New York Music Daily

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Tag: indian music

Nishat Khan Brings His Electrifying Sitar Virtuosity to Midtown

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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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. 

This Year’s Noguchi Museum Concert Series Winds Up With Enchantingly Hypnotic, Vivid Indian Music

Sunday afternoon at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu coiled and spun and wound their way through an intricate, cinematic, constantly shifting series of themes anchored in thousands of years of Indian classical music. Both violinists have formidable chops to match the eclectic range of their compositions. Without watching closely, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what, their harmonies were so seamless. Supposedly, couples grow to resemble each other, and while there’s no mistaking her for him, their styles are similar. Ramamurthy is probably the more likely of the two to pull an epic crescendo out of thin air, which he did with a slithery cadenza about midway through the show. Basu often infuses her work with a puckish sense of humor, and there were a couple of points at this show where she playfully goosed her husband through a couple of almost ridiculously amusing exchanges of pizzicato,

The two began the show with a raga, immediately introducing the suspense as the sparse phrases of their opening alap slowly came together. Often Basu would ground the music with austerely resonant, viola-like washes, but then the two violins would exchange roles and she’d go soaring while Ramamurthy held down the lows, often with a wary, melismatic edge. Meanwhile, percussionist Rich Stein, who’d first joined the fun with a precise, tabla-like rhythm, went to his cymbals for a lush mist and by the show’s midpoint was getting all sorts of wry snowflake effects out of his shakers and rattles.

All the compositions were based on classic raga themes. A melodic minor number brought a storm theme to life, but this was no ordinary monsoon! The group worked endless permutations on the theme of a boat rocking on the waves, then suddenly there was a sparse after-the-rain idyll. Just when it seemed they’d reached a calm, the storm came back…and it wasn’t going to leave until everybody was drenched! Of all the trick endings, false starts and stops, this was the least expected one of the afternoon, long with an even more invigorating, glissandoing detour toward free jazz before Ramamurthy steered it back toward shore.

The trio closed with Migration, a new composition that seemed to portray a very complicated flock of birds making their way to a new destination, scattered with tense, fluttery clusters, calmly sailing interludes and finally a long, hypnotic percussion interlude. Ramamurthy and Basu’s next show is on Oct 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga extravaganza; $30 tix are available for three-hour time slots for those who aren’t planning on making the museum their hotel for the entire night.

This was the final concert in the annual senes here in the museum’s back garden booked by the Bang on a Can organization. For a Sunday when the trains were completely FUBAR, there was a surprisingly good crowd, the audience squeezing themselves onto a few wooden benches, others seated on the garden’s rough gravel on bamboo mats supplied by the museum staff.

The museum itself, just down the block from the Socrates Sculpture Garden, is also worth a trip whether or not there’s music. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s a comfortable walk from the Broadway N train station. Isamu Noguchi was an interesting character: his stone and metal sculptures blend cubism, Eastern Island iconography and desert mesas. He seems to have been caught between several worlds. After Pearl Harbor, he interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp for his fellow Japanese-Americans, hoping to provide some art therapy, but quickly grew disillusioned…and then had a hard time getting released. The current exhibit there documents those struggles during an especially ugly moment in American history.

Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

Sitar Star Roopa Panesar Kicks Off Her US Tour With an Electrifying, Dynamic Lincoln Center Debut

Sitarist Roopa Panesar is a rising star in the world of global Indian music. This past evening was her Lincoln Center debut and the first stop on her first headlining US tour. She was joined by Prishanna Thevarajah on mridangam and Nitin Mitta on tabla, two drums which aren’t often found on the same stage together. In Panesar’s recent work, the addition of the mridangam typically raises the energy and also anchors the rhythm with a boomier low end. As innovative as the concept  may be, it was Panesar’s matter-of-fact, purposeful sense of melody and wildfire attack on the strings that finally got the crowd roaring. 

Her first piece, the North Indian raga Jhinjhoti, was a duo with Mitta. “It’s very romantic,” she told the audience. There was a calm, tender, starlit quality to her spacious alap (improvised intro) – it was as if she was literally caressing the strings. A couple of striking swoops upward signaled Mitta, who gave the piece a spare, steady, elegant pulse. It’s not often that you hear a piece of music so unselfconsciously playful yet with the kind of lingering grandeur that Panesar gave it.

