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".

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In review--Oily Birds Two-Stepping in Cajun Country

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys
Grand Isle

The oil-crusted bird that appears on the cover of Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys’ latest recording, Grand Isle is that picture that tells a story of 1,000 words. The image of the bird’s feathers smothered in oil as it stands in a puddle of petroleum mirrors the “survivor joy” that the Cajun band peppers throughout its press notes. But if you’re expecting Louisiana-style laments you won’t find many on this recording that sounds swampy while blending honky-tonk with 2-stepping Cajun fare. The band closes the recording with melancholy fiddle and vocals on the song, Au revoir (and that's the extent of sadness on the recording).

According to the press notes, the Mamou Playboys took a small and intimate route with this recording, and the tracks were recorded at several locations with both modern and vintage audio and production coming into the mix. While this music might sound celebratory on the surface, it appears only to promote the concept of survivor joy, and even if happy feet feel like dancing, we’re reminded that on April 20, 2010, 4.9 million barrels of petroleum/oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. And once again, the people of the Gulf region, including Louisiana (which was already devastated by the wake of Hurricane Katrina), was dealt another blow.

But if you still feel like dancing, there’s plenty of musical variety on this recording from an old-style rock ballad Non, Je regretted rien, to Waltz of Sorrow, to the Cajun two-stepping Lyons Point (just listen to Steve Riley’s accordion), to the foot stomping Pierre (my favorite on the CD). I’m not sure the reason why the band released this album as an independent and I hope it receives the radio airplay it deserves. It will be many decades before we forget the oily mess that took place in the Gulf of Mexico last year, and hopefully Grand Isle will stick around for decades too.  And maybe decades from now, we will have broken our addiction to oil and taken up dancing instead. and

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In review: Life's a Cabaret

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble
The Tide Has Changed
World Village

Israeli Jewish multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble wake the senses with the album The Tide Has Changed. On the opening track I expected Liza Minnelli to appear working up a rendition of Cabaret. But this cabaret feel is short lived as the band launches into the saxophone-lead titular track. And Atzmon’s saxophone, like so many saxophones these days, raises John Coltrane’s spirit from the dead. This shouldn’t surprise anyone since Coltrane delved into the Far East exotic even performing Arabic modes on his horn and the UK-based OHE marries Middle Eastern music with American-style jazz.

The Tide Has Changed reminds me of saxophone Anat Cohen’s work, she also combines Coltrane-esque saxophone with Jewish musical motifs and tosses in Afro-Latin jazz. I’m not sure what to call this musical mosaic, but let me coin the phrase, “world jazz”. OHE combines sax, clarinet, accordion with piano, xylophone, electric piano (Frank Harrison), double-bass (Yaron Stavi), and kit drum (Eddie Hick). Guest vocalist Tali Atzman brings her sensual voice to several tracks.

I find the recording versatile and diverse allowing the many moods of these musicians to come into play. One moment the musicians engage in a circus-style romp, and then the next moment, the pace slows down considerably as the musicians launch into ethereal jazz. And the slower tracks are the ones that grab my heart. And So Have We and the jazzy rendition of Ravel’s Bolero (Bolero at Sunrise) offer a nice respite. Since Ravel endorsed American jazz during his time, I wonder if he’d feel flattered to hear this slow and dreamy version of his infamous work.

The album ends like it begins, on a frolic, We Laugh. The crossover recording shows off each of the musician’s skills, but mostly it highlights Atzmon’s talent as a player, composer, and arranger. The reed player brings the world to your doorstep. And remember the words, “Life is a cabaret, my friend.” Certainly it applies here.,

In review--Music for a Brave New World

Mamadou Diabate
World Village

The old year has barely turned over and already the stunning fifth recording, Courage by Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate, arrived on the scene. Following his Grammy Award winning Douga Mansa (2009), the new recording leans towards a fuller more contemporary sound. The kora pairs up with ngoni (Malian banjo), balaphone, calabash and djembe. The playing here is fiery one minute with rapid notes of the kora glimmering over the top of the other instruments, and ethereal on some tracks. Yet, even those ethereal moments find themselves locked in a West African groove. 

