Today, ragas come in many guises, from pure and sacred to pop and jazz fusion. A variety of young talent emerges from India these days blending raga traditions from the South and North of the Subcontinent. Western instruments were introduced as well, such as the saxophone and slide guitar, though the Indian slide guitar is different in that it contains sympathetic strings much like an Indian sarod or sitar. Any fan of world music has come across Indian ragas in one form or another.
I pulled out a random stack of CDs from my Indian music collection. You can use these recordings as a jumping off point or you can visit a public library and check out raga compilation albums. Rough Guide has a few and I believe Putumayo has at least one compilation featuring ragas. You can also check out local Indian classical music performers in your region and most likely, can purchase recordings from those musicians. So, here is my short list.
1. Shastriya Syndicate, Syndicated, Sense World Music
This collection of young musicians from North and South India provides an innovated set of short ragas. These ragas do not start with an Alap and end with the composition/improvisation, but are in fact, the composition. Extremely modern sounding, you will not only find the ragas here pleasurable, but you will also encounter some phenomenal young musicians.
2. Desert Slide (a Sense World Music Collective featuring Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Musicians of Rajasthan), Sense World Music.
This is Indian desert music with gorgeous Indian slide guitar and passionate Rajasthan gypsy vocals. Again, the sound is modern and the ragas fall on the shorter, more radio-friendly side. Personally, I love this CD.
3. Autorickshaw, Four Higher, Independent Release-Canada
I first saw Autorickshaw at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2003. When this Indian music-jazz fusion band launched into Duke Ellington's Caravan, I was hooked. This recording, (the band's second), features Caravan, A Night in Tunisia, and ragas. It's as modern as it gets. American jazz and Indian ragas flow well together, both relying heavily on improvisation and musicians connecting with each other.
4. Tarun Bhattacharya, The Art of the Indian Santoor, Arc Music
This particular recording acts as an introduction to raga and to the Indian zither, santoor. You will hear actual ragas starting with the Alap and ending with the composition. You could always start with this recording if you're new to ragas.
5. Shweta Jhaveri, anahita, Intuition Music and Media
My immersion into Indian ragas did not come without some embarrassing moments. Anahita was one of the first Indian classical recordings I reviewed for World Music Central. I had read misinformation that khayals, a vocal genre of ragas were light classical, but in fact, this is a serious form of raga that takes much talent and vocal dexterity. Shweta Jhaveri set me straight on that and I thank her for this gift.
The biggest mistake a music reviewer can make is to fall into a trap of arrogance. There is much to learn in exploring music from other cultures and humility is an asset. This album features khayals in a modern setting because Jhaveri worked with western musicians. And by the way, take a listen to Jhaveri's lovely vocals, not to mention her dedication to classical Indian vocal music.
6. Kaushiki Chakrabarty, Pure, Sense World Music
If you seek young vocal talent from India, look no further than this single disc, by the daughter of Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, a phenomenal classical Indian vocalist. Kaushiki's vocals wowed the BBC radio programmers and will wow you. In fact, if you seek Indian classical vocals with pyrotechnics, this is one is for you. These are complete ragas sung in khayal and thumri.
7. Ronu Majumdar, Jewels of India, Sense World Music
If you seek a bansuri flute (an Indian bamboo flute) recording by a master, then give a listen to Jewels of India. I have several recordings by Ronu Majumdar and all are equally pleasurable listens. This particular recording features evening ragas.
If you are not familiar with ragas, each raga portrays a specific time of day, season, or mood. I find it best to listen to each ragas during its proper time so I would listen to this disc during the evening. I learned that if I don't listen to a raga at its designated time or season, I do not experience its full effect.
8. Debashish Bhattacharya, Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Riverboat Records/World Music Network
If guitar and slide guitar are your favorite instruments, then you'll love this recording. Debashish designs and constructs his Indian slide guitars, and on this album, he performs ragas on three sizes of slide guitars. The ragas are both accessible to new listeners and pleasurable to listen to. I also find this album relaxing and I sampled from it for a music for doshas workshop I taught in 2009.
9. Amjad Ali Khan, Moksha, Real World Records
In classical Indian music duets are called jugalbandi and on this recording, father and sons perform ragas on sarod, a type of instrument I cannot even begin to describe, but similar to the sitar has sympathetic strings that vibrate under the struck notes. The instrument is a member of the lute family and reminds me of an Indian banjo. The ragas here fall on the short and accessible side. Again, this is a good starter CD for new raga listeners.
10. Ravi Shankar, Nine Decades, Volume 1, East Meets West Music-Harmonia Mundi
While Pandit Ravi Shankar, the most popular proponent of classical Indian music performs ragas in their purest form, he also has performed and composed for movie soundtracks, orchestras, and collaborated with musicians from the West. You cannot listen to Indian ragas and not give a thorough listen to Ravi Shankar's raga performances. It's almost as if, to truly understand the language of ragas, you need to listen to the Indian classical masters. If you want to hear a long raga starting with the meditative Alap and ending with the fiery Gat, then give a listen to track 1, Raga Gangeshwari (recorded in 1968 and running 48 minutes). If this raga does not grab your attention, nothing will. It's a river raga for the Gange.