Tag Archives: Sitar

Ragas Live Festival: 24 Hours of Global Resonance

Ragas Live Festival has grown to become a vital element in the cultural landscape of New York City. Since its inception in 2012 when 50 musicians volunteered to create an FM-Broadcast at WKCR 89.9 FM-NY with the theme of “Community, Unity, and Harmony,” the festival has expanded to become a popular live event at locations including The Rubin Museum of Art and for the last few years, Pioneer Works.  

As the initial broadcast blossomed into an annual event, it attracted global attention, expanded the audience of Indian music, and documented and catalyzed what the New York Times would declare a “A Raga Renaissance Flowering in Brooklyn.” Now, Ragas Live has transformed that renaissance into one of the live music industry’s rare COVID-era success stories, managing to bring together over 90 musicians, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Kathmandu, to perform remotely from 13 global cities in a celebration of ‘Community, Unity, and Harmony’. 

There’ll be cutting edge cross-cultural performances: Terry Riley will be performing raga based improvisations from Japan preceded by Brooklyn Raga Massive who will be premiering a 24 person performance of In D their homage to Riley.  Amir ElSaffar will be collaborating with the Brooklyn Raga Massive as well with Raga Maqam a 14 piece ensemble that explores the intersections between maqam, the tonal language of Arab, Turkish, and Persian traditional music, and raga, the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Andy Statman, the legend of klezmer and bluegrass will be exploring both Jewish doinas and ragas from the 200-year-old synagogue B’nai Jeshurun.  Zakir Hussain will perform a tabla solo from San Francisco, Toumani Diabate will perform kora from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo will perform in El Clavo, Venezuela.

Founder and Executive Producer of Ragas Live Festival, David Ellenbogen says, “This has always been a festival with a pan-global vision. This year that dream is fully being realized.  We’ll have artists and listeners from every continent. We reached out to many of our heroes and to our astonishment, they all said yes.  These are the people that have changed the history of music. The artists felt a kinship with our idealistic vision and we are all working together to make it happen. We’ll have both artists and audiences all around the world: it will be 24 hours of global resonance.” 

Says the festival’s Artistic Director Arun Ramamurthy, “These legendary musicians are the torchbearers of their traditions who have brought their music forward. To have them all participating is so inspiring.”

“I love Indian music, I love Indian culture, I’m doing this because I think it’s a beautiful idea and I want to share life and music,” says Toumani Diabate, the legendary Kora player, who will perform a set from Côte d’Ivoire.

The entire event will be available free on November 21-22nd from 7pm-7pm to all as a video livestream at www.pioneerworks.org/broadcast and on broadcast as audio on WKCR-FM 89.9 FM.


Co-improv-id with Saxophone and Sitar

Staying inspired requires energy in the best of times. Doing so while sheltering-in-place, dealing with canceled shows, complete lack of a real audience, and asynchronous, socially distant jam sessions strikes a discordant note in the life of artists and art organizations alike.

In the face of these odds, Sangam Arts’ Mosaic Silicon Valley initiative and San Jose Jazz are continuing to bring harmony into our lives. On Thursday, Sept 24, “Making the Mosaic” will bring us not just music, but a premier collaboration between two musicians from different cultures, Saxophonist George Brooks and Sitarist Arjun Verma. The two musician-composer-educators will first improvise in words and then in melody, virtually.

“Making the Mosaic has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to get to know Arjun as a composer and performer. It has been a unique experience in that we have not been able to be in the same space as we developed the material for this program,” shared Brooks. ”To stay true to the spirit of improvisation, which sits at the core of jazz and Indian classical music performance, the final layers of the performances are recorded live and in single takes.  It has been demanding work, but very rewarding.”

The musicians have been creative not just in their art, but in overcoming the challenges of collaborating during shelter-in-place. Since they did not have the option of working with an actual band, they created a virtual band using layers of sitar, saxophone, and bass clarinet.

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s mission is to connect communities through inter-cultural art. The organization purposefully commissions work that brings together high-caliber artists from disparate cultures with the goal of celebrating the differences while highlighting the common threads. As co-founder Usha Srinivasan puts it, “We see artists as the ambassadors to their cultures; when we bring them together, we bring entire communities together.”

Verma is a Mosaic Fellow and believes that “All music from every corner of this planet has the same fundamental building blocks, and when we, as artists, reach across the boundaries of musical genre, we realize this fact. More importantly, we realize the same is true about our humanity. Indian classical music shares an important feature along with jazz: the use of improvisation, or ‘composing on the spot’ as my teacher Ali Akbar Khan described it.  This gives us the freedom to express ourselves spontaneously through music in a way that is extremely fresh and personal.”


