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.

“He captures me profoundly,” Gupta said, “the ecstatic, blissful ways he plays, what he taps into.”

Gupta knows both traditions. He has performed as a percussionist for almost 20 years, and five years ago he co-founded Brooklyn Raga Massive, a group of musicians improvising Indian classical music and jazz.

At 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30, he came to the Berkshires to celebrate his new album, A Circle Has No Beginnings, at Mass MoCA. He performed on drum set and tabla, a South Asian paired drum, with Jay Gandhi on bamboo bansuri flute, jazz pianist Marc Cary — an elder, Gupta said, who started his career working with jazz icon Betty Carter — on keyboard, and Rasheen Carter on bass.

Brooklyn Raga Massive started as a jam session, Gupta said. It began as a space for performers who love Indian classical music to come together. Living in Brooklyn, they brought in more of the music they love.

Growing up in the 1980s, Gupta was listening to the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana and the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel — music that holds experiences for him as visceral as a raga near the Pacific.

So the group weaves music together, from the golden age of Bollywood to Miles Davis.

“It’s not a fusion, putting two things next to each other,” he said, “but blending them to make something new.”

One track on his new album, Two Faces of the Moon, combines a theme song of the American Indian Movement, one he learned from Marc Cary, with a South Indian melody.

He has been exploring lately a technique for keeping a raga in the melodic instruments and halfway through changing the bass, so that a new raga emerges — a different music, a different color under the same moon.

A raga is more than a melody, a scale, a rhythm, a key or set of notes, he said — it is all of them together and more. It is a living musical system meant to evoke a feeling.

“You tap and in and let the music expand,” he said. “It’s something you turn inward to and let yourself grow.”

A raga gives a structure to each note and the notes that come to and from it. The form allows improvisation. And each raga has a spirit. Each one holds a rasa, a feeling or juice. Ragas are not religious, not Hindu or Muslim, he said. The music itself is a way of getting lifted, spiritual in a more open sense. Ragas have a science behind them, and it is old. The Natyasastra, a Sanskrit text written some 2,000 years ago, describes the Navasrasas, the nine rasas.

Some are romantic: love, devotion, love for God. One holds mystery or the unknown, and one a sense of valor or triumph, a sense that you will overcome.

Gupta has come to ragas relatively recently. He grew up in concert and marching band, jazz band, he said, and didn’t know Indian musical traditions until he had gotten a BA in Western classical music, playing in an orchestra. He began exploring improvisation and jazz percussionists he deeply admired. But Tabla, the double drum, drew him and intimidated him.

“It’s vast,” he said.

The tabla is carefully tuned and played with the fingers, hand and wrist, in a pattern of sound as varied as a human voice. After years of dipping in gradually, Gupta met Anindo Chatterjee, a living legend of tabla, and studied with him.

So Brooklyn Raga Massive gathers the web of his own musical background and enlarges it. He sees the group as a continuation of conversations that have been going on in the U.S. for generations. As people come to New York from countries around the world, he said, they share the music, art, writing, food they know.

He sees that happening more and more now, and his group wants to push that connection farther. As the world gets more intense and people become more separated by histories or identity, he sees a deep need for it.

The name for the new album reflects that need for understanding.

“It’s like a zen circle,” he said. “The paint trickles back, and the point of joining is small. The only way to understand direction and perspective is to understand the past … We can’t reverse the wheels of hate unless we know how they’re moving.”

Following that curve, the album covers “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” by Cree and Canadian singer / song-writer, artist Buffy Sainte Marie, an Oscar and golden Globe winner and a living legend in her own way since the 1960s.

Her theme resonated, Gupta said, the sense of small wheels moving large ones in people’s minds and across countries. And the way she blends with her voice and slide into notes felt familiar to him, a sound Indian classical musicians could get close to.

And stepping nearer to jazz, he returns to a song of his own, Taiwa, a tribute he composed for a South African jazz pianist, Moses Molelekwa, who began releasing records in his late teens and early 20s. Taiwa was his nickname, and Gupta loved his music and wanted to meet him, even to travel across the world. But Molelekwa died young. After his death, Gupta traveled to South Africa. He sat down at a piano, he said, and he heard this melody. And the song emerged, holding his sadness, holding the spirit of the man who was gone and the man with the music in his hands.


This story first ran in the Arts & Entertainment Section in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to A&E Editor Jeff Borak. The photo above shows the tabla, a classical Indian double-headed drum. Courtesy photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra


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