Visiting artists create global blends of instrumental music

Last Sunday afternoon, Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall hosted an exotic performance by Visiting Artists Freddie Bryant (guitar), Shubhendra Rao (sitar), Saskia Rao-de Haas (Indian cello), Harshad Kanetkar (tabla) and Keita Ogawa (percussion). These musicians appeared at the College as part of the Ernest Brown World Music Series, which brings musicians from across the globe to share their musical talents with the College community. The performance was an exotic blend of Indian classical and jazz music and added a unique and much needed spice to the College music scene.

Right from the start, the audience realized that they were in for something unusual. Bryant, Rao and Rao-de Haas played their instruments seated cross-legged on top of a colorful Indian carpet, a far cry from the Western standard of playing standing up or sitting formally in a chair. Even while the musicians tuned their instruments, the hall resonated with the perfect and matchless notes of the sitar and Indian cello. The artists started with a raga, a kind of melodic mode used in Indian classical music. The raga was entirely improvised, albeit set to a rigid musical structure. The piece started off slowly, but there was a strong sense of progression. A critical feature of the raga was the subtle rhythm created by sequences and variations of repeated notes. This created a steadiness that was both calming and engaging. The musician’s ability to improvise for almost 40 minutes was extremely impressive. The dynamic blend of the tabla, sitar and Indian cello created a sound that was wholly unique – throughout the raga, the focus would shift from one instrument to the next, with an assembling of all three instruments to create a harmony. The musicians fed off each other’s energies entirely, and so the entire performance seemed naturally progressive.

Next was a jazz piece by Kanetkar and Ogawa. This was entirely different to the raga, with more Afro-Cuban and South American influences, but just as exotic. The piece started with a blend of guitar and percussion that slowly increased with tension – it then resolved into a smooth movement. The subtle build and drop of momentum in terms of rhythm and melody gave this piece a distinctly Spanish undertone. The percussion playing almost mirrored the movement and sound of the elements themselves, with its echoes of resonation and magnitude. It was particularly interesting to watch Ogawa play his percussion with what looked like a set of miniature brooms. Although it was a jazz piece, both artists kept with the Indian tradition of playing their instruments seated on the floor.

After a short intermission, all of the artists convened for the final piece of the performance. In the finale, the audience saw a blend of Indian classical and jazz – the combination of such different musical flavors paved way for a superb final performance. With the sitar, Indian cello and tabla playing came an unusual passion, whilst the guitar and percussion playing brought a coolness and sharpness distinct to jazz. The interaction between the performers reached a climax in this piece – mainly because there were extra performers and instruments to react with. All of the qualities of the first two pieces were combined into a singular, fascinating musical piece, and it acted as a great conclusion to the performance.

The performance was both musically and visually striking. As mentioned earlier, the artists assumed the classical Indian tradition of playing while seated on the floor. This added a sense of authenticity to the performance, but also a sense of serenity and calmness. The musicians all dressed in the traditional Indian color palate of maroons, mustards and reds, further adding to the “ethnic” vibe of the recital. Most striking of all were the musician’s physical movements and interactions with each other. Each of the artists played with a dynamic passion – they would scintillate in time with the music and in sync with their reactions towards it. There was fluidity to how they interacted with each other – often, if the focus was on a single instrument, the rest of the artists would play their instruments with their eyes closed, almost in appreciation of the single instrument and the skill of the musician playing it. They would feed off each other’s energy and would communicate through eye contact and other visual signals. Improvisation and passion is so critical to the foundation of Indian classical music, and in some ways, the visual aspects of the performance displayed this more than the music itself.

All in all, this was one of the best performances I have seen the College host. The size of the crowd (composed of both parents and students) was a good indicator of our community’s interest in global music, and this performance delivered a superb representation of this style of music. Hopefully, there will be more performances like this in the near future.

One comment

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