The grand finale to the Women’s Raga Massive’s annual Out of the Woods Festival Friday night at the Rubin Museum of Art wasn’t all about fireworks – at least until the end. It was about conversations, and interplay, and fun onstage. When improvisation is good – and when not everybody’s on the same page, it can be awful – it’s hard to think of anything more rewarding to witness. This was one of those rare moments when everybody onstage is listening as much as they’re playing.
The evening began with some of New York’s foremost Indian music talent taking turns onstage in a series of improvisations, followed by a jaunty raga by a brilliant santoorist. Coincidentally, most of those musicians are women.
The Brooklyn Raga Massive’s agenda is to take classic, traditional Indian sounds into the here and now. A large proportion of the collective is female: therefore, the Women’s Raga Massive. For three years now, they’ve celebrated that talent base with an annual fall festival that also includes top-tier performers from around the world.
When Roopa Mahadevan took the stage, solo, singing against a drone, the room was hushed; everybody knows that she can burn down the house like nobody else. With her hurricane wail and command of infinite minutiae, she might be the best singer in all of New York. She validated that argument, quietly and playfully this time, with a series of riffs and variations. She was eventually joined by Women’s Raga Massive honcho Trina Basu, whose bracing, wary violin lines created a dialectic. The mood was suddenly overcast: Mahadevan sang low, suddenly serious, off-mic.
The rest of the improvisations were just as much in sync. Tenor saxophonist Maria Grand teamed with mrdangam (double-headed barrel drum) player Rajna Swaminathan for a dynamically rising and falling set built around the bitingly bluesy tonalities that frequently bust through the ambience of Indian music. There was also a tantalizingly brief web spun by Basu and fellow violinist Anjna Swaminathan, along with a kora-and-tabla interlude that eventually was subsumed by the murky electronic rumble of a loop pedal.
The most wildly applauded mini-set of the night was when gospel singers Michael Wingate and Joshua Campbell joined the instrumentalists and singers – who also included Preetha Raghu and tabla player Roshni Samlal. To celebrate spring, they reinvented a stark, minor-key sacred heart shape-note hymn, mashing it up with a carnatic melody and then returning to its rustically bluesy early 19th century roots
The last time the headliner, santoorist Deepal Sanghvi Chodhari, played New York, it was at about seven in the morning, toward the end of the Raga Massive’s annual all-night raga party. That piece was mystical, a magic carpet of rippling tones. This time, she brought the party with a crystalline, joyously concise raga. She gave Samlal’s tabla plenty of room to add ballast and stormy clusters, threw a few striking cadenzas into her steadily bounding, crescendoing lines, nimbly accelerated and then slowed, finally teasing the crowd with a series of Beethoven-esque false endings.
This was it for this year’s festival, but the Brooklyn Raga Massive have a mostly-weekly Thursday night show at the Jalopy that starts at 8:30 and has an open jam afterward where musicians can join for free; otherwise it’s $15. And Rajna Swaminathan is playing the album release show for her debut as a bandleader, Of Agency and Abstraction at the Rubin Museum on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $30.