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The Justice (March 12, 2012 )

Raga links Indian and Afghan traditions

by Aziz Sohail

On Saturday, MusicUnitesUS brought together "three distinguished artists whose repertoire, instruments and individual musical journeys reflect the global reach of raga music in the 21st century," according to the evening's program. Eminent ethnomusicologist and Dartmouth University professor Theodore Levin, who gave the pre-concert talk, said it was a particularly special concert because raga, one of the melodic modes in Indian classical music, usually features a single soloist. However, Saturday's program was based on a duo—internationally renowned Humayun Sakhi on the rubab (a lute-like musical instrument) and Switzerland-based Ken Zuckerman on the sarod (a stringed musical instrument)—in a tradition that is called jugalbandi (intertwined twins). Both soloists were accompanied by the equally apt Salar Nader on the tabla (a pair of drums). Sakhi's performance style, according to the concert program, "has been shaped not only by traditional Afghan and Indian music, but by his lively interest in contemporary music from around the world."

According to it's website, the mission of MusicUnitesUS—a Brandeis-based Boston-wide program—is to "further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music, a common medium that can help to unite diverse cultures in our own neighborhoods and transcend boundaries in the global community." This mission is achieved through a three-tiered approach consisting of an intercultural residency series, a public school education program and a world music concert series. The week-long residency and programming, which take place once a semester, culminates in a concert at the Slosberg Music Center.

At the pre-concert talk, Levin spoke at length about the roots of raga in the North Indian Mughal court from the dynasty that ruled India from the early 16th to the middle of the 19th century, before British colonization. The vast cultural outreach and patronage of the Mughal court brought together musicians of different traditions. Artists from Persian, Afghani, Indian and Central Asian traditions converged to make North India a cultural hub. According to Levin, unfortunately, there are no recordings of such collaborations, so it is only through events, such as last night's concert, that an individual can experience what might have been the magic of such patronage.

The first raga, called "Chandranandan," featured Zuckerman on the sarod and Nader on the tabla. The beginning was slow, as Zuckerman tuned the sarod. The instrument, it seemed, navigated itself through the new space, creating a musical connection with the listener.

I sat in the front, on the floor, expecting to be bored. However, the rhythm of the sarod suddenly picked up to a more upbeat tempo which increased the anticipation in the room. The tabla then entered the raga, keeping time and responding to the sarod. Happiness, sadness, melancholy; the sarod evoked all these emotions, as if searching for its long-lost partner back from the days of the Mughal court. The beats picked up, then slowed and then picked up again. The tak, tak, dum, dum of the tabla, kept in sync with the sarod's 16 beats, and the musicians connected eyes as the melody went faster and faster until they abruptly came to a finish. The audience drew in a collective breath and cheered with thunderous applause.

The second raga, called "Bayag," featuring Sakhi on the rubab and Nader on the tabla, went through a similar journey. While Sakhi is internationally renowned for his musical prowess, Nader was also exceptional. He expertly connected the beats of the tabla to the stringed instruments, keeping time and responding to each beat in perfect sync and harmony. At many points, the speed of the music caused his hands to become a blur, but impressively, there were no mistakes and the musical journey was perfect.

The final raga of the evening, "," featuring both soloists on stage, was undoubtedly the climax of the evening. According to Levin, this was the second time that these two musicians, connected through their instruments and traditions, had performed together. Previously, they had recently performed at the Asia Society in New York and had just met each other in California not long ago. However, he indicated that due to the nature of the two instruments and their musical prowess, it seemed that it was an instant connection. He stated that that they would engage in what is called a "highly constrained improvisation," something rooted in the classical Indian music tradition. According to the program, "This challenges musicians to extemporize and melodic lines constrained by the choice, sequence and relative emphasis of pitches and intervals." Before the third raga even started, I heard an attendee, Hyder Kazmi '12, say, "I don't think I can take this, this is too good."

Then, suddenly, we heard the tuning of the instruments and began our final journey. The sarod started, with melancholic tones, and the rubab responded. Quickly, the beats picked up and it seemed as if the two traditions were teasing each other playfully, happy to find each other. The tabla kept time and responded expertly to both instruments at once. The musical conversation seemed to span centuries of times, bringing back collective memories of mischief, sadness, separation and union. The beats went faster and faster and the audience seemed to wait with baited breath, keeping time. Then, suddenly, it was over.

As the sold-out house erupted in applause and called for an encore, the musicians bowed, their faces showcasing their delight and honor at bringing their artistic traditions to Waltham. So great was the reaction of the audience, that the musicians entertained us with an additional song.

I left the hall, feeling as if in one night Pakistan, India and Afghanistan had come together, as if we were back in the Mughal Court, as if Brandeis was that cultural hub. One of the concert's organizers, Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS), remarked that, "it seemed the musicians were received like rock stars. … It was thrilling, a new happening, and the melding of classical tradition with roots in ancient times with contemporary cutting-edge music.''

The organizers truly achieved the mission of MusicUnitesUS, not only bringing together the diverse Brandeis and Boston communities, but also combining the now separated peoples of many lands and taking us all on a journey through time back into the Mughal court.

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