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Thrills, Gravitas and Cinematic Color with the Nakshatra Quartet at the Drive East Festival

Considering how much great live music there is in New York, a festival has to be pretty special to be worth going to four out of five nights during the work week. But this year’s edition of the Drive East Festival has been that good. And it’s been as diverse as always. So far this week’s concerts have featured laments, ragas both epic and fleeting, a harrowing Metoo-themed dance piece set to a live score, and blissfully peaceful improvisation. Last night’s performance by violinists Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu’s Nakshatra Quartet was the most viscerally thrilling and solo-centric of all of them up to this point. But it was also about dynamics, and pushing the envelope, and keeping a clear eye on the grim realities of this year’s political environment…and what we can do about it.

Ramamurthy and Basu would probably laugh if someone called them New York’s #1 power couple in Indian music, but it’s impossible to think of another family with equally formidable chops. When they perform as a duo, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what unless you’re watching. In this ensemble – which also included Jake Charkey on cello and Dan Kurfirst on percussion – their individuality was much more defined, although the two have a near-telepathic rapport.

Basu came to carnatic music from a classical background, and plays with her violin on her shoulder. In this context, she revealed a lighter, more delicate tone than her husband, who’s been immersed in carnatic music since his student days but also excels at jazz improvisation. Where her approach had more a silken legato, Ramamurthy dug in hard with his glissandos and jaunty ornamentation, seated crosslegged, the head of his axe balanced on the stage. Both husband and wife delivered spine-tingling solos.

They opened with the colorful, cinematic pastorale, Tempest. The intensity went through the roof when Charkey joined the tense intertwine between the violins, adding an ominous drone on the G string. From there they negotiated a maze of increasingly agitated echo effects and circular phrases, up to a stormy peak and then an uneasy clearing, coming full circle at the end,

The rest of the set combined edgy jazz flair with Indian majesty and gravitas. Basu introduced the mini-epic Migration as a parable of the increasing terror and obstacles facing refugees and immigrants since the fateful 2016 Presidential election – an insight underscored by her participation in the Borderless Lullabies benefit project for refugee children incarcerated at the US-Mexico border. The interplay was dancingly optimistic to begin with but then climbed to stormy, increasingly syncopated territory.

Nocturne, a dramatic and incisively haunting tableau, had Middle Eastern tinges, ominously shivery chromatic cascades from Basu and slashing microtones from Ramamurthy, in solos that were tantalizingly short. He introduced the night’s one cover, Kalamabike, by 18th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, as being very dear to his heart, which was understandable: it’s a gorgeous coda to one of the composer’s many suites, its stark, plaintively unwinding variations anchored by an elegant, broodingly serpentine bassline from Charkey.

You might not expect a drummer to be using a djembe, cajon, daf frame drum and cymbal at a show like this, but this isn’t your typical Indian band, and Kurfirst provided understated color and texture with each of those implements. Charkey also got a couple of moments to pitch in with darkly slithery, microtonally bristling solos. The trio’s closing number echoed the loping, quasi trip-hop groove that many of the other songs followed in their most straightforward moments, in addition to vivid raga riffs from all three of the stringed instruments. Was all this jazz? You could call it that. Indian music? Most definitely. But ultimately, all this defied categorization: it’s unique to the Nakshatra Quartet. You’ll see this concert on the Best Shows of 2019 page here at the end of the year.

This year’s Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 10 at 7:20 PM with a rare US performance by another spectacular, dynamic violinist, Sruti Sarathy at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St.; cover is $20.

Misty, Meditative Clarity with Saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan at the Drive East Festival

The early show this past evening at the ongoing Drive East Festival of Indian music was both lively and serene. In that sense, alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan‘s duo set with Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam represented a considerable shift from the harrowing poignancy of sitarist Hidayat Khan’s opening night raga, not to mention the ferocity and relevance of the following night’s Metoo-themed dance performance.

Early on, Radhakrishnan mused about how sound enables enlightenment: if only it was that easy to filter out the rest of the world and focus on it! Calmly and thoughtfully, the two musicians held up their end, establishing a peaceful and purposeful dialogue with a long mridangam solo midway through, punctuated by a ridiculously funny countdown sequence.

Radhakrishnan’s approach is more Coltrane (someone he quoted from, lyrically, in a brief interlude about three-quarters of the way through) than, say, Hafez Modirzadeh. Throughout the night, the tone of the sax was misty and enveloping, a warmly bounding presence anchored by a steady pulse and steely command of minute inflections, eschewing microtones for an often hypnotic fluidity. Optimism and a calm sense of triumph prevailed, beginning with a bubbly carnatic theme that Radhakrishnan finally brought full circle. In between, the duo shifted from a fleeting atmospheric passage or two to subtly morphing, deftly syncopated variations on classic raga riffs.

