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.