“Life is much larger than birth & death, failure & success. You are the unblemished, pure, eternal self. Knowing this, you will walk like a King.”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Fifty-eight years ago, renowned Indian composer Pt. Ravi Shankar founded the Kinnara School of Music, spreading this noble philosophy and a fiery passion for the sitar with the rest of the world. A music creator for All India Radio, it was Pt. Ravi Shankar who popularized classical Indian music among the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and the Beatles. His distinct performing style set him apart from the other classical performers of his time, as his intricate rhythmic patterns were considered both melodic and unconventional. He brought an incredible dedication to his work, even composing the entire soundtrack for the 1995 film, “Pather Panchali” in one day. Although he sadly passed away at 92 years in 2012, Pt. Ravi Shankar left behind an enduring, heartfelt legacy.
To commemorate that legacy, music duo Sangamhas teamed up with the Arohi ensemble to release an Indo-American interpretation of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s work. Featuring Paul Livingstone as the sitarist, this cross-cultural blend includes cello duets, sarod harmonies, and percussion riffs. Even more heartwarming is the effort from so many of Ravi’s direct disciples, such as Partho Sarothy, Pedro Eustache, and Barry Phillips.
Pt. Ravi Shankar is not celebrated today for simply mastering his craft. Although he was a skilled sitarist, he also symbolized the union of two worlds, two schools of musical thought. And the global harmony he created is certainly present today, as evidenced by the interpretations of Pather Panchali from the United States, India, and México. The Arohi/Sangam collaboration serves as a sincere reminder that music lives far beyond life itself.
To view Arohi’s tribute to the “Godfather of World Music”, click here! Meanwhile, click here to download the Arohi ensemble’s ‘Tilak Shyam’ recording!
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Student Intern for India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
With a unique amalgamation of traditional Indian Raga with chamber Jazz sound, the well known Brooklyn based music band, Neel Murgai Ensemble has come up with its new creation, ‘Reorientation’. A magical combination of ethereal overtone singing, slow-moving psychedelic-soundscapes with alluringly irregular time signatures and resonant scales, the new album boasts of an exotic musical experience for all music lovers across the world.
Recorded at Eastside Sound in Manhattan, Engineered by Sam Crawford and Lily Wang with mastering by Kane Mathis, the album is partially funded by the American Composer’s Forum, with additional funding provided by the Spark Plug Foundation. More than a new album, the musical compilation signifies a reorientation of both self and music that describes a story of loss and eventual recovery with a newfound love for the composer, overtone singer, sitarist and teacher Neel Murgai.
“The album is very close to my heart as it incorporates my journey of self-healing after I lost my old partner. Most of the compositions, especially the ensemble ones, were created in the past when I was with her and recorded them nearly 5-6 years ago. Music helped me to self rejuvenate myself, overcome the loss of someone special and move on from the tragic past. This album is dedicated to all those who are struggling from a personal loss and it is to convey to them that we can definitely move on from these tragic experiences. If I can do it, then it is a medium to inspire others too,” said Neel Murgai, the ensemble leader. “For some reason, I sat on these recordings for a long time. But just recently, my new partner and I had a baby. So it felt like it was time, like I needed to really just finish this up and move on from it in a way.”
Though the older ensemble pieces rooted in Indian classical instrumentation make up the backbone of the album, the nine tracks of Reorientation also includes recent work of solo overtone singing and looping pieces, resulting in elaborate aural explorations. The entire album is an artistic dialogue with Murgai’s older music and newer creations, providing realignment for heart and mind after devastating loss.
“Reorientation is a combination of older ensemble tracks and newer tracks of solo overtone singing like the Mongolian throat singing using looping technology. Though they are divergent and so different in many ways, it’s like they’re talking to each other like my new self and my old selves are having this existential conversation,” the composer added, who had been working on this newer project of overtone singing and looping to concoct sublime sonic landscapes for over the last four years.
One of the older tracks in particular, “Sunflower” was written for and dedicated to Murgai’s previous partner. This second track of the album is based on Raga Yaman. Raga, the form of Indian classical music, literally means “that which colors the mind”. The name for the final track on the album “16251”, actually represents the chords played.
In contrast to the tradition-steeped in virtuosity that characterizes the foundation of the ensemble pieces, the more recent contributions are improvisational, self-reflexive, and inherently psychedelic. “Music can always be used for healing,” opined Murgai, “but especially this overtone singing has been great for my own self-healing and for helping others because it is spontaneous and allows practitioners to facilitate a sound meditation experience.”
