Late April In The Big Apple, Feast Of Indian Classical Fusion

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For Indian music lovers and musicians alike, New York City has numerous treats lined up for the second half of April, among them, the debut album release concert of mrudangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan’s record, Of Agency and Abstraction, at the Rubin Museum April 26, evening. (rubinmuseum.org).

Mrudangam player Rajna Swaminathan. (Photo Jaimie Milner via Rubin Museum)

The album is a product of Swaminathan and her ensemble, RAJAS, a Sanskrit term meaning inner energy that compels action, creation, and change. “The ensemble embodies this spirit in their exploration of new collective possibilities in the resonances among Indian music, jazz/creative music, and other improvisational traditions,” notes the Rubin Museum in its announcement about the event. The one-and-a-half-hour performance is a one-of-a-kind experience, the museum says.

The ensemble was formed in 2013, and has taken on different configurations over the years, according to Swaminathan’s website.

“Though this album primarily features my original compositions, the dynamic trajectories that the music takes have been built through a deeply collaborative process: the unique ways in which each musician carried these forms have left a lasting impression,” Swaminathan says, adding, “These pieces will continue to evolve as we keep learning how to align and coexist with one another…”

The featured artists are: Swaminathan on the mrudangam; Anjna Swaminathan — violin; María Grand — tenor sax; Miles Okazaki — guitar; Stephan Crump — bass; Ganavya Doraiswamy — vocal; and Amir ElSaffar — trumpet.

Swaminathan, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Music (Creative Practice & Critical Inquiry) at Harvard University, is a protegé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and tours regularly with renowned Indian classical musicians and dancers, most notably vocalist T.M. Krishna. Over the last seven years, she has been collaborating with musicians in New York’s jazz and creative music scene, experimenting and expanding the horizons of her instrument. She performs extensively in projects led by Vijay Iyer, Amir ElSaffar, María Grand, and Ganavya Doraiswamy.

Mrudangam player Rajna Swaminathan, center, with other members of her group RAJAS. (Photo: Carlos Snaider via Rubin Museum)

The new album, Of Agency and Abstraction, has 12 tracks entitled Offering, Peregrination, Vigil, Departures, Ripple Effect, Communitas, Retrograde, Chasing the Gradient, Rush, Vagabonds, Tangled Hierarchy, and Yathi.

On her eponymous website, Swaminathan informs us that the title of the album was conceived by Doraiswamy, who uttered the two words in a moment of epiphany while talking to a fellow artist in 2017 : the amount of agency we believe we have determines our relationship with abstraction.

“These words have remained with me over time, swirling together in different ways in my musical and intellectual life,” says Swaminathan.

The album was recorded at The Samurai Hotel Recording Studio in Astoria, Queens, NY. Vijay Iyer is the co-producer.

Before going for Swaminathan’s album release, there’s the April 18, Brooklyn Raga Massive weekly performance where vocalist Roopa Mahadevan, Steinway pianist Utsav Lal, and cello player Jake Charkey get together at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music, on Columbia Street, in Brooklyn, NY in the evening. (jalopytheatre.org).

Carnatic vocalist Roopa Mahadevan. (Photo: Shampa Chanda via Mahadevan Facebook)

Bearing strong roots in Indian classical grammar and aesthetics Lal, Mahadevan and Charkey “explore soundscapes in classical, jazz, soul, and experimental music,” says BRM. “Simultaneously grounded and wild, they seek to reinvent themselves and their sense of musical home, eager to fulfill, heal, and uplift their audiences along the way,” the publicity material adds. Lal is a young Indian pianist, improviser, educator and composer. At 26 years of age, he is recognized as a “musician extraordinaire who has set a precedent in the world of music with his rendition of Ragas on the Piano.”

Trained in western classical and jazz with Bachelor in Jazz (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and Masters in Contemporary Improvisation (New England Conservatory of Music) along with the exploration of Indian classical music under Ustad F.Wasifuddin Dagar, of the legendary Dhrupad Dagar family, Lal chooses to perform on an instrument that has traditionally been considered “unsuitable” for Hindustani classical music, BRM notes. But using his rigorous training in diverse genres of music -Western Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz, Scottish, Irish and Contemporary Improvisation, Lal challenges commonly understood ways of improvisation and has developed his own unique voice for the piano.

Carnatic performer Mahadevan who is based in New York City, is at home in many eras and styles, BRM says. She collaborates frequently with jazz, creative/improvised music, and R&B/soul genres and has her own crossover ensemble Roopa In Flux. She also directs the innovative Carnatic choir Navatman Music Collective and is an active member of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

She brings her mix to audiences in the U.S., India, and the South Asian diaspora.

Charkey completed his conservatory training at the Shepherd School of Music in Houston, TX and seeking to broaden his musical skills and vocabulary, he took an interest in Hindustani music. His studies began in Toronto with the sarangi player, Aruna Narayan, who urged him to adapt Hindustani music to cello rather than learn an Indian instrument. Charkey moved to Los Angeles where he continued intensive training with Jagan Ramamoorthy, a senior disciple of the violin virtuoso Padmabushan Dr. N. Rajam.  He completed his M.F.A. at CalArts in Hindustani music.

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