Ragas Live Festival: A Confluence of Classical Music of the World


24 Hour Concert in Brooklyn, New York.

An outdoor musical fusion performance by Brooklyn Raga Massive at the 2021 Festival at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Adrien Tillman, courtesy Neel Murgai

“Indian classical music, at its best, is a spiritual and transcendental experience. What we, at the ‘Ragas Live Festival’, try to provide is a mix of within and outside of the tradition. We are creating an atmosphere that is welcoming audiences from all cultures, is fun, exciting, and new and attracts a very dynamic audience,” said David Ellenbogen, the founder of the Festival, to News India Times.

“The Hindustani Indian classical music has a long tradition of overnight concerts in India, Pakistan and the South Asian countries. Ragas Live is an extension of that,” said Neel Murgai of Brooklyn Raga Massive to News India Times. “What is special about this festival is that the listeners will connect with the time of the day. The outside atmosphere will allow watching the sunrise and the sunset while the appropriate raga plays. It becomes a shared global experience of focusing on sound,” Murgai added.

‘Ragas Live Festival’ (the Festival) will be held in person this year on October 22 and 23 at the Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Presented by Pioneer Works in collaboration with Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM) and the Society for Arts and Culture of South Asia, the 24 hour concert will feature performances on the sitar, veena, bansuri, sarangi, and classical vocal singing along with other classical music from other cultures.

David Ellenbogen, musician and founder of the Ragas Live Festival on left and Neel Murgai, musician and creative director of Brooklyn Raga Massive on the right, on stage before their performance. Photo Credit: Adrien Tillman, courtesy Neel Murgai

The highlight of this year’s Festival will be a tributary sarod performance by Manik Khan to celebrate the 100th centennial of his father, Ali Akbar Khan. The Festival will also bring to New York for the first time Parvathy Baul, an exponent of the mystical Baul music of West Bengal. In 24 hours, audiences will also listen to well known Carnatic music artist Sid Sriram,  Brazil’s percussion artist Cyro Baptista, Iraq’s maqam performer Hamid AlSaadi, analog synthesizer Qasim Naqvi, multi-instrument performer Kroba Zachary Koeber, Carnatic performer Arun Ramanurthy, and Gnawa’s trance music performer Samir LanGus with his ensemble of Moroccan and New York musicians.

Ellenbogen is a musician and a radio host on WKCR radio since 1997. The Raga Festival began in 2012 on radio as an all volunteer effort, and had 50 musicians the first year. “Our purpose was to provide the world with the time cycle of raga,” Ellenbogen said. The festival received a huge response from all over the world.

In 2016 the Festival became an in-person event, along with radio broadcast and live streaming. It was produced remotely in 2020 during the pandemic, featuring 90 musicians from 15 countries. “There were Rajasthani performers in Rajasthan, artists in Chennai, Zakir Hussain in San Francisco and Riley in Japan” Ellenbogen said. “We had the biggest outreach that year, reaching about 80,000 people,” he said.

Pioneer Works which has been presenting the festival was founded by artist Dustin Yellin, and is a non-profit cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a mission to build community through the arts and sciences. The Society for Arts and Culture of South Asia is based in San Francisco Bay area and supports arts and non-profits from South Asia. BRM, the collaborator on the festival, is a non-profit organization in New York. “We had a community of like minded musicians steeped into raga who wanted to experiment. We had weekly concerts and jam sessions and came to join in when the Festival began,” he said. BRM’s approach to Indian classical music is not traditionalist. Believing in free form, its artists perform traditional classical music, and also explore and interpret music in the spirit of openness and unison with different cultures and traditions.

Murgai, the creative director of BRM is a sitarist, overtone singer, percussionist, composer, teacher, co-artistic director of the BRM, and plays original Indian classical music while experimenting with contemporary cross-cultural collaborations. As an artist, he has worked with many artists and ensembles at different venues which include the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, David Letterman Show, Jazz clubs, and music festivals across the U.S. BRM continues to expand the audience of Indian classical music in New York City, and has earned the label of ‘A Raga Renaissance Flowering in Brooklyn’ from the New York Times

Raga has been the essence of the Festival. Ragas are the classical Indian music melodies which have a precise structure built around its solfege of 7 surs ‘sa re ga ma pa dha ni’. An essential feature of the Ragas is that each of them is meant to be played at a particular time of the day or night, enhancing and illustrating the mood.

Both Ellenbogen’s and Murgai’s fascination with Ragas began with traveling to India. Ellenbogen had traveled in 2007 to Calcutta. “I studied with Debashish Bhatacharya who is one of the greatest guitarists in the world,” he said. After returning from India, he continued to host Radio New York, now inviting Indian classical music artists with an added passion. “What attracted me to Indian classical music was the unique spiritual and mystical experience I had while listening to Ali Akbar Khan’s ‘Legacy’, Ellenbogen said.

Murgai’s initiation into Indian classical music was gradual. He grew up listening to Hindustani classical music, mainly ghazals. He said that he later learned a lot about music of other cultures when he was hosting an international music program on college radio. Murgai used to play guitar at the time, but was attracted to the sitar his friend used to play. Wanting to pursue Indian classical music, he went and lived in India for one year where he learned sitar and Indian classical music from Pundit Ravindra Goswami in Benaras. For more than 25 year, he has studied in New York with his visiting guru Pundit Krishna Bhatt.

Murgai also plays the ‘daf’, and has studied overtone singing, Harmonic Choir singing, and Western composition. He has composed music for films, television shows, videos, and theater and dance projects. He conducts workshops, lectures and demonstrations in schools and colleges in New York, and teaches Indian classical music to children through his group Raga Kids. His BRM holds weekly concert and jam sessions at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn. Music can become one’s life, not just a career, according to Murgai. “You have to have a deep passion and work hard and study and practice all the time,” he said.

‘The Ragas Live Festival’ will begin at 8:00 p.m. on October 22 and end at 8:00 pm on October 23 at Pioneer Works in Reed Hook, Brooklyn. Pioneer Works is accessible by the F train and B61 bus or by South Brooklyn Ferry to Red Hook. Concert tickets can be purchased at https://pioneerworks.org/programs/ragas-live-2022 . More information can be obtained from the website https://www.ragaslive.com. The event will be broadcast on www.wkcr.org and on 89.9 FM NY and can be live streamed at www.ragaslive.com.



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