“Making The Mosaic: Improvisation in Jazz and Indian Classical Music” is a FREE event on Thursday, September 24 at 7PM PST. Register at https://sangamarts.org/making-the-mosaic/

Priya Das is the Co-founder and VP- Programming Strategy, Mosaic Silicon Valley, and a dedicated advocate for the classical arts.

Celebrating 100 Years of Ravi Shankar

“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 Sangam has 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.

Music From Your Inner Truth: Anoushka Shankar

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. 

The Magical Strings of Josh Feinberg

Friends belonging to the Ekswar group had arranged a sitar concert of an artist who I had known only through Facebook. The musical evening was arranged as an almost private baithak on a terrace with a cozy ambience. I had never met the musician before, and so I was eagerly looking forward to the concert.  A lot has been written about non-Indians performing classical Indian music; over the years, I have observed that these musicians work harder to gain deep insight into the music. This is exactly what I found as I heard the sitar artist Josh Feinberg play. He played the sitar as if he had been at it since birth.

Like any Indian musician, he started learning music at a very early age.  He started with the piano at four and then moved to learning the bass at eight. lAt twelve, he had already made up his mind to be a professional artist and would practice up to twelve hours per day. Later his jazz studies with Dan Weiss also introduced him to North Indian Classical Music and he was particularly fascinated by the music of Ali Akbar Khan who played the sarod and that of Nikhil Bannerjee who played the sitar.

His foray into the sitar began with lessons under Vijaya Sundaram. At the New England conservatory of music, Boston where he studied for a Bachelor’s degree, he studied sitar under Dr. Peter Row and Dr. George Rukert and khayal and raga theory under Warren Senders. By 2005, Feinberg started learning under the world renowned sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan himself. Later, his senior students as well as family members were instrumental in helping him continue his studies – these included Khansahab’s sons Ashish Khan and Alam Khan and students Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, Anindya Bannerjee, and James Pomerantz. He also received guidance from the tabla wizard Swapan Chaudhury, and released an album with him accompanying on the tabla called Homage released in 2013. In 2014, he released another album One Evening in Spring with another tabla great Anindo Chatterjee accompanying him. He also holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Goddard College.

Feinberg has become an internationally known sitarist with concert and lec-dem tours globally – in Europe, North America and India. If I were to rank him, I would rank him very highly among contemporary musicians. I base this assessment  based on listening to recorded tracks along with attending that memorable live concert alluded to in the beginning of this essay. The tonal quality of his sitar is his own – mellow but very sweet; he is in no hurry like modern sitarists’ to start and complete a raga within minutes, he plays like a garanedar performer, (a person whose family has been learning this instrument for many years)  the old silsila (unfoldment of a raga) is followed with a quiet old world charm giving serenity, lending a meditative aspect to the performance. He combines wonderfully with his accompanists and is always in rhythm with them throughout the performance. Many famous and known institutions have organized his concert performances which include ITC-SRA – Kolkatta, Harvard University, Boston Centre for the Arts, The New England Conservatory of music,  Gandhi Memorial Centre, Ragamala and Basant Bahar Festivals, and the Fullbright Conference in Aurangabad to mention a few. He has been featured in many radio and television programs in the United States, Canada and India.

Outside of traditional North indian classical music, Feinberg has explored and collaborated with a number of musicians. This includes projects with legendary tap dancer Savion Glover, acclaimed saxophonist Patrick Lamb, recording for jazz drummer Richie Barshay’s album Homework with pianist Herbie Hancock as a special guest, and recording on cellist Gideon Freudmann’s album Rain Monsters. He was also the featured soloist in a series of concerts with the Seattle Choral Company performing Eric Whitacre’s piece Winter which was composed for choir, orchestra, sitar solo and tanpura.

Beyond performing, Feinberg also teaches regular classes in Portland along with lessons online to students around the world. He is a faculty member at Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, Marylhurst University and is a faculty adviser at Prescott College.

He has also written a manual called ‘Sitar Method’ for the world’s largest music publisher Hal Leonard Corporation, a book geared to helping beginner and intermediate sitar learners.  Along with exercises and compositions, the book also has an audio Cd to aid learning. This is available for sale from his web site www.joshfeinbergmusic.com . An update of this book is on the cards and will be accompanied by a video too.