Many of the compositional ideas for Murgai’s overtone singing on tracks like the lead “He’s Got a Pulse,” came out in the spontaneity of improvisation. He developed a kind of improvisatory language, singing random vowels, syllables, and consonants while at once examining how they shaped the overtones.
For another track, “Moom Moom Gong Bong,” Murgai utilized this language, along with Mongolian vocal techniques, as well as techniques pioneered by Timothy Hill of the Harmonic Choir, a seminal group in modern overtone singing who systematized the use of vowel sounds to elicit overtones. Yet, sometimes real words emerged out of that process too, like in the track “Speak True,” a song in which words just kind of emerged spontaneously, partially because of the way that the vowel sounds elicit certain overtones that he was going for.
Though Neel Murgai entered the world of music by playing tambourine in school in New York City and then learned Jazz music, it was his acquaintance with Indian classical music in Varanasi as an adult that helped him gain a new direction in music. Combining Raga with jazz sound, incorporating different talas and creating own versions of different talas, it paved the way to create a signature style for the Indian American musician internationally. After the worldwide release of his new album, he is also looking at exploring new opportunities, presenters and promoters in India for next year. Reorientation’s live emanation, performances will also feature ensemble members who are also connected with the Brooklyn Raga Massive, including Trina Basu on violin, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, and Sameer Gupta on tabla.
Murgai is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a NYC-based artist collective dedicated to creating cross-cultural understanding through the lens of Indian classical and Raga inspired music. The collective, which has a dedicated following community who love Indian classical music, not only organizes weekly concerts but performs at bigger venues like Kennedy center and has an annual 24 hours music festival as well.
“I want to continue experimenting with Indian classical music through our collective. We were one of the first bands to bring Indian classical influence to western minimal pieces and now we have performed nearly 80 concerts in a year. Right now Indian music just involves 3-4 musicians playing at a time and I want to experiment it with having a repertoire with over 20 people performing together, expanding and exploring the loneliness of Indian classical music,” said Murgai. Further adding on his future plans he concluded, “I have already started planning for my next record that would be completely focused on solo performance based on overtone singing. I have a new idea of presenting raga as a kind of abstract expressionist, using raga phrases with minimal music. My direction is currently headed in that way, which is also known as yamanism.”
Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.
Last year was a tough one for sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar, in which she dealt with painful milestones such as her hysterectomy and separation. In a freewheeling chat, she bounces back and talks to us among other things about her goals for 2020, her new EP Love Letters, her upcoming India tour and plans for her father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary birthday celebrations.
Tell us about your new EP, Love Letters.
On Love Letters, I focused exclusively on songs with lyrics, creating a collection of songs that directly address heartbreak and its ensuing emotions in a way that instrumental music can only hint at. Also, I feel Love Letters has been part of a longer journey towards a very simple, international sound in which the sitar is no longer exotic or classical, but simply a tool of expression when juxtaposed with the voice and cross-genre elements.
You are coming back to India after almost two years to perform. How does it feel to be coming back?
Yeah, it’s been the longest gap. It feels really weird to have been away so long, so it feels important to be coming back. And I’m obviously looking forward to seeing a lot of friends and to sharing this music. But also, it’s a really interesting time over there right now. There’s a whole other level of engagement that’s going on in a way that I find really exciting and inspiring. I’m looking forward to kind of touching base with that as well.
Tell us about the plans for your father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary celebrations that are being kicked off this year.
It’s hugely exciting. This is really the big event of my year, as my dad would have been turning a 100 this year. We are doing a series of really special concerts that will never happen again. Incredible collections of musicians will be coming together on a stage and playing music that people never get to hear live. The details change in different cities—we are kicking off in London, we are going to America, and we’ll be coming to India.
In some cities, we have some really amazing guests. For example, on his actual birthday, my sister, Norah Jones, and I will be playing together live for the very first time, which is really exciting and special. That will be in London. I’m very involved in putting the shows together, choosing some of my favourite music of my dads, and I am really excited about bringing that back to India later in the year.’
You have found a new path in sitar music, deftly blending classical raga structures with flamenco, electronica and blues. Do you think you would have been dissatisfied doing just classical music, delving only in that world? As vast as it is, did it feel limiting?
I’ve always been extremely interested in the technique and thought required to dialogue with other musical styles at a high standard, rather than just as some casual jam or fusion experiment. I can’t say at all that Indian classical music is in any way dissatisfying; it’s as vast as the ocean! However, like other artists, I need to make music that represents my own inner truth and inner voice. I’ve found myself more able to do that within an international space that has an Indianness at its root but branches out to encompass sounds and cultures across borders.
During international collaborations, what are the points of confluence of Indian classical with other forms that you find?
