Author: Daniel Silva

Alam Khan and the Om Gam Ensemble

On April 7th, 2017 The World Music Institute along with the Brooklyn Raga Massive presented a concert in honor of the 95th Birthday Celebration of the acclaimed master of classical Indian music Ali Akbar Khan. The concert was held at Le Poisson Rouge and featured Alam Khan, the son and legacy of Ali Akbar Khan, as well as the Om Gam Ensemble. Ali Akbar Khan passed away in June 2009, but his profound impact of being an ambassador and teacher of classical North Indian music to the Western world is still strongly felt and acknowledged through his school of music, founded in San Rafael, California.  The Ali Akbar College of Music is run by his wife Mary Khan and son Alam Khan, who is also an advanced instructor of the sarod. The school holds a massive archive of over 8,000 hours of live musical instruction by Ali Akbar himself and 125-recorded concerts. Through online classes the college instructs students in the Ali Akbar Khan legacy across the United States and worldwide.

The concert at Le Poisson Rouge opened with the Om Gam Ensemble, which featured an eclectic band of instrumentalists led by bassist and composer Michael Gam, who is also a core member of the Brooklyn Raga Massive. The ensemble gets its name from the mantra of the Hindu Deity Ganesh: “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha.” Ganesh is the Hindu elephant headed god who is known as the remover of obstacles, which the ensemble imitates by trying to remove musical obstacles that would theoretically divide music into separate genres. Om Gam presents a collaboration of artists from different musical backgrounds, including Indian classical, traditional African, Middle Eastern, and Jazz.  The ensemble consisted of Michael Gam on upright bass, Shivalik Goshal on tabla, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Kane Mathis on the santur, and a guest flute player.

Om Gam began its set list with an unconventional daytime raga during the evening’s performance. In Northern Indian Classical music traditions, daytime ragas would be played only during daylight hours and vice versa with evening ragas. According to custom reflected in Vedic traditions, certain times of day produce distinctive energetic vibrations that would harmoniously complement the raga’s vibrating tone. Om Gam’s opening number began with a livelier daytime raga mood in opposition to a more contemplative nighttime raga atmosphere.   Tension was built as the upright bass was bowed with an increasing crescendo both in time and volume, and small wooden mallets also hammered the santur in a mirrored fashion. The tension was resolved when the flute came in with a lighter melody with the accompaniment of the tabla drums, which held a traditional raga beat. The following numbers of Om Gam were less traditional and conveyed a more eclectic sound as it included more diverse world compositions and timbres such as the Persian santur. For their second piece the ensemble covered a South African Jazz composition by Abdullah Ibrahim entitled The Mountain.  The rest of the set-list was a mixture of Indian, African, Middle Eastern, and even Celtic sounds. The ensemble was experimental in the manner they combined timbres, rhythms, and improvisations, a true fusion of the world music scene contained in Brooklyn.

As the main act, Alam Khan on the North Indian stringed sarod and Nitin Mitta on tabla drums, showcased a more traditional and timeless modular exploration of two nighttime ragas. Each raga was improvised live that night with no prior rehearsal and both were a little over thirty minutes.   The first raga was a composition by Khan’s grandfather, the legendary North Indian composer and teacher Allauddin Khan, who also instructed Ravi Shankar. The meter was in 4/4 with a cyclical sixteen beat pattern across four measures. The rhythmic pattern revolved in a circular fashion, as the sarod player made alterations to the improvised melodic line, and the tabla player kept count of each measure on his left leg. The duo also followed a similar pattern of dynamics for each raga. In the very beginning Alam would start slowly exploring the particular pitches within a specific raga over the droning recording of the tamboura instrument.

Then he would slowly create a mutable melodic line which he would alter on each cycle with varies ornamentations and rhythms. The main characteristic of the sarod is of the use of glissandi across specific North Indian scales. The trademark sound is sliding across the strings as opposed to the bending of strings on the sitar. The sarod also has four main strings where the melody is usually played on and many others strings which function as drones or octaves when strummed.

In each raga, after the sarod player begins to develop a melodic idea, the tabla player begins the cyclical drumming accompaniment in a moderate fashion. The sarod then leads the dynamics as it grows in intensity and volume, often slowing down with a decrescendo only to crescendo again for a climax. The tabla player is also given moments to solo and to rejoin the sarod, as they exchange improvised phrases in a call and response fashion.

