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Classical Indian sitarist Niladri Kumar explores  musical boundaries

'Path Bender' sitarist Niladri Kumar

‘Path Bender’ sitarist Niladri Kumar

The Indian classical sitar comes to Capetown’s Baxter Theater 29 July and to Johannesburg’s Lyric Theater on 30 July straight from Niladri Kumar’s home of Mumbai, India. These ‘Raga Ecstasy’ concerts are possible thanks to Inner Circle Entertainment which produces  Indian Classical Music concerts in South Africa. As one of India’s premier classical sitarists, Kumar is not so much eager to collect sitars or sit on their glory, but to highlight how the instrument can benefit others.

Training orphan girls to play sitar

Training orphan girls to play sitar

Coming from a prestigious musical family of means, his heart seemed always in tune with those less fortunate.  During the International Year of the Girl Child in 2013, he and his team trained orphan girls to play sitar and to perform.       He auctioned off a nearly 100-year old sitar he grew up with in order to raise funds for underprivileged musical prodigies in his midst.

PHOTO  With grandfather & father

Playing sitar from age 4, under the tutelage of his father (who was also a disciple of the famous sitarist, Ravi Shankar), Kumar remained loyal to his five-generations family history of sitar playing, while feeling his contemporary world demanding flexibility and change.  Kumar, thus, created the ‘zitar’, an electronic version of the traditional sitar.

Kumar playing with grandfather and father

Kumar playing with grandfather and father

 

“The scope of an instrument is never decided by the music.” Kumar refers to the sitar’s range of use in Hindi film music. Musicians’ sensibilities change, thus affecting how the instrument complements particular themes.   The ‘Z’ in zitar connotes the zany, edginess.  Hence, the electronic sitar evolves to a five string fusion of Indian classical with a contemporary international flavour.  Some traditionalists queried this upstart. But these how-dare-you sentiments were gradually subterfuged by the encroaching young global fusions of sounds, rhythms, and message.

While respecting tradition, Kumar admits that Indian classical music ‘needs a boost’.  What awaits our raga listening ear on 29 July at the Baxter Concert Hall promises to be awe-inspiring and highly entertaining musical feast.

Kumar with John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain & Eric Harland

Kumar with John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain & Eric Harland

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Ronan-Feature1

This writer (CM) and tabla/dirigidoo musician Ronan Skillen (RS) from Capetown had an awesome opportunity to Skype chat with Kumar, prior to his travels to South Africa end of this month.  Skillen provided an ideal complement to our discussions since he specializes in various ethnic percussion instruments,   and has, himself, studied in India under the tutelage of a notable tabla musician.  Kumar will be performing with the renowned tabla player, Vijay Ghate, who is widely acknowledged for his forays into fusion with well-known artists including the Jethro Tull band, George Duke, Al Jarreau , and Ravi Coltrane.  Ghate has lectured at Codarts University of Arts at Rotterdam as well as formed a trust called Taalchakra, which provides a platform to young and upcoming artists and supports for musicians in financial need.

………

Kumar says he will just be playing the sitar in his South African concerts,  and will explore with the audiences the world of Indian classical raga melodies and different rhythmic time signatures, or Talas.

CM:  Here in South Africa, we hear lots of other types of music.  Do you fuse your classical with other forms of music?

NK;  Yes, we explore these fusions, particularly in Mumbai which supports musicians collaborating with jazz and other kinds of non-Indian music.  This has been going on for at least 60 years now.  Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve played in unfamiliar territory of art other than the comfort of just having the tabla.  So it’s no longer ‘unique’ to explore these other sounds and rhythms.

CM:  OK, then maybe we’ll hear a little bit of jazz from you… (laughter).

NK:  The thing is, I don’t know jazz music.  I’ll explain with this short story.   I was preparing for an English essay exam and the preparation I did was to write an essay on the river.  The river is like classical music for me.    But at the exam, I was supposed to write about the elephant.  I know what the contours of the elephant looks like, what it eats, and what it does.  So I explained what the elephant looks like and how I walked it in the forest while it munches on the vegetation.  Then the elephant arrives at the river to drink, it falls into the river.  Then, I write the essay about the river which is what I prepared for!  So that’s how I play jazz, and that’s how jazz musicians play classical music.  So if you’re expecting jazz music from me, you’re in the wrong place!!  We tend to play what we know most about!

CM:  (laughter)  I’ll hand you over to Ronan whose home wifi username is – guess what?  ‘Elephant’!

NK:  Oh, my goodness!!

RK:  You know, it’s so bizarre! That story you just told.  I was just re-watching  the making of the  “Industrial Zen” album which features guitarist John McLaughlin and he told that same story on that DVD.  You had told it to him.  That’s so funny.

NK:  Because people tend to ask the same question….about playing jazz….. (laughter).

RK:  That’s a good answer because most people know that Indian classical music is improvised …

NK:  I think improvisation is more in the thought process, but not necessarily in the music, because it comes from so many different cultures and in that sense, it can only smell and feel different in different parts of the world.  But at the same time, it’s a valid question and a good answer, so we still have to deal with those 7 notes in our universe. And imagine that every emotion needs to be expressed through those 7 notes.  This narrowed down connection with musicians all over the world is amazing.  I don’t think any other trade can do that, to pinpoint such a connection.

RK:  You’re right. Because it’s like having guidelines – within that context (7 key notes) you’ve got to express what you want to say.  And it’s amazing.  You take the sitar, with its 19 strings, but you’re only really playing one string.  You’re exploring a contemporary version of something very ancient.  It’s also interesting how you bring in chordal progressions – wit those long reaches  …..  and I can see on the fretboard that you’re struggling to get them!

