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Hear Brooklyn Raga Massive Leader Neel Murgai’s Wondrous New Album ‘Reorientation’

The New York sitarist, composer and singer who has performed with the likes of Wyclef Jean and Cyndi Lauper talks about combining jazz, rock, Indian classical and more

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Anurag Tagat Mar 17, 2020

New York sitarist, overtone singer and composer Neel Murgai. Photo: Indra Gill

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Featuring psychedelic fusion compositions born nine years ago as well as newer material that experiment with overtone singing, New York’s Indian-origin sitarist-composer Neel Murgai covers a lot of weird and trippy ground on his ensemble’s new album Reorientation.

Released last month, Murgai has been best known for his work with the artist collective Brooklyn Raga Massive, plus collaborations with the likes of singer Cyndi Lauper on Late Show with David Letterman, multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale, DJ Rekha and more. But on Reorientation, he gathers a string section – Trina Basu on violin, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello – and tabla player Sameer Gupta for fusion on songs like “Sunflower,” “Decent” and “Videsi.”

The psychedelic excursions go from cinematic (“Spaghetti Eastern”) to full-blown (“16251”) but Murgai also gets to bring to the front his experiments in overtone singing, one that starts off Reorientation (“He’s Got a Pulse”) and proceeds to showcase an “alien language of found sounds” on the Mongolian vocal technique-informed “Moom Moom Gong Bong.” Murgai says over email that he’s been honing and employing his overtone singing skills for 18 years now, but only come into his own in the last five years. He explains how a track like “Speak True” has a nod to raag Basant Mukhari, “As I started my experiments with looping, I also began to figure out polyphonic overtone singing. This means that I can change the fundamental while retaining control of the overtone. This is where my sitar and Indian classical training came back in as I began to practice and figure out many raga scales in the overtones,” Murgai says.

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Watch Neel Murgai Ensemble perform “Videsi.” 

Trained first in Varanasi and then under Pandit Krishna Mohan Bhatt (who divides his time between Jaipur and New York), Murgai knew fairly soon in his career not to be “overly concerned with purity of form.”Raags, percussion, chords and harmonies all add up delightfully for the artist, as it does in the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s weekly jams and concerts in New York. Murgai says the concert series, which has been running for eight years now, has “fostered a new and creative way of improvising and utilizing raags as starting point with no ending.”

Apart from a few spoken words, Reorientation is largely instrumental and Murgai agrees that his emotional explorations (themes of loss, recovery and love) with lyrics would have been “easy and safe” to tell his story. Nevertheless, the vocals became a bridge between his past and present. “When I had the idea to intersperse my vocal overtone/looping music in the album, then I finally felt like I had a document that represents my experiences, but in an abstract way that is not forced down people’s throats.”

There’s ongoing work on taking the album live in the coming months and Murgai says he hopes to bring his ensemble to India next winter. Murgai has performed once in New Delhi, Mumbai and Goa in 2013. While he does visit India to see his family, he adds, “It was a pleasure to share my music with friends, family and new fans in India and I look forward to more!”

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Stream and buy ‘Reorientation’ below. 

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