Arguably the most stunning moment at last weekend’s 24-hour raga marathon staged by the Brooklyn Raga Massive happened at about 6:30 in the morning. Sarod player Camila Celin was about halfway into a relatively rare late-night raga, choosing her spots with grace and restraint. Before her set, she’d told the audience – most of them sprawled out on the floor – that this wasn’t the first time she’d played a show after staying up all night. She marveled at the kind of life-changing “wedge of light” a performer can access when running on fumes and no sleep. Meanwhile, tabla player Hiren Chate provided kinetic, intricate contrast while Celin hung back, eyes closed, clearly in the place she’d wanted to find.
Then Chate responded to a couple of gently bending sarod riffs with a sudden, steady stream of emphatic eighth notes. Beyond simple contrast, tabla players simply don’t do that. Celin smiled but didn’t respond immediately – the crowd had to wait until she picked up the pace from a lingering poignancy to a tersely triumphant crescendo out.
That wasn’t the only deliciously unexpected moment during prime time. Because the Indian raga repertoire is associated with specific times of day, the marathon offered a rare opportunity to see material that’s seldom performed, especially here in the U.S. So the wee hours were especially enticing, even with the question of whether there would be trains to get the audience there (as it turned out, there basically weren’t). For those who might wonder what after-hours bar would stay open after daybreak to get the rest of this show in, all this happened at the downstairs auditorium at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea.
Through the rest of the night and into the morning, there was imaginative interplay, unorthodox instrumentation and innovative arrangements of centuries-old melodies, which makes sense considering that the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s agenda is to take Indian classical music to new places. The heavy hitters they’d brought in from India played during the day: this was the kids’ table, the place all the big paradigm shifts are going to come from.
Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio played the 4 AM set, which was all about camaraderie and calm, purposeful exploration. Guitarist Rez Abbasi – the marathon’s most marathon performer- took his time with lingering, frequently uneasy lines while Mittal wove flurries of postbop jazz, then the two would switch roles, giving each other plenty of space. Meanwhile, drummer Alex Ritz used the whole of the kit, slicing and dicing tabla riffs on his snare or his hardware. It was a prime example of how fertile terrain Indian music can be for great creative musicians.
Trumpeter Aaron Shragge was the first to get a wee-hours raga, often characterized by the biting, chromatic confluence of Indian music and the Middle East. He began his set with an uneasily modulated shakuhachi solo before Abbasi joined him, again alternating between similarly tremoloing, terse, moody phrases and more complex clusters. Switching to trumpet, Shragge hinted at a fanfare – or a call to arms – but never quite went there, leveraging the suspense with Amir ElSaffar-class intensity.
As the first rays of sun beamed gently on the horizon, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and tabla player Ehren Hanson evoked friendly birdsong and then a warmly cantabile, legato greeting to the day. As the Sunday sun rose in the sky, santoor player Deepal Chodhari spun perfectly executed, endlessly circling phrases while tabla player Shiva Ghoshal chose his spots: it was the reverse image of what Celin and Chate had done a couple of hours earlier. There seemed to be more original composition in her hour onstage: cell-like Philip Glassine phrases and a long, Japanese-tinged interlude. There was still an hour to go after that, but these days, a New Yorker has to seize every moment available while the trains are actually running.
The Brooklyn Raga Massive, whose rotating cast of members includes most of these artists, play every Wednesday at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.(at Washington Ave) in Ft Greene; cover is $15, and the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St. This week’s show, on Nov 1 at 8:30 PM features singer Vignesh Ravichandran with violinist Bala Skandan and mridungam player Sriram Raman, followed by the Massive’s legendary jam session. You never know who’s going to turn up.