NK:  Yes, those chords.  In 1995, I was playing a concert in Mumbai at a very traditional music place.  All the traditional greats have performed there, even my father.  I was in my early 20’s and that was the first time I played chords.  The next day, a big article made the newspaper saying how sacrilegious it was for me to play chords because I had come from a great musical tradition of my father, so much more was expected of me.  This got me thinking because I had played a 2 ½ hour concert; yet, the chords had lasted not more than 30 – 45 seconds.  The writer’s critique of this small percentage of the concert took up over half the article!  So maybe I should increase the chord playing time in order to get an important front-page article from my concerts! (laughter)

This is our Indian music – we have to go through all these stages of exploring sounds and techniques on our instruments to appeal to the younger generation.  So, the journey of exploring boundaries has to continue, even in traditional music.

CM:  About that exploring boundaries….. Some people say that the sitar is always so romantic and so sad at the same time.  How do you take this sadness out of the sitar sound?

NK:  You don’t have to.  Why would you take an emotion away?  Our music revolves around the nine emotions which we call ‘navaras’.   Melancholy or sadness is one of these moods, or emotions, the feeling of having lost something, or missed out on whatever.  This is very much part of our musical evolution.  We are fortunate to be able to explore these diverse emotions, from happiness to actually making someone cry in sadness.  It’s wonderful .  Not many instruments have that range.

It also depends on the musician, which areas he wants to explore that day, whether the song is to be happy, or sad.  This is essential.  I see young people listening to music and dancing to it, finding it very groovy, and letting their hair down.  What about having a dance within you?  Without having to actually get onto the dance floor?  That dance within needs to have a range of emotions.

CM:  That brings me to another point.  Given your various generations of listeners in India, which groups tend to like your music, and which groups question what you’re doing with your contemporary music?

NK:  The senior groups tend to question, like your teachers as they technically know more and will always question you.  On the other hand, if the listener doesn’t question why I’m playing in such a way, then that listener is stagnant and thinks you’re not moving anything.  If someone in a comfort zone asks why, that means you have shifted something which is not the usual.  If that shift doesn’t happen in any form of music, then it’s not music any more.

CM:  Well, I look forward to hearing your ‘shift’ at your concert…….

NK:  Please don’t get stuck on the ‘shift’, because the usual is also good enough! (laughter)

RK:  Can I say you’re from a younger generation?

NK:  You’re very kind, Ronan.  I’m in my early 40’s.

RK:  Just listening to why you do what you do, I feel that in this modern world, to try to keep such a culturally diverse form of music alive, like with classical Indian music, is a difficult thing. I’ve been exposed to a lot of this music, and I love it, as abstract and as difficult as it can be to listen to …. You can have an interpretation of whichever raga you hear one night, and the next night you can hear the same raga performed by somebody else, and it’s completely different.

NK:  Exactly

RK:  …and in terms of India as a country with a culture so intact…. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world where music is being taken to such a level.

NK:  It’s also because such music has evolved over thousands of years …..

RK:  What I’m saying is it’s great to see someone as enlightened as you, taking from all the different ways and walks of life, and putting it into something that is currently contemporary music.

NK:  The light switched on my head from my musical family. (laughter)

RK:  Sometimes, I have also found how Indian classical music can be quite one-sided and closed off as well where you don’t access the tradition …. This is how it’s done, and this is the tradition…period.

NK::  But I would consider this necessary, where some form simply doesn’t change.  This is essential if you have to have your base in some form of tradition.

RS:  ….yes, to preserve it.  But what I’m getting at is the question Carol raised about the younger generation, that the more you’re able to draw upon the lineage and respect for the teachers and all who have distilled the music into what you know, and if you’re able to portray it in such a way that it’s going to reach everyone, and specifically the younger generation, that’s the key.  In today’s world, like you were saying, that dance inside….instead of the quick fix…  And listening to how you play and operate, in an interactive way on stage, I think you’re on that track.  It’s great!

NK:  I don’t do things which I don’t believe in.    The problem lies when you try to form someone upon somebody else’s success. That’s where the passion and commitment  get nullified.  You can’t copy.   Everyone has to have their own path. The only thing about Indian classical music is that sometimes it can become a bit preachy, that you’re telling the audience that this is the tradition, and this is how you do it, this way or the highway!  But I think rather than become preachy, let this music become a form for communicating with the audience.

CM:  You’ve given us a lot of food for thought, Niladri, and we thank you very much….

NK:  Oh, I’m so sorry about that!  Everybody’s on a diet nowadays!

CM:  We wish you could be longer with us as we would take you to a cave for recordings.  This is what Ronan and two other colleagues did recently, and recorded an album in a cave in their ‘Cave Project’.

NK:  Incredible.  You’ve got certain acoustic enhancements right there, like delays, all free of cost!  I’ve always wanted to play a concert in a church, and did so in a chapel in France.   The acoustics are incredible,  you have to alter your playing.  The sustain is so much longer and so different.

CM:  Well, we have lots of churches here, so you may want to change your schedule a bit!  And I also look forward to crying a lot at your Baxter concert!

NK:  Oh Oh!  (laughter)  But that’s how a musician’s schedule is.  Nobody want to keep us so we’re shoved onto the first available flight back home!

This interview will broadcast LIVE on www.alljazzradio.co.za  pm Friday, 21 July 2017, at 9pm  Central African Time, and repeats on Sunday 23 July at 5am CAT and on Monday 24 July at 1pm  CAT.

Computicket:  tickets for Niladri Kumar and Vijay Ghate concert are available for 29 July at the Baxter in Capetown and on 30 July in Johannesburg.

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