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No New Abnormal

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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.

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. 

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.