New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Amali Premawardhana

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 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. 

The Brooklyn Raga Massive Celebrate Six Years of Cutting-Edge, Transcendent New Indian Sounds in Red Hook This Saturday Night

The Brooklyn Raga Massive dedicate themselves to taking indian music to places it’s never been before. But rather than doing the John McLaughlin thing and jazzing up ancient Indian melodies, they’re Indianizing jazz, soul and Middle Eastern music, and the avant garde – and also playing their own updates on the classic raga themes that the group’s core members have immersed themselves in over the years. Their rotating talent base comprises some of New York’s best musicians, and they have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, who are headlining the group’s sixth anniversary show this Saturday night, June 2, starting at 7:30 PM at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. Cover is $30.

You might wonder why they’d be doing this in Red Hook. That’s because the Raga Massive also have a weekly Thursday night residency around the bend at the Jalopy. Saturday night’s two opening acts are excellent as well. The first one, pointillistically psychedelic instrumental trio House of Waters are led by national champion hammered dulcimer player Max ZT. They’re not an Indian band per se – they sound like no other band on the planet – but they’re at home with classical Indian melodies. Afterward, Hindustani/North Indian singer Samarth Nagarkar goes deep into classical repertoire, backed by harmonium and tabla.

The Women’s Raga Massive’s most recent show was a frequently transcendent Saturday night concert at the end of March at Joe’s Pub. The first half featured a cycle of small-group improvisations; the second was dedicated to transgressive medieval Indian composer and poet Meera Bai, who is sort of the female Rumi. It could also be said that Rumi was the male Meera – their mysticism and angst-fueled, lovelorn themes disguised as religious poetry have a lot in common. “She’s sort of the original feminist – she followed her heart, she followed her spirit,” co-leader and violinist Trina Basu explained beforehand.

The night’s lineup was spectacular. True to their inclusive spirit, the Women’s Raga Massive don’t necessarily exclude dudes (there were a couple, Max ZT and bassist Perry Wortman, on this particular bill). Anjna Swaminathan played violin alongside Basu, with Amali Premawardhana on cello, Camila Celin on guitar and sarod, Roshni Samlal on tabla and  Lauren Crump on percussion. Massive co-leader and singer Priya Darshini fronted the group, alongside Morley Kamen.

Celin opened the night with a starry, searching, reverb-infused acoustic guitar solo over an ever-present recorded drone. Crump joined her as the music shifted toward a hypnotic, Malian-tinged duskcore groove that grew funkier and then more shadowy. From there a parade of musicians followed in turn.

Samlal and Crump built a scampering yet suspenseful percussion interlude. Swaminathan then joined Samlal, slowly rising from melismatic flickers and surreal echo phrases to restless chromatic riffage. Premawardhana came up to start a lively, catchy cello-violin conversation, spanning pretty much the entire sonic spectrum available to a string band. The addition of Basu completed the echoey picture as the music grew more phantasmagorical and sepulchral. Premawardhana’s rich, low washes drove the sound upward and then back to ghostly territory. Eventually, Morley joined them and took the music in the direction of jazz poetry and new age ambience.

Basu and Premawardhana’s lyrical string ensemble Karavika, joined by Max ZT, played their big crowd-pleaser, Sunrise, first digging in hard for a triumphant, heroic sway over bubbling tabla and dulcimer, then bringing the central raga theme front and center, with a sudden cadenza out. The Women’s Raga Massive’s mashup of a Meera piece with raga Darbari Kanada followed a suspenseful, pouncing, tangoish groove, violins uneasily soaring overhead.

The full ensemble closed the night with the epic Khusro meets Mirabai. Slowly coalescing as bass, dulcimer and finally violins carried the theme, Darshini pulled the majestic swaying raga together with as much insistence as longing, up to a long stampede out. Because this group relies so much on improvisation, this Saturday’s show will no doubt be completely different, if with similarly irrepressible imagination and spirited playing. You can get lost in Red Hook Saturday night.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Version of Terry Riley’s In C: The Most Psychedelic Album of 2017

Considering how much Indian music has influenced Terry Riley’s work, It makes sense that the iconic composer and pioneer of what’s come to be known as indie classical would give the thumbs-up to Brooklyn Raga Massive’s recording of his famous suite. The irrepressible New York collective can’t resist mashing up just about anything with classical Indian sounds: their previous album tackled a bunch of famous John Coltrane tunes. They’re playing the album release show for the new one – streaming at Bandcamp – on Oct 6 at 8 PM at the Poisson Rouge; $20 adv tix are recommended.  

