Trying to get musicians from any culture to talk about their music can sometimes be a hopeless task. The part of the brain that controls musical skill is apparently a separate module from the part that enables one to talk about music. Why else would so many people with profound and subtle performing skills be able to say nothing about their music except their local dialect’s equivalent of “I just play what I feel, man, you dig?” Laxmi Tewari, however, is a delightful exception to this rule. When singing khayal, he sounds like he spend years doing nothing but sitting and practicing with a great guru in an Indian village. And, in fact, when he was living and studying with Pandit Lamani Mishra, this is exactly what he did. But since then he has acquired a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, and has been teaching World Music at Sonoma State University for decades. Not just Indian music, mind you, but World music. For he has recorded and done scholarly analyses of vocal music from almost everywhere: Turkey, Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, and his home province of Uttar Pradesh, India. And after years of both researching music and explaining it to students, he is as reflective and articulate about his own skills as he is about the folk music he has analyzed and documented.
In a discussion of six studies of the folk music of Turkey, author David Kent writes of Tewari, “One can assume that he functioned as an outside observer, since the several weeks during which he collected his data probably was not a sufficient amount of time for him to become closely acquainted with the villagers and to acquire a keen understanding of local customs and belief systems.” What Kent did not take into consideration was Tewari’s secret weapon-the fact that he is a vocalist himself. He earns the respect of his informants by singing their own songs back to them, with all of the correct nuances and ornaments. “When I do field research, I don’t have to go out and look for the music” says Tewari. “Once they hear me sing their songs, the word goes out that there is a new musician in town, and singers start coming to me. We become buddy-buddy very quickly, because of the mutual respect, and soon I’m like a member of the family.” This is why he quickly learned how to classify the music he studied, not only by musical type, but also by the various functions the music performed in the society.
Today Tewari’s students can hear him sing these melodies in the classroom, accompanied by lectures explaining what is distinctive to each. He also teaches advanced ethnomusicology seminars, and an Indian music ensemble that teaches his American students ear training, Indian rhythms, and how to improvise alaps and taans. How does he balance his broad knowledge of World music with his commitment to Indian traditions? “Although I was trained in the Gwalior gharana, I borrow freely from many other Khayal styles. Almost all Khyal singers do that now, except for a few older ones like Bhimsen Joshi. The gharana system worked when people spent their whole lives living in a single village. But now that we have air travel, Radio and CDs, the mixing of gharanas is inevitable and I think that’s a good thing. Ultimately, the only thing that determines what I choose to incorporate is my own taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make discriminations. Although I might use almost any kind of Khayal technique, I don’t mix non-Indian music into my performances. The only time you’ll hear me sing African or Turkish songs is in my World Music class. It’s like with food, you can combine lots of Indian styles together, but the spices are all wrong for foods from other parts of the world.”
Tewari’s two most recent recordings show these principles in action. “Morning Glory” contains a traditional Khayal performance of Raga Ahir Bhairav, followed by a bhajan, both accompanied by Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla and Ramesh Misra on sarangi. The Khayal performance is closer to the length that would be expected by an Indian audience-almost an hour-and Tewari almost always returns to the complete mukhra of the bandish (i.e. the phrase of the melody that signals the beginning of the rhythm cycle). Thanks to Tewari’s careful explanation, and the detailed liner notes, I was able to hear how he used his many different vocal techniques to slowly increase the power and intensity of the raga. Initially, he uses primarily murki (a microtonal trill), and slow meend (a slide rather like a sitar bend.). He then gradually introduces gamak (a broader trill with volume swells, sung more from the diaphragm) to build up the intensity, which reaches its highest level in the taans (fast scales sung on the “a” sound) and alankar (sequences sung to sargam syllables) at the climax of his performance.
By themselves, however, these technical descriptions cannot capture the essence of what motivates Tewari’s music. As much as he enjoys the technical intricacies and spiritual profundity of Khyal, Tewari is equally drawn to the simplicity of the bhajan. His album “Bhajan: a rainbow of devotional songs” features his melodies, and frequently his poetry, expressing his devotion to his ishta devata (chosen personal deity). Although his technique is still clearly evident, it is carefully kept in service to the spiritual message of the poetry. “Technically, bhajans are somewhat like Thumri”, says Tewari. “The words are extremely important, and you are permitted to add notes that are not in the raga. But in Thumri, you will often do variations on a single word or phrase that will sometimes obscure the meaning of the original text. In bhajans, although the melody is frequently stretched and ornamented, the entire phrase is always rendered completely. The meaning of the text is too important to be fragmented in any way, because it expresses the spiritual principles which guide not only music, but all of life.”
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.