Each raga is in a specific tuning with set pitch patterns. For the second number both the sarod and the tabla had to be retuned to a different key. The instruments can only play one specific key signature at a time. The following raga was also a nighttime raga, but with a faster meter than the first with 7 beats per measure. Khan referred to it as the Garland of Ragas. The approach and sections were similar to the first raga but in a different key with a faster pace as it was the climactic closing number of the night.  The faster playing also allowed for more octaves and semi tones to be present in the resonance of the phrasing as Alam Khan struck more of the droning strings of the sarod.

The night was a successful homage to the late Ali Akbar Khan and to the Maihar Gharana school of North Indian music.   It was also announced that Alam Khan would be holding a two-day workshop on the sarod in Brooklyn the following day. Alam Khan exhibited the artistic mastery of the instrument synonymous with his father, as well preserving his teaching legacy. The Khan family’s music is devotional and rich in tradition going across the generations into our modern era. It was a privilege to witness an authentic and timeless presentation of North Indian classical music.

Thums Up and Arooj Aftab at the Kaufman Music Center

On March 4th I once again attended the 2017 Ecstatic Music Festival presented by the Kaufman Music Center. The concert featured Thums Up, a collaboration from modern jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, along with the pedal board effects of guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, drummer Kassa Overall, and rap lyrics by Himanshu Suri also known as “Heems.” The concert also featured the hypnotic vocals of Arooj Aftab, who uses classical Pakistani and North Indian vocal melodies combined with Sufi poetry. Aftab also freely incorporates various other instrumentalists into her sonic landscape such as musician Yusuke Yamamoto who played a bass amp-driven synthesizer, drummer Nathan Ellaman-Bell, and Argentinian pianist Leonardo Genovese.

The night’s performance began with Arooj Aftab’s blend of ethereal and international sounds. This is the second time I have witnessed a live performance of Aftab, whose music has the ability to accommodate the improvisation and participation of varies instruments. The first time I saw her was on August 11, 2016 at the David Rubenstein Auditorium at Lincoln Center. In that performance, her ensemble consisted of a saxophone, harp, cajon drumming, piano, and bass synthesizer effects. I remember being impressed by how easily jazz, classical, and ethnic elements fused together in her presentation. This performance just as well embraced varies genres and sonic textures. Her lyrics are sung in free time following the tradition of classical Pakistani and North Indian songs, and being such, they float above the modern pulsing and droning synthesizer effects of Yusuke Yamamoto. Together they create a modern hypnotic ambience from the timbre combination of an ethereal voice, which is soaked with a reverb effect on the microphone and the heavy low pulsing synth grooves coming out of a Hartke Bass amplifier.

In contrast to the more free form of Aftab, the drummer, Nathan Ellman-Bell, incorporated Latin rhythms with compound meters of 3/4 and 6/8. I suspect he did this in collaboration with Argentinian pianist Leonardo Genovese. Both drummer and pianist showed great chemistry with one another and frequently exchanged smiles as they grooved together. Genovese also displayed chromatic and dissonant sections in his playing, which did not feel over saturated as the tension dissolved easily in the ambience of Aftab and Yamamoto. In fact, the dissonance employed by Genovese served as a nice counterpoint to the mellow and hypnotic lyrics. The dissonance did not become overbearing, but actually enhanced the return to the ethereal realm of Aftab’s long and sustained vocals. This collaboration was a well-balanced allegiance between dissonance and fluid lyrical poetry.

The second performance of the night featured Hip Hop lyrics pertaining to the South Asian American experience and political commentary by Queens’s rapper Heems, along with rhythmic piano, beats and effects by Vijay Iyer. The guitar player Rafiq Bhatia offered different sustained drone and wash effects through an intricate pedal board, which he controlled by an expression/volume pedal. He replicated and created various guitar effects that were labeled as “shoegazing” within the early indie rock movement due to guitar players constantly staring at their effect pedals that they controlled with their feet. The drummer Kassa Overall also had an interesting drum kit as he included bongos and other smaller drums, which he would occasionally play with a padded percussion mallet. The overall sound of the ensemble incorporated Rap lyrics criticizing the over usage of combat drones, the appropriation of Hindu culture by the modern yoga culture, and the South Asian experience of growing up in Queens.

