April 06 2022 Edition
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By the Way
The flute holds a long tone and turns it, and the sound flexes like a dancer. Two traditions are meeting here tonight from thousands of miles away. Ragas are patterns of sound in Indian classical music, like a key but more varied and precise. In Arabic music, a maqam is a mode, a pattern of melody and scale and modulation. An ensemble has come up from the group Brooklyn Raga Massive to explore both together.

They begin with contemporary compositions inspired by ragas, and the musicians improvise from their own traditions. Jay Ghandi is playing the bansuri, the wooden flute made from bamboo, picking up the lead and then handing it on to the violin, cello, percussion.

How can I describe it for you — how the sitar can fill the hall, taut and tenor? Hidayat Kahn seems to sit listening and quiet and then shift a finger on a wide fret and send a current through the music.

And the tones, the intervals, the rhythms are all new to me. I don’t have the words for them yet. The music has its own language, and I’ve only begun to hear it. But I can feel it. When the melody instruments are pairing up, responding to each other, and then the drums pick up all at once and everyone comes in together — the energy lifts and crests, and the tabla shifts its tone as Nitin Mitta shifts the angle of his hands.

Then they turn to a maqam. Zafer Tawil is holding a rhythm with his oud and joining in the melody with the kanun beside him (an Arabic stringed instrument like a dulcimer), and he begins to sing in a bass-baritone strong enough to carry over the whole ensemble. I want to know the words, to follow the feeling in them. They seem glad and longing and vital. And Firas Zreik is plucking the kanun clear tones, quickening until the percussion blurs into a sweeping rise.

This is so much of what I love in the Berkshires. It’s why I’m here. I can walk in from a spring night to a concert at to Williams College and hear musicians sharing music with roots across the world. And the flute calls like the owl I heard on the ridge above Hopkins Forest an hour ago. — By the Way Berkshires

Photo at the top — Creative Commons image of an oud by Rod Waddington

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