense, spectacular peaks, it’s all here, in slightly smaller but no less psychedelic packages than usual.

He opens with a relatively rare morning raga, Raga Vibhas, slowly and meticulously building a low midrange melody, the sun gradually looming over the horizon as he brightens the textures. Yet immediately, he introduces a persistent chromatic unease. It’s extraordinary how he senses the need to pick up the pace at almost exactly the midway mark, not knowing how this will end! The late introduction of the tabla gives Shankar the chance to drive toward a big crescendo with his clustering phrases. Wryly twinkling riffs draw a chuckle or two, then Shankar focuses in with an incisive attack.

Raga Parameshwari is the centerpiece, the sitarist at the top of his game through another morning raga that goes on for well over fifty minutes. The long, steady, lingering opening alap, Shankar finally descending to rich, suspensefully warpy low tones, also features spare, allusive tabla. The sitar builds intensity with recurrent variations on an allusively chromatic, tantalizingly unresolved rising phrase, then the music warms, rising and falling, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. A momentary, hypnotic, minimalist lull is breathtaking (for everybody, it seems) and signals a first round of rapidfire volleys, supersonic sizzle intermingled within the persistent metallic gleam.

Shankar dedicates the brightly lilting, relatively brief Raga Dunh to the people of Bangladesh, imperiled at the time by a Pakistani invasion. The single, bracingly rising opening riff, plaintive, resonant tones and classic, stairstepping moment in the alap that opens Raga Sindhi Bhairavi only hint at the torrential power Shankar  will generate. Considering its origins, this raga has more Middle Eastern ambience than most of the others in the cycle. And yet, Shankar is just as rambunctiously funny in places as he is slashingly incisive elsewhere. Of all the ragas here, this is the most straightforward and unrelenting, his volleys of tremolo-picking and wild bends rising throughout a long, stunning coda.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.