The effect on the audience – which kept growing after the show began and almost completely filled the auditorium – was womblike. Walking out to to the street afterward, still wrapped in a calm, meditative state, how pleasant it was to see that there’d been a storm and that the temperature had plummeted at least twenty degrees. Lord Indra was definitely smiling on the festival tonight!

The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 9, beginning at 6 PM with two of the most compelling violinists in Indian music, Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy and their carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet. Cover is $25.

A Thoughtful, Joyous Finale to the Women’s Raga Massive’s Annual Festival

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.

This Year’s Out of the Woods Festival Opens with a Rare, Riveting Performance of Classic Indian Veena Music

This year’s edition of the Women’s Raga Massive’s annual Out of the Woods festival is even more diverse and exciting than last year’s installment. The collective – comprising the female talent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, who play both traditional and very untraditional Indian and Indian-inspired sounds – put on a series of shows that feature their own talent base along with the most spectacular female players in Indian music from around the world.

Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery, the festival kicked off with what Women’s Raga Massive honcho and violinist Trina Basu described as a “mind-blowing” set by veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan. That description fit Ranganathan’s late set as well. Joined by her percussionist younger brother Ganapathi on mridangam barrel drum, she played with as much savagery as dreaminess in a rivetingly dynamic set based in compositions that ranged from the seventeenth century to the present.

The veena – the many-thousand-years-old ancestor of the sitar – is an increasing rarity in Indian music. Most people who play sit-down Indian fretted instruments learn the sitar instead – and these days, if you want the real maharaj of instruments, you go for the surbahar, with its wide range.

But the veena is special. Maybe more than any other Indian instrument, it has a singing quality, with a range comparable to the cello. Another point of comparison is the slide guitar, something Ranganathan is keenly aware of. She’s well versed in the blues – being based in Chicago might have something to do with that – to the point where, during two concise pieces utilizing modes very close to the American blues scale, there were moments where the music sounded like Chicago blues legend Hound Dog Taylor taking a plunge into the raga repertoire.

Maybe this is also a Chicago thing, but Ranganathan is also very funny, with a relentless, down-to-earth, self-effacing sense of humor. And it runs in the family. While most of the show was all about thrills and suspense, there was also a ridiculously vaudevillian duel between brother and sister: his boomy buffoonery clearly won that one.

Although the pieces on the bill were on the short side, comparatively speaking, typically in the ten to fifteen minute range, they seemed to go on much longer considering the dynamics Ranganathan packed into them. In lieu of the big chord-chopping crescendos that sitarists typically employ, she relied on ornamentation that was more tremoloing than shivery, along with some spine-tingling glissandos and triumphant, almost snarling curlicues as she’d end a phrase.

Her opening number, in as steady a 7/8 meter as you could possibly imagine, dated from the 1850s – a particularly turbulent time in Indian history. Her concluding tune was a catchy, insistent ode to prosperity from about half a century later. In between, she built brooding nocturnal ambience with modes that corresponded closely to the Arabic maqamat before lightening the mood yet at the same time picking up the pace in tandem with her brother. They got a standing ovation from an audience full of some of New York’s most formidable musicians.

The Out of the Woods festival continues this Thursday, March 21 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with a potently relevant, immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. Based on author Sahar Muradi’s haphazard journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens, it draws on the age-old tradition of turning to poems by Hafiz for advice. There are songs by by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance by Malini Srinivasan, and a band which also includes Basu, Adam Maalouf, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein. Cover is $20.

The Women’s Raga Massive Put on a Cutting Edge Indian Music Festival Starting Next Week

The Women’s Raga Massive represent the female contingent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the intrepid collective taking traditional Indian music to new places. Since there are still as many problems related to sexism and the glass ceiling in Indian music as there are anywhere else, the Women’s Raga Massive play an important role in providing a platform for this city’s formidable female talent base. The Women’s Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods Festival starts next week, with a fantastic lineup of shows.

It kicks off on March 14 with a rare New York appearance by veena virtuoso Saraswathi Ranganathan, who’s playing two sets, at 7:30 and 9:30 with her brother, Ganapathi, on mridangam at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $20.

Then on March 16 starting at 11:30 AM, the Women’s Raga Massive are sponsoring a free roundtable discussion on empowerment, Metoo and sexism in South Asian artistic communities at the Rubin Museum of Art. It winds up at 2 with two of the world’s most lyrical, captivating Indian carnatic violinists, Trina Basu and Anjna Swaminathan “engaging together in an improvisational dialogue with an art piece of their choice during a special museum tour.” The concert by itself is $19/$14 stud/srs, but participants in the roundtable get to watch for free.

