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Born This Day
Louis Armstrong and Steve Andrews.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

You can’t play that music tonight, that music belongs to the morning!

(By Ann Alex).
And that restriction, jazzers, is one of the rules about playing Indian ragas, as I learned when attending the lecture about South Asian music, at the Sage on Tuesday this week, given by Prof. David Clarke of Newcastle University.  This was an interesting and fascinating illustrated talk.  I'll try to convey the information given, though I'm no expert.  Jazz musicians will identify with some of the ideas behind this form of music.
Prof. Clarke was discussing Northern Indian classical music, known as Hindustani music.  Rather than our formal written classical music, this is ‘mood’ music with a certain ‘feel’, hence the rule that certain pieces or ‘Ragas’ can only be played at certain times of the day.  The music is improvised within a set structure and most musicians are able to play about 100 ragas, although there are 1000s in existence.  The music isn't normally written down except for teaching purposes.  No two performances of the same raga will be identical.
First, the drone is set up, played on a 4 stringed instrument. We were told that this is played by stroking each string as you'd stroke a lover!  The drone plays throughout the piece and can be produced electronically.  Then comes the main instrument, often a sitar or the voice, and the raga is established by playing the relevant notes for that raga from the scale.  The note names are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni.  After some time, possibly 5 or so minutes of playing, the two tabla drums begin repeating their pattern of 12 or 16 notes, called Thekas, as appropriate for the raga.  There is improvisation by the sitar and drums, although the drums have to be subtle.  The raga proceeds through the various sections, often ending with very fast tabla playing.  How do the musicians know when to begin a new section?  Prof Clarke said ‘They just know!’  This must sound familiar to jazz musicians.
If someone is singing the raga, the words are either religious or romantic, or sometimes both combined.  I recently heard a raga performance and the music reminded me of Western minimalist classical music, say that of Philip Glass, but more complex.  Apparently the ethos of ragas is in the background of lots of Indian music, including popular music.  I was fascinated by this talk which has demystified an unfamiliar type of music.  There is more information about performances at
Ann Alex.

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