Live music converges from across the world

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, and in Arabic music a maqam is a mode, a pattern of melody and scale and modulation. And 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.

Exploring the sounds of raga and Maqam

A musician in Yemen plays an Oud, an Arab stringed instrument, in an ensemble. Creative Commons courtesy photo

A musician plays an Oud, an Arab stringed instrument, in an ensemble. Creative Commons courtesy photo

National Arab Orchestra ensemble performs ecstatic music

The strings hold a quiet rhythm, and the flute lifts in a long rippling call. The melody line carries clear and strong, Plucked strings take it up, and the music builds, fast and soaring. Sharing music can feel like an all-night conversation, like laughing aloud with a friend, like dancing — it’s an exhilaration.

There’s a word for that feeling. It’s the ecstasy musicians feel as they play. In Arabic, it’s tarab, says Michael Ibrahim, founder and director of the National Arab Orchestra.

National Arab Orchestra ensemble performs ecstatic music

Percussionist Sameer Gupta blends ragas with jazz improvisation.
Sameer Gupta

Percussionist Sameer Gupta blends ragas with jazz improvisation. Creative Commons courtesy photo

Brooklyn ragas meet modern jazz

At sunset after a long day of work, Sameer Gupta remembers listening to a rippling music.

“You feel it connecting,” he said in a phone interview from the West Coast, on tour for new album, A Circle Has No Beginnings. “The sun is setting, the day is winding down and you have made it through, and that is heroic.”

It is music meant to be played and heard in the late afternoon. It is a raga, a classical Indian form, and it lifts him like listening to John Coltrane …

Brooklyn ragas meet modern jazz

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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