Friday, February 4, 2011

Essay: Beginning with Alap...

The Pleasures of Indian Ragas

My introduction to Indian classical ragas was a humbling experience. It was 2003, I had just started discovering music from around the world as a music journalist (making a transition from alternative rock to world music) and I attended my first Indian classical recital. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (santoor) and Zakir Hussain (tabla) headlined at the King Cat Theatre in Seattle. A few thousand Indians filled the theatre to the brim, and only a handful of Anglo-Americans were in attendance. I sat next to one, who thankfully was an expert on Indian classical music.

I received a comp to attend the recital if I reviewed it for World Music Central and my own website at the time Cranky Crow World Music. So I sat down waiting for the recital to begin. The musicians tuned their instruments on a carpeted-covered platform on the stage and then dove into the Alap section of the raga. Only I couldn’t tell when the tuning of the instruments stopped and the Alap began. Fortunately, the man sitting next to me explained the different sections of the raga, the gestures of the musicians, and other important information. While I realize my humble beginnings left me looking like a fool, experts were gracious enough to teach me the ropes. And I fell deeply in love with ragas with the knowledge that this music would play an important role in my life.

I currently have around 100 raga recordings in my music library, with the bulk of them coming from the Sense World Music label (an ambitious label with Indian classical superstars gracing it). I also have in my collection other types of music from India and Pakistan. Fusion projects had captured my attention in the past and I recall one night where I stayed up listening to “The Rain” by the Indian-Iranian fusion ensemble Ghazal. I also listened to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma’s “The Inner Path” (Sense World Music) late into the night and I found that both of these recordings took me to an ecstatic place.

The pleasure of listening to a raga on a hot summer night with a cool breeze coming through the window, silence all around, and stars blinking in the night sky falls into an otherworldly experience--blissful.  The only problem with listening to a raga is that it starts out slow and dreamy and builds to an exciting crescendo, so anyone listening to a raga thinking they're going to relax and fall asleep is in for a surprise.  In fact, you just stay up for the night unless you're able to meditate after the listening session.

Why Ragas?

Ragas made their debut in the United States before Ravi Shankar arrived on the scene and joined with the rock and pop musicians in the 1960s. However, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s arrival came during a time when a worldwide exploration of traditional music fueled by world travel, a search for ethnic diversity, and a peace movement. The baby boomer generation in particular, was all about discovery and exploration from music, to culture, to drugs (unfortunate). And thankfully, this huge generation (population-wise), opened the doors to musical cultures both in the States and abroad.

I’m not a member of this generation and I feel baffled when I try to figure it out, coming from a more pragmatic generation (we came of age during the Reagan era and just wanted to get jobs and be part of society as opposed to dropping out of it). But I’m grateful for all the music that the BB generation brought to my awareness including classical Indian music. Otherwise, I might still be listening to Duran Duran or the B-52’s (music of my generation).

While I’ve explored a variety of music from old-school flamenco and fados to music of indigenous people in far-off corners of the world, ragas offer complexity, sheer beauty, and excitement. I don’t know if it’s safe to make an analogy to sex, but ragas mirror lovemaking from the Alap which compares to foreplay or even flirtation to the Gat (improvisational section of the raga) with its speed, dexterity, climax, and resolution. Many ragas have a spiritual component too and you’ll find that ragas reflect on the Indian Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, but not always.  And I would hope that someone's religious affiliation wouldn't stop them from at least listening to one raga.  Think of the listening experience as cultural exchange.

Ragas provide music with intent and purpose with ragas composed for a specific season, mood, or time of day. It’s best to listen to the raga during the time of day and season it was intended. As a journalist reviewing ragas this isn’t always possible. I wouldn’t enjoy reviewing a late night raga at 4:00 a.m., but that doesn’t mean that I can’t listen to the raga at its correct time first and then listen to it again during a review session. However, ragas run on the longer side, often lasting 70 to 90 minutes from Alap to the final resolution.

Beat Cycles

The beat cycles of ragas baffles me. My sister and I attended an Indian music festival in Seattle one year and we sat through a workshop on beat cycles taught by a tabla master. I’ve never been good at math or mathematical concepts, but I understood when the musician broke the beats down into groups and we clapped along with him.  I even found the workshop fun and felt sad when it ended.

While I don’t want to jump on the causation bandwagon, I wonder if the reason Indians of India excel in math is because they learn beat cycles. I’m astounded how many Indian classical musicians are mathematicians or work in computer science. I’ve run into a few musicians (while reviewing CDs) that work as physicists too. So this leaves me wondering why children of the West aren’t introduced to Indian ragas and beat cycles at an early age. After all, they would learn music and culture appreciation while improving balanced brain skills.  Again my observation is not backed by any research on my part and is something that just leaves me guessing a connection.


I’ve tried to introduce my friends to classical Indian music with some degrees of success. While this music takes some concerted effort to understand and appreciate, attending a classical Indian music recital with an expert colleague or friend goes a long way in opening doors. While most of us in the West have some knowledge of European classical music (which can seem daunting to people who weren’t raised with it), the East has its classical music traditions too, from Chinese folkloric-classical and Chinese opera, to Persian classical and of course Indian ragas, to name a few.

I find it a pleasure to learn about traditional instruments and Indian classical music provides us with an array of timbres from a bass sitar to a bansuri flute. The tradition offers a variety of genres, and two systems which include Carnatic (Karnatic) from the South and Hindustani from the North. Similar to the West African griot tradition in which a musical class exists, the same is true for India where lineages of musical families and dynasties reach back to the 13th century Mongul court musicians and back further thousands of years for the Karnatic tradition which has a connection to the Hindu religion.  You'll also find western instruments such as guitar (slide guitar), saxophone, and violin incorporated into the Indian classical raga tradition.

Ragas go back at least 5,000 years when they were employed in the Ayurvedic tradition whereas European classical music is only a few hundred years old. Any music that has been with humanity for 5,000 years deserves consideration and appreciation. But I want to add that I find classical Indian ragas enticing, exhilarating (the virtuosic moments), and meditative (Alap). What other music can we listen to that was meant to be heard at a certain time of day, a specific season, or to convey a specific mood? Indigenous music comes close with its purpose and intent, but Indian classical ragas also entertain, and transport its listeners. The journey begins with the Alap and ends with the final resolution. And out of all the global music I’ve heard, Indian classical (along with Persian classical and traditions from the Arab world), combine sublime elements, with complexity, and I would guess a balanced brain experience.


I’m not making an argument for classical Indian ragas, but I send out an invitation to become acquainted with Indian classical music. More accessible than ever, you can find Indian ragas in specialty shops and at a various music websites (where you would normally purchase CDs). By attending world music festivals or university music concert programs, you will eventually encounter Indian classical music performers. And with yoga and Ayurvedic medicine capturing larger followings in the West, it’s time to explore a pleasurable raga journey.

I pulled these recordings out of my library for your consideration:

Kadri Gopalnath (Saxophone) and Rona Majumdar (Bansuri Flute)
Sense World Music

Ravi Shankar
Nine Decades, Vol. 1
East Meets West Music

Ajoy Chakrabarty (vocals)
Sense World Music

Ghazal (fusion)
The Rain

Shahid Parvez (Sitar) and Kumar Bose (Tabla)
Synergy (evening raga)
Sense World Music

Feel free to e-mail me if you for any specific types of raga recordings and I’ll do my best to give you recommendations.

Image from Wikipedia under "raga".

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