As the dynamics rose and fell, steady, suspensefully melismatic cadenzas gave way to an irrepressibly jaunty, rapidfire tabla solo and steely sitar intensity that resisted easy resolution – evening ragas are characteristically restless. Finally, Panesar landed on a tantalizingly catchy four-bar riff, smiled, then built a kaleidoscope of variations. A feral high note foreshadowed the long tsunami of glistening, ringing, oscillating, insistent waves at the end.

The full trio, with Thevarajah adding subtle accents on kanjira,  debuted a suite of raga themes, easing their way into a plaintively swaying gently circling ambience. As the music rose almost imperceptibly, there was broodingly meditative gravitas and then allusively waltzing angst and longing, the Silk Road stretching to the cold, unforgiving Russian steppes. Then the mridangam kicked in and there was no stopping this harried, paradoxically bouncy march, up to a big audience clapalong. Mitta’s hailstorm tabla brought back a momentary suspense before a thunderstorm percussion duel.

They broke with tradition to end the show with segments from a morning raga, the kind you hear at the end of a wild allnight party if you’ve lasted that long. This one had an irrresistibly edgy Middle Eastern tinge over a tricky 13/8 groove that quickly became a stampede.

This could be what Panesar will be playing at the next stop on her current US tour , at the Chicago World Music Festival in the wee hours of Saturday, Sept 9. That’s happening at 5 AM at the Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall,78 E. Washington St., 3rd Floor South. Admission is free.

This also happened to be the first installment of Lincoln Center’s new cutting-edge concert series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which continues tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 7:30 at the atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway with visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar leading an octet with Naseem Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla.

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.

Roopa Panesar Brings Her Concise, Purposeful, Individualistic Sitar Virtuosity to Lincoln Center Next Week

Roopa Panesar is one of the most highly regarded rising stars of Indian classical music. While she isn’t personally responsible for breaking the gender barrier as a sitar player, male sitarists still outnumber women by a wide margin. Panesar is bringing her dynamic technique and unselfconsciously vivid, intense solos to the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on Sept 7 at 7:30 PM to inaugurate this season’s new program of artists taking traditional raga sounds to unexpected places. Because this is a free show, the earlier you get there, the better your chances of getting a seat.

An early look at her forthcoming second album reveals all sorts of  treats. One of Panesar’s signature traits that jumps out at you from the first few precise, propulsive phrases from her sitar is how tersely she plays. If Panesar likes to indulge audiences in long, expansive nocturnes to lull everybody into a trance state, that isn’t evident here. She doesn’t even open this in a traditional vein with an alap (improvisation). Right from the start of the first suite, Ramdas Ji, similarly low-key tabla is present.

Panesar’s sparse, lingering, deep-sky searching motives and deliciously subtle echo phrasing shift to a brisk, more insistent, series of precise, crescendoing cadenzas: again, she holds back from ecstatically shivery bent-note intensity until she really wants to drive a point home.

The next-to-last section brings the initial brooding mode into close, pensive, vividly desolate focus, then the rhythm comes in and Panesar veers offcenter for a few bars: the effect is subtle but stunning. Then she takes the theme out with a vengeance.

Raga Gujri Todi begins more tenderly. Panesar blending a wide-angle vibrato into her precise phrases. As the music rises, it’s here that she finally begins to build a hypnotically kinetic backdrop, tabla eventually taking over the fast trance beat, the two instruments winding it up with a triumph that’s so catchy it’s almost a singalong.

If JD Allen’s concise, hard-hitting three-minute tunes can be called jukebox jazz, this is jukebox raga: no wasted notes and one catchy riff after another. Much of Panesar’s work is also characterized by another, more subtle innovation: live, she plays with both south Indian tabla and the louder, boomier north Indian mridangam, two drums rarely found together in this context.

Rajasthani Caravan Bring Their Ecstatic Punjabi Party Spectacle to This Year’s Cutting-Edge Drive East Festival

As the lights went down for Rajasthani Cavavan’s wild, ecstatic performance at this year’s Drive East Festival at Dixon Place last night, the sound of bagpipes filtered in from outside. Was there a Scottish theatre piece going on in an adjacent room? As it turned out, no. Dressed in a traditional North Indian outfit and a bright red-and-green-patterned turban, Taga Ram Bheel walked in playing surreal, austere close harmonies on a wooden double-reed instrument, the murali. For about twenty seconds, it was exotic sonic bliss. Then he calmly turned around and walked out.

The audience laughed nervously. Was this it? Meanwhile, a sharp sword and what looked like a giant candleholder sat in the middle of the floor. What kind of mayhem had there been in the night’s previous dance perrformance…or was about to happen?