They open the album with an alap (improvisation) on Raga Bihag, strings fluttering and slowly massing behind a rather jubilant bansuri flute line (that’s either Eric Fraser or Josh Geisler), handing off to bandleader Neel Murgai’s sitar, then Arun Ramamurthy’s spiraling violin before the sitar takes the band into the first variation on Riley’s 48 cells. A cynic might say that this is the best part of the album – either way, the band could have gone on four times as long and nobody would be complaining. 

Riley wrote In C on the piano in 1964, but just about every kind of ensemble imaginable – from flashmobs with flash cards, to Serena Jost’s army of fifty cellists – have played it. Any way it’s performed, it’s very hypnotic, this version especially. The whole group is in on it from the first insistent rhythmic measure, vocally and instrumentally, with the occasional minutely polyrhythmic variation. This is a mighty, full-force version of the massive, blending Trina Basu and Ken Shoji’s violins, Aaron Shragge’s dragon mouth trumpet, Michael Gam’s bass, Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer,Adam Malouf’s cello, David Ellenbogen’s guitar, with Timothy Hill and Andrew Shantz on vocals, Lauren Crump on cajon, Vin Scialla on riq and frame drum, Roshni Samlal and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

As the piece goes on, dancing flute and sitar accents answer each other with a gleeful abandon. Echo effects pulse like a stoned quasar, then about halfway in a triplet groove emerges and then straightens out. Kanes Mathis’ oud scampers like a street urchin running from the cops, then provides a low-register anchor for the fluttering strings. Which shift to the foreground, then recede as individual voices throughout the group signal the next change.

There are places where it brings to mind Brian Jones’ trippy loop collages on Their Satanic Majesties Request; elsewhere, the White Album’s most surreal experimental segments. Bottom line is that there hasn’t been an album nearly as psychedelically enveloping as this one released this year. How does it feel to listen to this album without being high? Weird. Either way, it’s great late-night listening for stoners and nonsmokers alike. 

A Couple of Fun, Cutting-Edge Upcoming Indian Music Shows to Put on the Calendar

Mridangam player Bala Skandon leads Akshara, a Brooklyn Raga Massive spinoff who play dynamic, innovative, propulsively cheery instrumentals based on ancient Indian carnatic themes. The band’s debut album, In Time – an apt title from a group led by a drummer – is due to be up at Bandcamp soon.

It opens with Mind the Gap, a joyously dancing, verdant piece fueled by Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over a subtly morphing shuffle groove. As it builds steam, there’s a lushly rippling hammered dulcimer solo from House of Waters’ Max ZT and a couple of grinningly microtone-infused violin solos (either Arun Ramamurthy or Karavika‘s Trina Basu – it’s hard to tell who’s who).

Likewise, there are two cellos on the majestically swaying Mohana Blues, which is up at Bandcamp. Dave Eggar and Amali Premawardhana anchor Gandhi’s spare, enigmatic midrange lines, then join with the violins for a lilting, Celtic-tinged melody.  Opus in 5 follows a traditional raga tangent, violin and flute in tandem as the lively tune builds and the rhythm grows more energetic, then the band backs off for some takadimi drum vocalizing and a spare conversation between Skandon’s mridangam and Nitin Mitta’s tabla.

The dulcimer more or less assumes the role a sitar would play in Shadjam, strings and flute doubling the increasingly energetic melody line, down to a moody, nocturnal Gandhi solo and then a lusciously melismatic, crescendoing violin solo – that’s got to be Ramamurthy! 

The album winds up with the epic Urban Kriti. A long, spare dulcimer solo builds suspense up to an almost frantic peak, uneasily shivery cello and symphonic cadenzas trading off with lively riffage from the drums.  The band don’t have anything scheduled this month, but Basu and Ramamurthy have a rare duo show this September 10 at 3 PM at the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd. in Long Island City. The concert is free with museum admission, take the N to Broadway and then a healthy 15-block walk. And Akshara are playing the album release show on Oct 12 at 7:30 PM at Drom; adv tix are $20. If you love the cutting-edge collaborations that have been fermenting in the Brooklyn Raga Massive over the past several months, don’t miss this.