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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.

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.

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.

Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.

Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.

Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.

This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.

There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.