A West African griot, Diabate walks the talk, and though the songs are instrumental, the musician punctuates his liner notes with morality lessons and tributes. On the track Bogna, Diabate offers these wise words about music in general, “Respect is the healing medicine of peace. Peace is the healing medicine of love. Love is the healing medicine of life. Life is the healing medicine of hope.” The musician believes in delivering positive messages in his music and just hearing this collaborative effort brings a smile to my face.

Diabate cites in the press notes something I feel like quoting because it speaks to my heart. “I believe that the problems you receive from the outside are not supposed to be part of your music or your soul. I believe that music is a good thing to heal people’s spirit. So you have to write good songs from that place…I don’t like songs that have bad meaning…” Perhaps it is this sentiment combined with the sheer beauty of Malian music that has turned my head in the direction of that West African nation--poor economically, but wealthy in musical expression.  Any sensitive person can't help but to fall in love with Malian music.

In that regard, Courage sounds like an embarrassment of riches and fans of this type of music will feel like they’re basking in the lap of musical luxury. First we’re treated to masterful kora that is combined with virtuoso playing all around. The four musicians create music that resonates throughout the body with the shimmering notes of sounding off the kora, followed by the bubbly sound of the balaphone and locked down by acoustic bass, and percussion. The track Humanity ripples off the disc, then is greeted by the radiant track Macky where you can hear the slapping sound of the calabashes and bass framing the kora grooves. 

But Kita Djely, dedicated to Diabate's birth town, stands out as my favorite on the album.  It's hard to sit here and type this review with that song playing.  It reminds me of a saying by Samite, "In Africa if you don't dance to the music, you insult the musicians."

I realize that the year has only begun, but already I’m wondering what other musical gems are in store. Will this be a year of musical masters uplifting us from the doldrums? When you hear music this beautiful played by humanity for humanity, you can’t help but garner hope for a better future.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Article Re-Print: The Kids Are Alright (School Music Program)

Kids Got the Groove: LaVenture Middle School Music Programs Offer Students Opportunities

Originally published on World Music Central, 2010.  Whole Music Experience supports music for early childhood development and K-12.  In this support you will find more article reprints and reviews with this focus on this blog.

Although society benefits from a high-tech world, many K-12 school districts in the US have placed a greater emphasis on math and science skills, than on the arts and music so that students will be able to compete in the high-tech work environment. Some of the smaller school districts lack music programs and other schools that do provide musical programs, do so with a tight and shaky budget in the current economy.

Research presented in books by Neurologist Daniel Levitan (This is Your Brain on Music), and Don Campbell’s 1997 book, The Mozart Effect that musical training in early childhood improves learning skills, especially in math and language. Introducing school children to music appreciation and musical training helps them deal with stress and gives them a positive, creative outlet to express themselves. Give children the beats and keep them off the streets would be a healthy motto to adopt.

LaVenture Middle School (LVMS) in Mount Vernon, Washington provides a variety of creative opportunities for its students including an in-school radio station, a jazz ensemble and 8th grade concert band, among other music outlets, including a world drumming class.

The school’s March 2010 newsletter mentioned a recording project for the LaVenture 8th Grade Concert Band and LaVenture Jazz Ensemble. Spearheaded by LVMS Music Director Amy McFeely, a professional musician, the concert band and jazz ensemble will each record 5 pieces at Binary Recording Studio in nearby Bellingham.

Though not selected yet, the 8th Grade Concert Band’s repertoire will include a classic march, classical overture, contemporary and a percussion “street band” piece. The Jazz Ensemble’s repertoire will include standard swing, dance tunes and contemporary funk. Both bands are scheduled to record their repertoire on March 25 and spend the day at the recording studio, receiving a small taste of the music industry. And the entire process engages the students in selecting material, recording it and then selling the CDs.

The studio and staff offered the recording facilities to the students and donated partial time for recording and mastering the CDs. According to McFeely, “Binary was recommended to me by Vince Fejeran, another musician in the valley (Skagit Valley). I can’t say enough good things about Bob Ridgley (Binary Recording Studio), and his support of young musicians!”

