New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: Kaumil Shah

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. 

Talavya Treats the Throngs to Torrential Tabla Thrills

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Talavya’s harmonium player Heena Patel scrunched up her face. Facing the crowd, she explained her dilemma.”I tell people that this band plays tabla. They say, ‘No vocals. no melody.’” She shrugged.

And then let those thoughts resonate. “What do YOU think of tabla?” she wanted to know.

The crowd exploded. Sure, there was a good representation of New Yorkers with heritage in the Hindustani subcontinent, but there were more who probably had none. This demographically diverse, typical New York audience had just witnessed a suspenseful, electrifying three-way drum duel between tabla players Rushi Vakil, Kaumil Shah and Mike Lukshis.

On one hand, it was a breathtaking display of supersonic chops. On the other, the first segment of composer Divyang Vakil’s suite Tabla Dreams was just as much of a showcase for subtlety as well as the group’s encyclopedic rollout of Indian beats from across the centuries.

Those chops were matched by a sense of humor. It might be extreme to equate this performance to having three Zakir Hussains onstage, but the effect was pretty close. Each player’s personality immediately made itself known. Rushi Vakil made it look easy and more often than not served as the ringleader, completely deadpan, unless he was winding up a frenetic volley with a final slap and then flinging his hand away, daring his bandmates to match his finesse and power. Shah has an attack with ferocity to match his articulation: imagine a machinegunner who can also hit a target at a thousand yards. The New Jersey-born Lukshis, front and center, rose to the challenge of playing on the level of his Indian-born bandmates, who probably grew up with a tabla in front of them before they could walk. His right hand a blur, his beats spun and somersaulted and sometimes galloped in an endlessly adrenalizing series of tradeoffs along with the occasional stampeding unison passage.

The tabla is the rare drum which can also play melody, and the group delivered plenty of those. The most breathtaking was a recurrent low-register sirening effect. The funniest was when they’d play a series of riffs and then perfectly replicate them by vocalizing in rapidfire takadimi drum language – a playful Indian mnemonic device where every beat from various places on the tabla, from muted, to sharp, to low and warpy, has an equivalent syllable. Meanwhile Patel anchored the music with an endlessly circling series of enigmatic, often ominous modal riffs, serving as co-conductor and signaling changes when the three guys would go off on a rampage.

The suite’s first part was mostly tradeoffs; the second featured the more intricate and delicate beats a tabla player can deliver. The third was a clinic in gats, encompassing both rhythmic riffs and shifting time signatures, rising and falling and finally winding up in a blaze that left both band and audience out of breath. Patel averred that this was the band’s first US performance in a year – hopefully we won’t have to wait another until the next one.

These Lincoln Center atrium performances are amazing. The next one in the ongoing series of performers from around the world is this Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM with one of the world’s greatest and most eclectic oud players and composers, Rahim Al Haj. Admission is free; get there early if you want a seat.