Group leader Katrina Ji answered that question about half an hour into the spectacle. Backed by the four-piece Ustad Arba Music Group alternating between several high and low register percussion instruments plus drony twin flutes and harmonium, she put the sword between her teeth – blade side out –  and crowned herself with the metal object. And then slowly, in one seamless motion,  slunk to the floor on her stomach and grabbed her ankles from behind. And then wiggled her eyebrows at the crowd.

That magical murali finally made a second appearance much later in the show, during a catchy, swaying, bouncy traditional dance number. Concerts earlier in the week at this vast annual showcase for classical sounds from across the Hindustani subcontinent  were about transcendence and emotional intensity: this was a party. Percussionists, Imamddin and Firoze Khan made that clear right from the start with a droll, irresistibly funny rhythmic conversation between clickety-clack castanets and boomy dholak double-headed drum. Harmonium player Jalal Khan drew the crowd in with his rapidfire lefthand phrases and expansive, dynamic vocal range, finally hitting some high notes at the end that you wouldn’t expect a dramatic, powerful baritone to be able to reach. His colleague in the dholak was his shout man on the vocals  – if you buy that hip-hop reference – holding down the lows, the two indulging in a lot of jousting.

The group peppered the mix of swaying, bouncy songs from both northern India and Pakistan with a balmy love ballad and a big dramatic anthem. Most of the lyrics illustrated a series of amusing battle-of-the-sexes scenarios. The lilting tunes had an irrepressible cheer: the Punjab, at least as these guys depict it, is a party place. The only thing that felt strange was to be sitting and swaying rather than being out on a dancefloor.

Meanwhile, Ji went through several costume changes, including one with a series of bells down her left leg, and played jaunty, tinkling melodies on them with a couple of bells slung around her wrists. Midway through the set, the group explained how they’d convinced the American-born Ji – a longtime devotee of Rajasthani music – to enlist them as her backing band. Since then the group has become more of a collaborative effort.

For the final part of the performance, they brought up Pakisani crooner Junaid Younus for what he said was the first collaboration between a star of Coke Studio (the Pakistani counterpart to Soul Train) and a Rajasthani group. Despite having never performed together, they sparred and traded riffs through a mix of languages and styles ranging from Punjabi Indian to Pakistani qawwali and finally wound up the night with an ecstatic singalong: even the non-Punjabi speakers got involved after Younus egged them on.

The Drive East Festival comes to a close today, August 27, with a marathon series of music and dance performances starting this afternoon at 2 PM with the riveting, lavish sounds of the only Indian carnatic choir in this hemisphere, the Navatman Music Collective; $20 tix are still available as of this hour. There are also two ambitious, stylistically cross-pollinated performances afterward for those who know something about or take an interest in Indian dance traditions. And Rajasthani Caravan’s next stop on their current tour is tonight at 7:45 PM at the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival at Baratiya Temple, 1612 County Line Road in Chalfont, Pennsylvania; admission is free with a wristband, so get there early.

Rapturous Vocal and Sitar Ragas Last Night at the Drive East Festival

There was a point last night at the ongoing, weeklong 2017 Drive East Festival of Indian music at Dixon Place where tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee looked up at singer Indrani Khare with a sudden grin, all the while maintaining a steady, syncopated volley of notes. Was she going to throw something else like that him again?

Although the greatest Indian classical musicians are all great improvisers, when they fly without a net those flights tend to be on the subtle side. An elegant, graceful presence onstage, Khare had begun her vast, profoundly bittersweet interpretation of raga Puriya Kalyan with a velvety calm, slowly adding ornamentation, up to a big, meticulously modulated crescendo where her melismatic vocalese became a tightly wound trill that basically required her to be in chest voice and falsetto at the same time. It’s a common if breathtaking device in carnatic music, and she was obviously taking some unexpected liberties. Meanwhile, her singing guru, Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik, watched approvingly, occasionally signaling to her star protegee from the front row.

There was another point where Chaterjee and young harmonium prodigy Srikar Ayyalasomayajula exchanged a momentary, wide-eyed stare as Khare sang unacompanied for a few bars: was this really happening? Could a human being possibly channel such depths of tenderness, and sadness, and guarded hope, so unselfconsciously? Chaterjee has obviously played with countless A-list Indian musicians, but something special was clearly going on here.