According to the school’s newsletter, “Due to time and budget constraints, the students must complete nearly ‘one cut’ process on each piece with no opportunity to ‘cut and paste’ tracks. The entire day is a test of focus, endurance and controlling nerves while ignoring the microphone directly in front of their instruments.”

McFeely has been taking her music students into a recording studio environment for a decade and the Mount Vernon School District has provided musical training for much longer. According to the music director, “Our CD project began in 2001. Mount Vernon schools have had school band programs since the earlier part of the 20th century. I don’t when they started, but I do know we just celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the All-City Band Festival in May 2009. I started the middle school jazz program however, in 1997, my first year as director of bands at LaVenture.”

Her work with some of the students began in their elementary school days and for some of them, this recording project is a culmination of 4 years of studying in the LaVenture Band program. “My 8th graders make a recording every year. I’ve had some of my students since they were 5th graders in my beginning band program. Some students started band at Centennial Elementary.”

The LVMS student recordings are available to friends and family through presale only, from April 5-16th, for $15. Proceeds from the CD sales offset the bands’ touring and recording costs. Prior to the recording session, LaVenture Bands Spring Showcase Concert, featuring several of the school’s bands, including the 8th Grade Concert Band and the Jazz Ensemble, will be presented on Thursday, March 18th at 7:00 p.m. (See school contact information below).

McFeely encourages contributions to keep the band program humming along. “If people would like to donate to help all students have access to wonderful musical opportunities they can send a check made out to ‘LaVenture Bands.’ We are always on the lookout for gently used instrument donations that will allow a musical opportunity for our students whose families cannot afford an instrument.”

Also see:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Essay: Vibration Series Pt. 3--Tuning into Your Music Needs

Vibration Series: PT Three—Tuning in to Your Musical Self

The way it works with Whole Music is that I need to experience concepts of music in my life before presenting them on the blog. I also wait for information to either crop up in my subconscious (including nightly dreams), or through synchronicity (I receive an album in the mail, or find the information I need on the internet). The latest information for this 3-part series focuses on tuning into yourself and asking yourself what your musical needs are at any given moment.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot of anger and powerlessness. I realize I’m not alone in feeling this way, but anger, especially the kind that rumble like a volcano ready to erupt, frightens me. Here I am talking about spiritual concepts to others and going on about world peace, when I feel this darkness inside my body. I have felt bombarded with bad news from every front which has also left me with a feeling of hopelessness.

So having felt this way, I decided that I’m going to walk my talk and apply music to every aspect of my life. I learned about tuning in and listening to not just my heart, but my soul. Yesterday when I felt angry about another workshop cancellation, when I felt helpless and so frustrated that I almost started banging my head against a wall (I was slipping on the rail metaphorically speaking), I had this intuition to put on some West African music and dance.

I did that. I played Habib Koite and Bamada’s “Afriki” and I danced my heart out. By the second song, I didn’t feel anger, and in fact, I just felt ecstatic. So I kept dancing. Then I thought that I would get my guitar out and practice some of my songs, (which is rare these days). And that felt good too. And then after that, I listened to more African music. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I felt better. My appetite came back and I didn’t feel that rush of energy ready to explode. In fact I felt at peace.

You might wonder why I’m sharing all of this vulnerable stuff with you. Since we’re all human and we all respond to sound vibrations, I think my experiences promote the healing power of music. I don’t have a music therapist here telling me to listen to a certain kind of music or in a certain way. I’m simply following the flow of my intuitive thoughts. I’m listening to that deeper part of myself and asking it what its musical needs are and then fulfilling those needs. And this is something that anyone on this planet can do, from humming, drumming, dancing, or joining with others in song. And I believe that is why we have had this relationship with music from the get-go because without music, we have nothing to calm that wild beast inside us. Music pacifies us, music nourishes our cells, and music has the power (when used correctly) to heal this entire planet.

