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Concert Review: Converging Streams Festival, NCPA, Mumbai

The festival celebrated a category of music which is hard to describe–neither ‘fusion’ nor ‘world music’

Sunil Sampat Dec 06, 2016
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Vocalist Zila Khan and flautist Rajeev Raja, among other musicians, at Converging Streams festival at NCPA. Photo: Sunil Sampat

Converging Streams, a two-day mini festival, held at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai on November 26th and 27th, had two unique bands performing. It was a category of music which is hard to describe: certainly not ‘fusion’-that nebulous genre which has multiple instrumentalists not conventionally paired held together by a common rhythm- nor was it the equally vague ‘world music’! This was a coming together of musical minds and styles with similar directions and put together with hours of practice.

The festival opened with the group Saagara, with Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimple playing in the midst of four gentlemen from Bengaluru. These were Mysore N.Karthik on violin, K.Raja on thavil, Bhargava Halambi on khanjira and Giridhar Udupa on ghatam and konnakol. Zimple played the extremely rare alto clarinet–he also plays the equally obscure bass clarinet. The alto has a mellow, smoothly rounded sound which is close to the shehnai, and he is obviously the master of the instrument. Waclaw later explained to us that the alto clarinet has been used in marching bands and that he has adapted it for concert performance, particularly for jazz.  He also said that he has been inspired and influenced by jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who, on occasion played the bass clarinet.’

The Saagara concert was very lively and involved a melodic structure within the dominant rhythms of Carnatic classical tradition. Of all the great rhythms from anywhere in the world–Cuban, West African, Caribbean, South American etc.–surely the rhythms of Carnatic classical music are the most sophisticated. We had ample evidence of this class on the 26th. The concert was evidence of a tightly knit group of musicians, including Zimple, who had worked on and honed their sound.

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The November 27th concert with Zila Khan with the Rajeev Raja combine was clearly much more than was advertised. It was billed as ‘Zila Khan’s Sound of Surprise’ and boy, she surely surprised those fortunate to be in attendance with a spectacular performance. This was a concert worthy of Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center or the Royal Albert Hall.

What came together to create this concert was the voice of Khan, daughter of and worthy musical heir of the great Ustad Vilayat Khan, with a band led by flautist Rajeev Raja. This band comprised Hitesh Dhutia on guitar, Rahul Wadhwani on keyboards, Vaibhav Wavikar on drums, “JD” on bass plus Vinayak Netke on tabla and Ghulam Ali Khan on sarangi.

It is hard to describe the blending of Khan’s voice with Raja’s flute-led jazz band. The nearest parallel that comes to mind is the combination of Miles Davis with the Gil Evans Orchestra-which led to such collaborations as Sketches of Spain, Miles Smiles and Porgy and Bess. In these, Davis plays his sensitive trumpet in the superb framework provided for and arranged by Gil Evans and his Orchestra; Raja and his band created this kind of a musical frame in which the towering yet sensitive and highly skillful voice of Khan created a totally mind boggling, insane evening of music.

In fact, taking further the parallel with Davis, Khan sang the piece he made famous for his jazz audience-“Concierto de Aranjuez” by Spanish composer Rodrigo. Khan sang the piece in Arabic, citing the  proximity of the Arabic and Spanish music, the flamenco being a clear example.

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Khan and Raja combined beautifully in John Lennon‘s immortal, “Imagine”, which Khan merged seamlessly with the famous bhajan, “Vaishnao Jan To Tene Kahiye Je”-a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s and which has the same message of peace as “Imagine.”

It was in the second half of this concert that the music reached a pinnacle. Khan took the traditional Hindustani bhajans, ghazals and Sufi classics-“Man Kunto Maula,” “Main To Pia Se,” “Chaap Tilak,” “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo,” “Mere Humsafar” and propelled them into some higher zone of inspiration. The band, keeping step with her, dug in with a blues opening for one of her renditions with a seamless overlap. With great response from the audience, she dug out a bandish written by her father and a few other gems from the songbook of Hindustani evergreens. For an encore, Khan sang the ever popular, “Mast Kalandar.” This version defined the concept of ‘converging streams’. The first verse was sung by her to a Latin bossanova  rhythm which sounded natural, but the next verse went back to the robust traditional version with deft backing from the tabla, sarangi and drums. Without each of the musicians involved, the end effect of brilliance would not have been possible.

This was an evening where those present will surely feel blessed. Concert-goers keep on showing up, concert after concert for those rare moments when the music becomes magical. They are lucky if it happens even a few times. The Zila Khan-Rajeev Raja Combine concert was one of those experiences. It was just a great concert.

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