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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Raga musicians: a rare and valuable treat

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

This week, Brandeis welcomed three visiting musicians specializing in raga music, a form of Indian classical and folk music that uses templates to allow for improvisation rather than emphasizing specific compositions, and has also been long adapted into Afghani folk music. The trio is extremely diverse in origin, featuring Homayun Sakhi, a native of Kabul and the premier player of his generation; Ken Zuckerman, a Californian who has been playing raga music for 37 years; and Salar Nader, who is Afghani in descent but was born in Germany and raised in California, and is a leading performer of his instrument.

Their instruments, the rubab from Afghanistan and the sarod and tabla from India, are as beautiful in appearance as they are in sound. The rubab, a deep-voiced instrument, and the sarod, which produces a twangier sound, are stringed instruments with more strings than are easily countable, far more than one could find on a conventional Western instrument. The tabla, meanwhile, is a percussion instrument, a pair of drums that produce a wide array of sounds.

The three are performing several times this week, including meetings with classes across diverse departments, including Music, Anthropology and IGS, in addition to a preview Thursday night at The Rose. Their stay here will culminate in a concert this Saturday night. At only $5 for students, it is undoubtedly worthy of attendance and a remarkable chance to be exposed to a beautiful style of music that is widely unknown to American audiences.

Hearing these three musicians play together, it is almost incomprehensible that they have known each other for only one week. Because the raga style is based in templates and improvisation, it allows the three to unite in beautiful ways without actually having familiarity with each other’s specific music and despite the fact that they come from widely different places. They play in perfect sync, their sounds overlapping, responding and playing off of each other. It creates a remarkable performance, all the more so knowing that it is an improvisation based on classical templates. Listening to these three musicians is almost hypnotizing in it’s beauty.

Particularly of note is the clear passion in the performance. The musicians appear entirely engrossed in their art, focused but smiling at the audience and each other. There appeared an obvious passion and joy in the face of Homayun Sakhi, the most widely respected player of the rubab today. During one of the class meetings, I heard him speak briefly about being a musician under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The Taliban outlawed music entirely and mandated that instruments be destroyed. The regime said that music was impure and un-Islamic with the exception of vocal chants proclaiming the glory of the Taliban. With the fall of the Taliban in recent years, however, Sakhi told us that Afghani music is making a strong return to the lives of the public, a remark on its beauty and cultural importance.

Another interesting aspect about this particular style of music and performance is that the musicians sit on the ground, the instruments in their laps or on the floor. This is highly unlike traditional western concepts of performance, where musicians stand above the audience on a raised stage, separated from the public. Having the performers on the ground, at the same level as those who come to listen to their music, aids in the listening experience. It fosters greater connection between the musicians and their captivated audience.

The opportunity we have been given here at Brandeis to be exposed to this style of music is not something to be taken lightly. It was surprising to me that the musicians did not all grow up in this musical tradition, particularly in the case of Ken Zuckerman, who is American-born and apparently of European descent, but who has long been an important figure in the genre. This is a demonstration of the music’s power and pervasiveness. It is capable of drawing listeners and players from cultures far removed from its birthplace.

Though raga may seem at first foreign or strange to many of those that will hear it here at Brandeis this week, it is nonetheless an experience that is culturally valuable and, more importantly, truly enjoyable. Enjoying the sounds of the visiting raga trio requires setting aside your ideas about how the performance of instrumental music ought to be.