But that healing starts with you. You are responsible for your audio environment. You are responsible for your journey into music consciousness. You are responsible for the words, thoughts, and sounds you send out into the world which ripple out to either spread love or destruction. Just like I was responsible for my anger and frustration and turned to music to cleanse those emotions from my mind and body. And I’m not someone who has never fought with depression, despair, hatred, hostility or fear. I’ve battled with those emotions just as anyone has, and I’m not in denial that I feel those things. I lived in the dark night of the soul for most of my life, not just one period. And for me music is not just entertainment, but my soul reason for existing on this planet. Yeah, it’s that powerful. The spiritual experience, the real kind, involves every emotion, and the balancing of forces. A spiritual path isn’t for the timid, but warriors who carry swords of truth. I’ve known darkness, but I have learned to appreciate the light because of my experiences.

When I was in my twenties I identified with the Greek legendary figure Persephone (the maiden abducted by Pluto and taken to Hades). I also identified with the Indian Goddess Kali because you can’t have creation without destruction. When you live close to the seasons and observe the natural world the way I do, you see the cycle of destruction and creation (I also have transiting Pluto conjunct my rising sign and opposite my natal Sun at this time).

While I eventually returned to a peaceful state of mind, my anger led me to make some important changes in my life. When I tuned into those African poly rhythms and let my body follow them in the form of dance, I realized that every emotion has a purpose, but staying in a place of anger for a long period of time is going to cause major health problems. But judging emotions is going to cause health problems too.

I don’t believe that taking anger to music itself is a healthy practice and I think ranting musically just spreads bad vibes in the world. Some people tell me this is a cathartic experience, but as a former rock musician (who did her share of ranting), I disagree. I’m paying off my karmic debt for those performances. I didn’t feel better after ranting, I felt worse and suffered from depression during that entire time I performed rock music. (Why pass negative energy around like a contagious virus?)

However, I think dancing to more uplifting music, singing more uplifting music, or just listening to it, balance emotions and clears the thoughts. When we reach a place of clarity then we can make whatever changes we need to make in our lives. Focus on the solution and not the problems, like I have done. And don’t let all the bad news of the world derail you like it did for me yesterday and on other days.

This is about tuning into your own consciousness and listening to your inner needs. How do you achieve this? Musicians already know how to do this and are gifted with this talent, and that’s how they are able to compose music. But non-musicians might not have experience with this level of sensitivity, not yet anyway. So in that regard when you find yourself overwhelmed with emotions, ask yourself this series of questions and then follow the instructions you receive, even if they make you feel self-conscious.

Why am I feeling these emotions?

What am I feeling exactly?

What action would help me release these emotions in a healthy way?

(This could include going for a jog, or walk, dancing or yoga).

What type of music do I crave at the moment that I know would bring me peace of mind?

(This is where it comes in handy to have a set of recordings that you know uplift or relaxes your mind).

Then the next step is to experiment.

Maybe dancing to African music works on one day and on another day you need to listen to an Indian raga and still on another day you need to listen to a favorite jazz record in which you can sing along or maybe you feel like connecting to the earth through indigenous chants. There might be some days where nothing seems to work and in that case you might need to employ energy healing (if you know how to do self-healing) or seek professional help.

There’s no doubt about it, we are living in a time of intense polarities. When you reach a place of love and light, you need to anchor these experiences in your center. We are bombarded with dark forces on a regular basis and it’s not a bad idea to avoid violent movies, television, the news, and other media that can throw you off center. Meditating is good for finding peace, but that peace will only last so long through the day and anything can throw you off course. So tune into your music needs and satisfy them as often as possible. Nourish your soul with music that possesses loving intent. Think of it as a hug from a loving mother, and think of it as giving love back to Mother Earth. Raise your vibration and raise awareness in the world. John Lennon was right, “All you need is love…”

List of Activities that Release Stuck Emotions:

Singing, chanting, toning
Walking while listening to music (on a portable player with low volume)
Listening to the blues, fados, flamenco, tango, and other cathartic music (not listening to screaming, screaching guitars etc which are just hard on the nerves)

Types of Music that Provide Comfort:

Kora (griot) music
Harp music
Chopin (nocturnes)
Mozart (slower pieces, usually in a minor key)
Classical guitar or chamber music
Sound healing recordings