A recent quote from Feinberg talks of the magic of creating and enjoying music. He says, “One of the hardest things as a performing artist (to me at least), is to live in the moment: to leave all expectations, all technique, all planned and practiced phrases at home. To be immersed completely in the moment—in your music—while sitting in front of a crowd of people intently listening to your every note, and having both you and your audience forget the whole world.”

His feelings convey the dedication and intent of a great musician. According to him, music is a universal language bringing people of all cultures and walks of life, together. He resides along with his poet-wife Jessica, children Sophia and Noah in Portland, Oregon.

Kishor Merchant is a music lover residing in Mumbai, India.

300 Instruments in the House

When Randy Armstrong has to create a specific piece of music that must evoke an Indian feel, he just orders a sitar from India. “Every piece of music has to be original in its creation and cultural fidelity,” he explains. That is how he has over 300 instruments in his collection, including 14 types of guitars, three sets of tablas, and a bansuri flute in every key.


PBS viewers may recognize his name from the primetime mini-series, Dinner on the Diner, following the cooking by celebrity chefs on various trains across Spain, South Africa, Scotland, and Southeast Asia.

In 2014, Armstrong composed for the dance and drama presentation of The Mahabharata at The Philip Exeter Academy’s Fisher Theater in Exeter, New Hampshire. He used classical Indian instruments to create original music, which included an arrangement of Raga Kafi by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and the song “Shanti Om” from his Beyond Borders CD dedicated to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison.

For several months now, Armstrong has been composing for a dance theater adaptation of another epic poem, this time Persian, called The Conference of the Birds. The original was written by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.

The epic poem is being presented in an epic way: San Francisco Bay Area California audiences will experience it for the first time with actors whose ages range between 8 and 85, along with thirty dancers across ten different dance-forms from around the world. These details assume enormous significance for the musician, who has to get each of them to move to his tune, and move the audience at the same time.

Armstrong expands on this, saying, “The dancers are originally from these cultures, so the music has to be authentic. I have to deliver my highest performance.” Thus, for the Chinese traditional dance, he used the gu sheng; for belly dancing, he used the Darbuka drum and the oud; for hula, he used the ukelele and slide guitar. For extra percussive authenticity, he ordered the ipu heke from Hawaii.

“When Vinita [Belani, of Enacte Arts, co-presenter, along with Sangam Arts] approached me last summer to compose music for The Conference of the Birds, she was familiar with my work; she had worked with Jean Claude Carriere, the playwright of The Mahabharata, and had come to watch the one in Fisher Theater,” says Armstrong. “I was reminded of The Seven Valleys, written by Baha’u’llah; both works have made an impression on me.”

Almost immediately, he started composing the opening piece called “The Awakening.” “It is important for the opening to transport the audience to Persia and it has a personal connection, I had studied the Persian santoor with an Iranian doctor many years ago,” says Armstrong. “It was like coming home in many ways.”

Given the myriad cultures and that he would need to use multitudinous instruments, it was important for Armstrong to find a unifying factor, musically speaking. “I decided to use the note C as the center of this whole orchestration of multicultural music. So the various musical elements relate to that—Indian, Persian, Chinese, Egyptian …,” shares Armstrong. It was a non-trivial task, since each instrument and sub-culture has a sound of its own.

Armstrong travels with Volker Nahrmann—a German bassist he has worked with for several years—to absorb new world sounds. Their 2015 CD, Beyond Borders, was nominated for two awards and “is a global voyage with 35 musicians from around the world,” featuring music from Havana, Rio de Janeiro, India, Middle East, France, Italy, Native America, West Africa, and the Caribbean. A 1988 CD called World Dance reached the top 10 of several national charts including #7 in Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It also featured a track composed by Armstrong for the 1986 United Nations International Year of Peace.

It is fascinating to hear him speak about music composition for the different mediums. “When you compose for dance, rhythm, duration, speed, beats-per-minute is critical. A beat and here or there can make all the difference. For theater, timing is most important, music becomes a servant to the emotional fabric of the piece, as it is for film too. When it’s live, the musician and listener are feeling it in real-time, it’s completely different, you capture the energy from the audience.”

Armstrong summarizes his musical career: “I am so fortunate that I have been able to play my own music, since my early 20s, and been able to go deep within that pursuit. As a musician, you don’t know if you can sustain yourself in these changing times. Just looking at the technological changes in the music industry, I feel like I have lived three lifetimes!”

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.