The concert ended with the Thumbs Up ensemble inviting Arooj Aftab to join them for the closing number. Once again Aftab provided a hypnotic ambience with her vocals while Heems delivered a higher energy rhythmic rap chorus. The guitar effects along with the piano effects and drumming also culminated in the climax of the night with much of the audience standing in applause.   It was nice to experience a concert with so many South Asian American artists. It stands as a testament to the rich diversity and affluent global culture within the arts of New York City.

Origami Harvest

On February 18, 2017 the Ecstatic Music Festival at the Kaufman Music Center in New York City presented Origami Harvest, a modern Jazz / Hip Hop fusion of the trumpet virtuosity of Ambrose Akinmusire with the postmodern rap lyrics of MC Kool A.D. Ambrose Akinmusire was the primary creative force behind this Jazz / Hip Hop collaboration which featured Kool A.D. along with the instrumental accompaniment of the contemporary string ensemble Mivos Quartet, piano and synthesizer effects by Sam Harris, and drumming by Marcus Gilmore. In an interview for Liquid Music website at the beginning of 2017, Ambrose states that Origami Harvest stands for a cyclical exposition of the various musical elements which make up the diverse ensemble’s presentation. During the performance each performer takes a turn at presenting his or her instrument’s unique voice as a metaphorical fruit, which is then harvested by the changes in the seasons. Through this cyclical performance, the sonic textures blend with one another and the juxtaposition of the diverse instrumentation folds upon itself in the same way that the folding of paper creates an origami image. The composition also explores how there is no clear beginning or end to a cycle as all preceding moods and textures morph onto the next section.

The piece began with the string quartet’s creating dissonant waves by making circular motions with their bows and sliding up and down the strings, which created the whispering sound of an ocean floor. This technique would be revisited several times.  The intro by the quartet was a mix of dissonant and consonant sounds, which established an atonal motif for the rest of the piece. A different section also featured a modern chromatic piano solo, which was in contrast to the usual rhythmic groove patterns, Sam Harris, played on a synthesizer along with drummer Marcus Gilmore. MC Kool A.D. would typically rap over the synthesizer’s effects and drumming, and Kool A.D. would also add sparse lyrical content with varying dynamics throughout the sections. Interestingly, Kool A.D. attempted to mimic the virtuosic off-beat phrasing of Ambrose’s trumpet. Needless to say, Ambrose provided varies trumpet solos with the unconventional sounds of the Free Jazz form.

All the performers demonstrated a high level of musicality and control over their modern, unconventional sounds. Origami Harvest was successful in presenting a series of cyclical and separate sections featuring an atypical ensemble, however, the visual staging of where a performer stands while not playing could be improved upon or “relaxed.” There were awkward moments when MC Kool A.D. was just standing on stage silent while the quartet played. On other occasions, he compensated by repeating a lyrical phrase such as “and it don’t stop” or attempted to make creative moments. Ambrose also sat on a stool and avoided direct eye contact with the audience when he was not playing. The tension onstage could have been relieved if the performers had had more freedom to move around the stage. Perhaps, Ambrose or Kool A.D. could even have walked over to conduct a different section, which did not feature them. I believe this would have relaxed the visible onstage nerves of the musicians. After all, there is countless footage of Miles Davis or Jon Coltrane walking to the side of the stage to smoke a cigarette or gaze at the audience, while another performer took the spotlight.

With the current trend of musical fusions within the mainstream market, Origami Harvest is a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between the modern Jazz, Classical, and Hip Hop genres. Recently, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) received an unprecedented acceptance with mainstream audiences and won awards for successfully blending Hip Hop with Funk, Free Jazz, Soul, and Spoken Word. The album’s fusion was presented as a kind of avant-garde conceptual album, which featured Free Jazz prominent figures such as Kamasi Washington on tenor saxophone, Thundercat on bass/producer, and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, among the various other instrumentalists.  To Pimp a Butterfly brought Free Jazz elements into a Hip Hop production while Origami Harvest brought Hip Hop into a modern musical auditorium.   The new and experimental trend that has united free jazz, classical avant-garde, and hip hop artists in a common musical aesthetic is evocative and inspiring.