Ragas Live Festival at Pioneer Works

by Diane McLure

Red Hook Star Revue (August 2016)

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WHETHER YOU ARE A DEVOTES STUDENT OF RAGAS, Indian Classical Music, an avid admirer, or a casual listener who has simply heard it streaming out of yoga studio sound systems, the Ragas Live Festival, now in its fifth year, is an awesome joy to behold.
Mesmerizing in its annual 24-hour continuous labyrinth of aural pleasure, this year’s program broke new ground; its presentation live at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Epic in its scope, the festival has streamed live in-studio performances by connoisseurs of Indian Classical Music for 24 hours straight, once per year, on New York’s WKCR 89.9 since its inception in 2012.

Created by musician, producer and radio host David Ellenbogen with Brooklyn Raga Massive, HarmoNYom,
Chhandayan and several other community partners, this year’s festival, supported by the Rubin Museum of Art, featured 24 sets of music and over 70 musicians performing live in Pioneer
Works’ cavernous main gallery.

Ragas Live’s international following could tune in, as usual, in real time via partner media outlets www.wkcr.org , NYC Radio Live Podcast and Radio Al Farouk 89.0 Timbuktu.

According to festival materials, “The beauty of Indian Classical Music and the Raga system around which it developed is that it is closely tied to the rhythms of nature.”

Ragas can be understood as musical modes or essences that are associated with the mood of a specific time of day or season. Each raga is meant tobe played at a particular time in order to color the mind and feelings with its fullest essence.

Arriving at 3:30 am and blending into melodic cyclical rhythms over the next several hours, I was graced by
the Sohini Paraj (pre-dawn), Bhatiyar Lalit (dawn) and Bhairav Ramakali Jogia (early morning) hours of music
from the Raga Samaya System.

Amidst a multi-tiered stage draped in textiles, candlelight, a dozen or so Persian rugs and seating, an intimate group of festivalgoers sprawled out on carpets below massive picture windows as musicians created a meditative atmosphere for quiet listening.

The festival lineup included traditional Ragas as well as fusion experiments that embraced a community of musicians and a variety of instruments including: Sitar, Tabla, Mridangam
(India), Cello (Italy), Kora (West Africa), Djembe (West Africa), Bansuri (South Asia), Harmonium (Europe/America), and vocals from a variety of artists.

At 3:30 am, Kane Mathis and Roshni Samlal of the duo Orakel, an electroacoustic project, were seated on the stage floor playing Tabla and Kora.

Peaceful, cascading, vibrant melodies caressed the room gracefully mingling with the mood of a deep balmy night on the verge of dawn.

A fusion interdisciplinary group, Orakel explored the intersections of West African Mandinka Kora patterns
and classical Indian rhythmic cycles of the Tabla. Mindful of maintaining the integrity of the musical vocabularies
of each culture, the duo creates new compositions grounded in points of similarity within the two art forms.

The following two sets, from 4 am to 5 am and 5 am to 6 am, featured Tabla player Shivalik Ghoshal. The former was a fusion set featuring Adam Maalouf on Hand Pans, the latter a
traditional classical raga set featuring Deepal Chodari on Santoor, a first timer at the festival.

Pioneer Works outdoor garden space offered a welcome sensory shift to cool moonlit air, a handful of city starlight
and a sculpted green landscape.

With one speaker seamlessly streaming music, listeners could digest the timeless sounds reverberating in the atmosphere, accompanied if they wished, by food, drinks and a city
view from an elevated sky deck.

Enveloped in morning twilight, with a smaller amount of attendees in session, listeners could spread out and immerse themselves in an internal knowing and reading of sound.

The music’s intrinsic beauty amplified with 21st century technology seemed to permeate within and without simultaneously; an experience, perhaps, akin to the vibrancy of silent meditation.

Tabla player Ghoshal described morning ragas as deeper emotionally, and often times more serious. Acknowledging
the clear rules of ragas, he noted, “You don’t go outside the
rules, but it’s infinite what you can do within the rules.”

Similar to jazz, each raga is open to interpretation. How a musician introduces it and moves in between the notes is unique each time.

The melodic aesthetics of speed became evident after listening to Ghoshal’s skills on the tabla alongside Maalouf. His ‘shredding’ showcased the meticulous precision it takes to
move up and down scales with rhythmic artistry at the speed of light. A staggering compliment to the muted
steel drum sound of Maalouf’s Hand Pans; an instrument created circa 2000.

Showing his dexterity, Ghoshal moved into quieter accompaniment with Chodari, and had to improvise
spur of the moment when invited to play last minute with a new group of musicians earlier in the day.

Sunrise at Ragas Live 2016 was celebrated with Hindustani classical vocalist, Samarth Nagarkar. Surrounded by four musicians, all seated, Nagarkar’s exploration of each note and lyric expanded and dissected single moments of sound.

Passionate gesticulations with his upper body and hands to accentuate notes added to his full-bodied expression and performance for a bright morning crowd.

Running a festival from 12 noon to 12 noon while managing a live broadcast would be a challenge for anyone. A about 8 am, David Ellenbogen just smiled when asked if he would run
the festival live and in person again next year.

In retrospect, a few days later, he had this to say, “This festival is really a testament to the power of community: over a hundred kindred spirits came together, made beautiful music
and beamed it out to the world for 24 hours. The musicians found the audience and setting of Pioneer Works to
be incredibly inspiring.”

Of the morning music set he also noted, “There is an ideal music for each time of the day, so for us to experience a devotional sunrise raga at first light  is a rare, harmonizing, immersive, holistic experience. “ Something truly aligned with this year’s festival theme: peace, music and global community.

Until next year, and another round of this one-of-a-kind immersive, sensory and vitalizing experience, listeners can find all of the previous Ragas Live Festivals archived on the world music podcast, NYC Radio Live.