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Tag: Navatman Music Collective review

The Navatman Music Collective Take Rapturous Indian Classical Sounds to New Places

Last night at the Navatman Music Collective’s sold-out show at Symphony Space, choir leader Roopa Mahadevan took what otherwise would have been a pretty generic blues riff and transformed it into shiveringly melismatic, sultry R&B, echoed by guest tenor saxophonist Pawan Benjamin. Not something you would expect at a performance of centuries-old south Indian classical music.

There was another point where singer Shiv Subramaniam took a series of flying leaps from his crystalline low register to a spot much further upward, his voice a comet tail of grit and overtones. Then there was the split-secomd where Preetha Raghu’s brief vocal solo hit a sudden spiraling climb, Mahadevan closing her eyes and shaking her head in wonder that another person could create such beauty with just a brief flurry of notes.

There were thousands of similar moments during the carnatic choir’s epic, magically shapeshifting performance. The Navatman Music Collective are one of three carnatic choirs in the world, and the only one in this hemisphere. If you think that playing one rapidfire, microtonal volley after another on, say, a sitar, is challenging, try singing that in perfect sync with seven or eight other people, some of whom may be an octave above or below you.

Obviously, the reason why carnatic choirs are so rare is that in Indian classical music, there’s no need for more than one voice at a time to sing the melody line. While this group is shifting the paradigm by introducing harmony into the equation, they didn’t do that at this show: this was all about spine-tingling solos, and group improvisation, and spellbinding interplay between the voices, Anjna Swaminathan’s elegantly swooping violin and Rohan Krishnamurthy’s precise, emphatically reverberating mridangam rhythms.

And as easy as it was to get completely lost in much of the music, this group has a sense of humor. That became apparent right off the bat after the stately cadences and tantalizingly brief solos of their first number, an original by Subramaniam utilizing an old Sanskrit poem about a new bride feeling completely lost in her in-laws’ house. Singer Asha Unni was in the middle of what was actually a spot-on description of how its deliciously distinctively Indian microtones differentiate from the standard western scale when Subramaniam and Raghu winkingly interrupted her, shifting the conversation from music theory to the dilemmas among newlyweds across cultures and centuries.

Relevance means a lot to this crew, underscored by a lilting suite by 19th century Tamil composers Papanisam Sivan and Ghopalakrishna Bharan whose subtext was the struggle to abolish the caste system in the midst of a murderous invasion by the British. That number turned into a launching pad for various types of improvisation: Mahadevan’s rapidfire microtones, Parthiv Mohan’s precise, majestic cadences and Subramaniam’s unearthly mesmerizing leaps and bounds. More than once during the show, Mahadevan emphasized how new and often radical this repertoire once was – like the elegant, lush waltz, a real rarity in Indian music, which ended the ensemble’s first set.

Indian mythology is a trip.  Another Sivan piece illustrating the Monkey King, Hanuman and his fixation with Lord Rama was more lighthearted, as were Subramaniam’s artfuly interwoven raga themes in a new arrangement of an ancient Kalidana piece depicting Lord Shiva slumming among the peasantry.

The group really picked up the pace at the end with a tongue-twisting display of takadimi drum language: turns out that Sahasra Sambamoorthi, best known for her work in dance, has daunting vocal dexterity to match her footwork. The group closed with a similarly spectacular round-robin of solos. As singer Shraddha Balasubramaniam explained, the title of the group’s latest album An Untimely Joy refers to how great music transcends time even as a particular era’s most fearless musicians take it to new places. As lavish as this concert was, for this group that seems to be no big deal.

And you can learn to do this too: the Navatman organization also runs a Manhattan music and dance school.

Lavish, Paradigm-Shifting Indian Choral Sounds from the Navatman Music Collective

Like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the Navatman Music Collective are a semi-rotating cast of some of New York’s most innovative Indian instrumental and vocal talent. Just the fact that they’re the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere attests to the group’s adventurousness. Bands have been making rock music out of ancient carnatic themes since the days of the Beatles and Grateful Dead, and then there’s Bollywood, but Indian classical ensembles typically have no use for harmony because it doesn’t exist in the tradition.

When the Navatman Music Collective harmonize, their sound is lush, and otherworldly, and unlike any other choir in the world. Other times, they’ll all sing a single melody line in unison, or with the men and women at each end of an octave. The group are playing the final day of their enticingly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at 2 PM on August 27 at Dixon Place; $20 tix are available along with numerous multiple-show deals and full-festival passes.

The group’s debut album, An Untimely Joy is streaming at youtube. They open strikingly with An Ode in Eight Verses, a stately processional set to an uneasily melismatic, Arabic-tinged mode over an oscillating drone and mysterious bell accents.

The second track, Offering (an excerpt from raga Gavati) features percussionist Rajna Swaminathan and violinist Anjna Swaminathan, cantering along on a tricky but elegantly boomy rhythm: the interweave of voices is rapturously kaleidoscopic.  The movie theme Sweet Infatuation showcases the ensemble’s core mens’ and womens’ voices, bandleader Roopa Mahadevan alongside Kamini Dandapani, Vignesh Ravichandran, Janani Kannan, Preetha Raghu, Kalpana Gopalakrishnan, Shraddha Balasubramaniam and Shiv Subramaniam. They bolster a balmy, conversational duet between Subramanian and Mahadevan over airy violin and bubbly flute.

The ensemble sing the album’s most epic. majestically kinetic, unpredictably serpentine piece, Summer Love in unison, answered by dancing flute and violin in places. A Blue Note puts the strings of similarly innovative Indian trio Karavika front and center in an acerbically chromatic, moodily enveloping piece, the swooping, melismatic violin of Trina Basu anchored by Amali Premawardhana’s stark cello and Perry Wortman’s bass, taken upward by the choir’s resolute intensity. The album winds up with the playful Urban Gamak, Mahadevan and Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal riiffs over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Fans of Indian music will hear things they never heard before on this magical, energetic album; those whose taste in choral music gravitates toward adventurous composers like Arvo Part or Caroline Shaw should also check it out. And the group are amazing live.

A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana and Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.