It depends what style and with whom I’m collaborating. And also depends on my choices—there is an infinite gradient between one style and another, and whether to meet in the middle or closer to one’s root is purely a matter of choice.
You’ve spoken earlier about being tremendously affected by Europe’s refugee crisis. How do you feel about what’s going on currently with the new Citizenship Amendment Act in India?
Protests are an important part of democracies across the world. But what hurts is to read about the violence and fear around it. Everyone has the right to peacefully give voice to their beliefs. What’s been the most beautiful takeaway for me is to watch the people coming together and protesting and using their voices. That deeply filled my heart with hope. I was deeply moved and inspired.
Having watched events play out in America and Europe, how do you see India’s events tying with the global sentiment? Do you think this is part of a global sentiment that is spreading?
Yeah, I personally believe that. I am not claiming to be an expert, but that is my personal experience. Some of the details change—in California, when they talk about immigrants, it might be Mexicans they’re referring to when they speak in these horrifically dehumanising ways; or in Italy, it might be Somalians. But the attitude is the same, as is the process of distraction from the real causes of the problems people are struggling with. In other words, the spreading of intolerance due to fear is the same, and an increasingly prevalent shouty sound byte culture around the world leaves less and less room for respectful, nuanced dialogue. That’s just my opinion.’
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.
Ram Sampath enthralled the audience with his unique music compositions synchronized to a live dance troupe in San Jose, an event hosted by the Mona Khan Company, on March 10 and 11, 2018. Held in the intimate Mexican Heritage Theater, the concert was accompanied by Mona Khan’s own dance troupe.
The multi-talented Sampath – musician, producer, vocalist, composes for Bollywood movies, MTV India, Coke Studio musical series, and popular TV shows such as “Satyamev Jayate” in India. His background in Carnatic music infuses his compositions with a meld of Indian classical music, jazz, western and pop.
After having started his career composing jingles for advertisements, Sampath moved into the realm of pop music and later started composing for Bollywood films. Sampath’s musical score for the movie “Delhi Belly”, which was acclaimed by music critics, earned him a Filmfare Award.
He now has his own music production house “OmGrown Music”, in collaboration with his wife, Sona Mohapatra, who is a singer in her own right.
The concert in San Jose was a rich experience for the audience, featuring a medley of hit songs by Ram Sampath, who was accompanied by vocalists, Pawni Pandey and Siddhanth Bhosle, as well as a live band. The dance choreography synchronized perfectly with the music, and the dancers in vibrant Bollywood outfits were eye candy. The tight synchronization between the music and dance was the obvious result of an incredible effort and practice by the team.
Sampath exhibited the range of his musical and vocal prowess, in the short span of the two-hour concert, with compositions that were mostly his own.
He also introduced new singers Rithisha Padmanabh and Nishant Bordia, winners of a singing contest that he had hosted in the Bay Area along with Radio Bollywood 92.3 FM
I had a glimpse of the man behind the musical mask in a post-event interview:
I.C.: Who is your muse or your inspiration for your music?
Sampath: Life is my inspiration and the experiences that have shaped my life. Even when I started out as a young lad, I had privy to life experience content to express in my musical composition. I have had an eventful life, right from my childhood (smile).
I.C.: You were trained for 8 years in South Indian Carnatic music. Does that training permeate your music style?
Sampath: Yes, of course. I still love Carnatic music and often use it in my compositions. There are many modern day Carnatic music composers who I consider giants in the industry that I listen to regularly.
I was exposed to many genres of music growing up. Learning music at a young age is a blessing as it becomes a part of who you are – your roots, so to speak.
My dad loves Western music – the Beatles, for example. My mom is a fan of Bollywood music. I also have a rock and jazz component in my music. When I compose, I am influenced by all the above and more. The move into Bollywood was organic, the result of my eclectic music background.
I.C.: What is your favorite musical composition or song?
Sampath: That’s easy. Definitely “Abhi Na Jao Chhod Kar” composed by Jaidev from the movie “Hum Dono” and sung by Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. It is a masterpiece in musical composition. It has so many elements that are perfect in the song – emotions (longing), lyrics, melody, and overall composition. It’s timeless.
I.C.: What is your biggest challenge?
Sampath: My taste in music needs to be agreeable to Bollywood. There is a lot of junk music out there that is being consumed. My desire is to create amazing, high-quality music for the audience. Consistently.
I.C.: What is the future of your musical journey?
Sampath: I am getting more collaborative in nature. For example, this live show with Mona Khan Company is a new beginning for me. I want to do more live stage shows and collaborate with other artists in the years ahead of me.
Thanks for the show Ram Sampath and the heart-to-heart interview. It was good to get a feel of the man behind the excellent music.