He eventually got a solo spot where he flickered through similar low-key simmer, matched occasionally by Ayyalasomayajula, whose nimble phrasing often doubled or shadowed the bandleader. Shifting back and forth between crystalline, unadornedly warm phrasing and the occasional fluttering cadenza, even her most dramatic moments never reached for the kind of stratospheric, chirpy tone that a lot of Bollywood singers embrace. At the end of her hour onstage, she incorporated all those same devices in a more concise context with a devotional bhajan ballad.

The next performance on the night’s bill was by sitarist Kinnar Seen, who played a similarly dynamic if much more wildly energetic take of two evening pieces, raga Rageshwari and raga Mishra Bhairawvi. Seen had programmed this as a suite, barely taking time between the two. With a slow, purposeful, nocturnal stroll punctuated by the occasional emphatic low bent note, he followed a series of tangents through torrents of upward and downward riffage, sometimes adding stark accents that brought to mind ancient British folk music.

There were a lot of surprises in the music: the only point where Seen telegraphed where he was about to go was when he hit chopped his strings for what seemed like a minute, building a deep mist of overtones that would resonate when he finally resumed his frenetic cascades down the fretboard.

It’s not often that students get to play with an acclaimed international touring artist, but the two teenage tabla players behind him held their own and were given several turns in the spotlight, the most engaging one being a rapidfire charge together which was a triumph of seamlessness – and these dudes aren’t afraid of showing how much fun they’re having. By contrast, tanpura player Melissa Cheta lingered in the background with her stately accents. 

The Drive East Festival at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie St., just north and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom) continues tonight with music and dance tonight starting at 6 PM with a cross-pollinated Indian-Korean percussion-and-dance piece by Jin Won and Seu Yeon Park, followed at 7:15 by the festival’s artistic director Sahasra Sambamoorthi’s Navatman Dance ensemble with Sridhar Shanmugam and then carnatic vocal crooner Shankar Ramani at 8:30; tix for all of these shows, in various price ranges, are still available as of this hour. Be aware that last night’s performances were pretty full, so some of you might want to reserve those before they’re gone.

Aashish Khan Plays a Transcendent Opening to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

Anyone who doubts the curative power of Indian music obviously didn’t see sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan’s transcendent show at Dixon Place last night.

Chosen to open this year’s lavishly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and culture, things didn’t look good for the son of the iconic Ali Akbar Khan, heir to a musical legacy that dates to the 1500s.. “I wanted to cancel, but my word is bond,” he shrugged.

And then struggled through a relatively brief ten minutes or so worth of a spacious, enigmatic evening raga where the main theme seemed to be “let’s not go there.” Time after time, Khan reached for flurrying intensity and then pulled back. It’s not like he was dealing with a life-threatening illness, but he was having a hard time finding his game – and apologized prosueful to the audience beforehand for being under the weather.

Then he and tabla player Nitin Mitta took a deep breath and launched into a stark, distantly anguished, ultimately indomitable performance of a brooding south Indian raga which had made its way into the northern repertoire, he said.

As it unwound, was Khan going to put the finishing touches on a triumphant, bitterly chromatic crescendo that seemed to say, “Take that!” to whatever had threatened to reduce him to an inhaler-dependent, shivering mass?

Not yet, no way. If there was any takeaway from this show – other than the harrowing, lingering, Middle Eastern-tinged phrases that Khan parsed early on – it was how much of a force of nature Mitta is. After Khan had found new life and sank his teeth (and fiery fingers) into it, hard, he handed the biggest crescendos to his tabla player. And did Mitta ever deliver. Devious, rat-a-tat twelve-on-four riffs, droll spirals from the depths to the flitting outer rims of the drums, and a jet-engine crescendo out of a plaintive Khan phrase brought the energy to redline.

The other message, if anybody hasn’t guessed by now, is that if this is Khan at halfspeed, imagine the guy at full steam. Which he and Mitta finally hit, after a long, sepulchrally modal, eerily contemplative stroll through the sarod’s upper-midrange, Khan picking his targets and then leveling a savagely precise chainsaw attack. The two then exchanged a sardonic series of congratulatory riffs – holy smokes, we actually pulled this thing off! – and wound up the set in a final careening volley of notes, heavy metal as it might have been played in Punjab in 1600 but with better instruments.

The Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 22 at 6 PM with a killer twinbill: Hindustani singer Indrani Khare (cover is $15) followed at 7:15 by by rising star sitar player Kinnar Seen ($20 cover). And the rest of the week’s lineup is pretty spectacular as well. Dixon Place is at 161A Chrystie St., just a block east and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom. The closest train is the J//M to Bowery, but it’s also an easy walk from the B/D at Grand St and the F at Second Avenue