On March 21 at 7 PM there’s an extremely relevant immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. It tells the story of writer Sahar Muradi’s tumultuous journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens. “Along the way, following an age-old practice, she turns to the book of poetry by Hafiz for advice. The answers are revealed through songs composed and sung by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance choreographed and performed by Malini Srinivasan, with music by Adam Maalouf, Trina Basu, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein.” Cover is $20.

The festival winds up back at the Rubin Museum on the 29th at 7 with a performance by the Women’s Raga Massive featuring an especially potent lineup: santoorist Deepal Sanghvi Chodhari  – star of the early morning party at the 2017 Ragas Live Festival – plus powerhouse singer Roopa Mahadevan, with Roshni Samlal on tabla and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam. Cover is  $30

The Women’s Raga Massive compilation album got a rave review here last year. In addition, many members of the Women’s Raga Massive are represented on the Ragas Live Festival compilation album, streaming at Bandcamp. That one’s almost sixteen hours of live performance at the annual allnight party that began in the WKCR studios in 2011 and includes material from the following six years.

It’s an embarrassment of riches. Having listened to about half of it since getting it last fall, it’s a mix of classic ragas played by some of the biggest names in Indian music, plus state-of-the-art originals and a handful of strange cross-genre collaborations that usually work. If you want to get somebody hooked on Indian music, introduce them to the Ravi Shankar performance of Raga Bhimpalasi at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and this. And then bliss out with them.

The Women’s Raga Massive are well represented on it. Basu is all over it, most strikingly in an an absolutely gorgeous suite by her string band Karavika, moving from a wistful pastorale to several spine-tingling crescendos. Mahadevan delivers volley after volley of shivering, meticulously nuanced melismatics throughout a marathon forty-minute raga. And another fantastic singer, Mitali Bhawmik – who is not part of this spring’s festival – delivers calmer rapture throughout a similarly epic take of Raga Bihag.

Sameer Gupta Keeps Taking Indian Music to New Places

Sameer Gupta is one of the prime movers of New York’s most innovative Indian music reinventors, the Brooklyn Raga Massive (whose female contingent, the Women’s Raga Massive, have their amazing Out of the Woods Festival starting next week). Gupta is typical of the members of the collective in that his musical background encompasses both Indian music and other styles. He’s jazz pianist Marc Cary’s main man behind the drumkit, but he’s also a composer, bandleader and tabla player. He’s doing double duty this Saturday night, March 9 at 7:30 PM at the Chhandayan Center For Indian Music, 4 W 43rd Street #618, first in a trio set with sarangi player Rohan Misra and then with sitarist Rishab Sharma. Cover is $20.

Gupta’s latest album A Circle Has No Beginning is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of the most intricately trippy, dreamlike releases of the last several months, validating the argument that great drummers have the deepest address books because everybody wants to play with them. In this case, that means Cary plus Raga Massive peeps.

The opening track, Little Wheel Spin and Spin comes across as a swirling, psychedelic Indian update on bluesy, oldtime Appalachian music. Jaunty, acerbic violin from Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu soar along with Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over Cary’s bubbly Fender Rhodes piano, with an austere Marika Hughes cello solo in the middle.

With its tectonic sheets of violin plus ripples from Cary’s Rhodes and Brandee Younger’s harp, Taiwa alludes to the Doors, the Exorcist Theme and the Hollywood hills boudoir soul of Roy Ayers as much as any classic Indian carnatic theme. A bristling nocturne, Innocence in Harlem is an intoxicating blend of echoey Rhodes, stark violin and cello over matter-of-fact syncopation and a mutedly punchy Rashaan Carter bassline. Saxophonist Pawan Benjamin fuels a big crescendo amid the growing storm.

Come Take Everything opens in an echoey haze of atmospherics, then evokes the drama and majestry of classic Bollywood, then goes all dissociative and opaque before Gupta’s flurrying drums pull a series of fluttering voices back toward a punchy, syncopated center and finally a big cinematic coda. Two Faces of the Moon is much more easygoing, bansuri and violin intertwining elegantly, with some wry wah-wah in the background.

Tyagaraja Dreams in Brooklyn is as enveloping as it is insistent, a mix of leaping bansuri and string riffs over a straightforward pulse contrasting with busy bass. Likewise, With Blessings kicks off with a bass solo punching through the haze, then the bansuri and violin build a stark but anthemic interweave. A long, shivery solo from Gandhi introduces a little Jethro Tull into the mix; Gupta’s scampering drum solo enhances the playful vibe.

