Mixing Culture and Music: Indo-Jazz

How often do you hear African drums, jazzy saxophone tunes and exotic chords of the Indian veena working together to produce a thrilling multicultural fusion? Last Friday, Cochran Chapel hosted the premiere of a collaboration between the five-person Indo-Fusion group Natraj and a world-renown trio of Indian Carnatic Musicians. Chand Sripad, Supervisor of the PA Chemistry Laboratory and main organizer of the event, said, “The music department [at PA] is really strong, and the kids are very creative. I think exposing them to these new forms of music, because the music scene around the world is changing, will allow them to incorporate these different elements into their compositions and in their playing.” Opening with a lively beat and teasing melody, Natraj performed “Ava de Se,” which is based on a traditional West African song. Natraj transported the audience to a festive dusky African savannah, guided by thrumming ewe drums and a twanging cow bell. At times the music was jazzy, repeating a rhythm that swayed and swished like savannah grass. At other times, it became a riotous but masterfully executed melody. Percussionists Jerry Leake and Betram Lehmann were dizzying to watch, playing five instruments at the same time. Rohan Malhotra ’11 said, “I’m always really intrigued when instruments from two different cultures are used together. I’m a student of both the tabla and the drumset, and I’ve tried to apply rhythms and music theory from one instrument to the other and it’s very difficult….Both my drum set teacher Betram Lehmann and my tabla teacher Jerry Leake were featured in the concert. To see them work together on two unrelated instruments really amazed me.” “Not only did they accompany the melody, but their responses and rhythms in relation to the other percussion instrument was pretty flawless. I guess seeing two unrelated cultural percussion instruments work together truly shows how music is universal,” Malhotra added. A swinging melody from the soprano saxophone danced in and out of the piece, infusing some ragtime flavor into “Ava de Se.” The lively theme nearly lured audience members out of their seats to dance with the bold and bouncy tune. Instructor in Music Christopher Walter said, “Natraj is really exceptional…It’s so original what they do. It’s very delicate, and it’s these combinations of instruments that are just very unusual. Mat Maneri [violists] sounds like a wind player!” After “Ava De Se,” the spotlight switched to the more traditional Indian Classical Trio of violin, veena and mridangam. Graceful and sinuous, the veena is a wooden stringed instrument with a drum-shaped base and long neck. The mridgangam is a double-headed drum with the overall shape of a bloated cylinder. In “Simhendra Madhyamam,” the musicians expressed their talents and emotions through structured rhythmic improvisation. Durga Krishan produced a glissando effect from sliding up and down the neck of the veena while Pravin Sitaram made the mridangam trill a complicated and varying beat. The group’s violinist Tara Anand said, “Strictly speaking, Carnatic music is woven around rich traditional compositions, and its scope for constant improvisation makes it challenging and interesting for any artist.” The Indian Trio continued with “Thillana” before joining Natraj for the final pieces of the concert. The two groups performed “River” in the Raga, or scale, Saraswati. Saraswati is the Hindu Goddess of knowledge and learning. The piece opened with a violin and viola melody quickly ascending and descending the Indian scale. Soon more instruments joined them, the cymbals and drums adding a more Western spin to the piece. Zahra Bhaiwala ’10, co-head of Indo-Pak, said, “What I thought was really cool was the diversity of the instruments and how [they] all flowed together.” Natasha Vaz ’11 said, “It was great how there was one part of the piece that would be a little more Indian, and then they would break into a little more jazz type, but it wasn’t [an] abrupt change. It was really seamless.” Malhotra said, “To me, the concert really highlighted that no matter the culture, two instruments can always sound great together.”