Crows at Sunset slowly coalesces out of a nebulous intro, then shifts between an uneasy string theme and kaleidoscopic atmosphere that eventually echoes a somber Coltrane classic: it’s rare that so many people can be soloing at the same time yet blend as well together as this crew does. Run for the Red Fort is the band at their most squirrelly and surreal; the album ends epically with almost twelve minutes worth of Prog-Raag Bhimpalasi. It’s here that the Raga Massive’s influence is strongest, from the flickering, droning but propulsive first part to the fluttering variations on the rather stern central riff, guest Neel Murgai’s sitar and Benjamin’s sax weaving amid the careening ambience.

Whether you call this Indian music, psychedelic rock, funk or jazz – and it’s all of those things – it’s absolutely unique and characteristic of the kind of alchemy that the Raga Massive can stir up.

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 in the crowd 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.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Lavish Beauty, Depth and Relevance with Awa Sangho and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal didn’t bother to hide how much she was looking forward to reveling in singer Awa Sangho fronting the Brooklyn Raga Massive last night. She was on to something. This show was part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing Outside India collaboration with the India Center and Brooklyn Raga Massive. Dugal promised beauty; Sangho and the band delivered their Malian/Indian mashup lavishly, poignantly and often mesmerizingly.

A moody Eric Fraser bansuri solo wafted over five-string bassist Michael Gam’s distant, low rumble as the show got underway, Sangho triumphantly raising a colorful mask to the heavens, warding off any evil spirits who might have snuck in. Violinist Trina Basu’s plaintive melody received a misterioso response from Fraser, Malik Kholy’s drums joining the nocturnal ambience along with Balla Kouyate’s slinky, chiming balafon. As the music leapt into a swinging, swaying, camelwalking groove, Kane Mathis’ spiky kora and guitarist Baba Kone’s incisive guitar joined the hypnotic mix. The instruments receded as Sangho intoned her terse, impassioned vocalese in a resonant, low midrange. A rippling balafon solo in tandem with percussionist Daniel Moreno brought the intensity higher as Sangho beamed and swayed in front of the band. That was just the first song.

Sangho dedicated her next number to her ailing mom back in Mali. Moreno opened it with a warpy wah-wah ngoni solo, the band slowly making their way in. An emphatic whack of the drums, a methodical volley of blues guitar riffs, growly bass and smoky bansuri led to a lingering Emilio Modeste tenor sax solo before the band backed away for Basu and Sangho to bring the pensive vibe back. As the waves of music rose again, the audience joined in a spontaneous clapalong.

“I’ve been fighting for 35 years for women’s rights and girls’ education,” Sangho explained, prefacing a protest song against what she termed “enforced marriage.” A resolutely vamping two-chord theme emerged as the singer’s voice grew more defiant. Pensive sax mingled with the sax and violins, Arun Ramamurthy positioned for stereo effect – and some sizzling, microtonal melismas – at stage right.

Fraser opened what he called a “condensed” duo version of Raga Yaman, establishing a suspenseful calm, tabla player Roshni Samlal raising the anticipation up to a tense, trilling peak. It was impossible to sit still. Mathis and Basu couldn’t resist joining in with their ripples and washes.

From there they segued into an animated, elegantly polyrhythmic duo piece by Mathis and Samlal with a rapidfire kora solo at the center. The cantering, vamping instrumental that followed brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most epic, back in the 80s, For the rest of the night, the band followed Sangho’s lead meticulously, whether Kone’s aching, plaintive modalities in tandem with her exasperated “what now” delivery on a traditional tune, or Modeste’s smoky soulfulness alongside Sangho’s husky vocals in her original, Maman, which she said through tears was dedicated to mothers everywhere.

The group closed with an insistent, emphatic girl-empowerment anthem, Sangho’s uncanny ability to transcend language barriers in full effect. “Knowledge is power, stand up for your rights,” was the message. A sold-out house roared for an encore: they got a spiraling, undulating jam, an apt coda considering how close a match Indian modes can be for vampy, mostly two-chord Malian psychedelia. For Sangho and the band, it was a spectacularly successful mission.

And after a hellacious train ride, it was an awful lot of fun to cap off the evening with the tail end of Bombay Rickey’s similarly slinky set at Barbes. Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram reached for the rafters with her four-octave voice over Drew Hudgins’ slithery sax and Drew Fleming’s twangy southwestern gothic guitar, with a fat low end now anchored by former Chicha Libre bassist Nick Cudahy. Considering how much cumbia this band mashes up with Bollywood – a couple of pretty wild jams on Yma Sumac tunes, this time out – the group’s finally found their missing piece.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive plays Thursdays at around 8:30 at the Jalopy; advance tix, available at the theatre, are $10. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is a dance party on Feb 15 at 7:30 with Tito Puente Jr. and many alums from his dad’s legendary salsa band.