In The Eternal Now
Ragas Live Festival 2022
October 22 – 23, 2022
The weekend of the renewed Ragas Live Festival, Taylor Swift’s new album, Midnights, also dropped. The two are connected because in a fundamental way all music making is connected, but in a much more salient way because the album—and pop music as a whole—and ragas—and related traditions as a whole—are two opposing ways to solve the same problem; how to establish an expressive link to the listener so that they experience what the musician wants them to experience? Do we reduce this experience to a neat and shallow simulation that you can put in the pocket or wear like a badge on your jacket, or do we create a world, invite the listener in, and trust them to find their own way to truth and pleasure? Does a musician tell the listener what to feel, or give the listener a world in which to be themselves?
Swift, as a pop music superstar, cannot fail, she can only be failed—either love her or be a hater. As middling as Midnights is, its presence revived the popist attitude in music critics in mainstream and prestige publications that middling is the point, the goal, that middling should be celebrated. Midnights is about as mid as it gets, with its narrowly confined mood, melodic and harmonic range, sonic palette, tempos, rhythms, dynamics, and text. The lyrics almost all rhyme, and the words have an obvious appeal to adolescents who are still navigating the complications of self-awareness, relationships, public and private facings. This is not a bad thing; it’s something that’s useful and meaningful to a lot of listeners, but it is confining and reductive, and it’s also worrisome that ostensibly adult, mature critics identify with and praise this kind of thing as an artistic achievement. But it can be tough to see past the dollar signs.
That was in the mind the minute Ragas Live kicked off at Pioneer Works with the first set, in a non-stop, twenty-four-hour program; veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan playing a lovely collection of traditional ragas and her own developments from them. Ragas are ancient but they’re not—the music falls outside of Western assumptions of linear time and an accumulation of so-called progress, it has been made, learned, and relearned for generations, and so is always new, whether it’s a raga that has been played for one hundred years or was first heard the day before.
That fundamental alone is freeing. A pop song has to get to a final point, a cadence of some kind, but a raga can just go until the musicians have decided they’ve played it enough; the time it takes to say something is all the time that’s needed. This way is not necessarily better than the Western way, but the Western way is not the only way. The problem of expressing something through music has more than one solution. That’s good for all us humans.
Also good was the range of this year’s festival, which came as a surprise both after Ranganathan’s set and after a decade of previous festivals, first on the air from WKCR and, since 2016, at Pioneer Works. Ragas were followed immediately by the kora and tabla duo of Orakel, then by a set from Boundless by vocalist Sid Sriram. The kora and tabla, playing bright, circular patterns, were an easy and natural fit into the raga tradition; Boundless was more radical. Sriram began with a Carnatic vocal improvisation, seated at the front of the stage. Electric guitar gradually folded itself into and underneath, then another came in. The group added rhythm, Sriram extended his vocals and began to form words, and pretty soon it was a pounding, thrilling heavy metal set. The distance covered by the first twenty minutes might have been a whole universe, but the journey was not only smooth but logical, a musical wormhole bridging cultures.
That was what host David Ellenbogen kept getting at from different angles as he spoke to the crowd during stage change-overs. Ellenbogen is a guitarist and the former artistic director of Brooklyn Raga Massive, the band and organization that is the platform on which Ragas Live stands, and also presents the Indian music show on WKCR. From the stage, he talked about traditions, not specific ones like raga or Malian music, but the fundamental idea of trance music traditions, music from across the globe that shares structural elements like drones and circular patterns, and that is usually passed along orally, but that has the main goal of focusing the attention on the present moment. That may be a religious ceremony or a social ritual, it may be a time of day or a season, but the music is meant to fill the now. It may bring about all sorts of feelings, but that’s up to the listener—the aesthetic and expressive purpose is completely different than pop music, with its goal to capture a memory or an aspiration and put it into a discrete, succinct package.
Ragas Live 2022 did, in fact, reach into pop music territory in unexpected ways, which had some charm but in the end were the least memorable hours. Boundless was followed by a group led by percussionist Cyro Baptista and featuring keyboardist Brian Marsella. Superb musicians, they are also veterans of John Zorn’s ensembles, and there was less pulse and flow in their set and more of the jump-cut, cartoon music mania that Zorn favors, a style that has become its own tradition of replacing one now with another then another then another in a compulsive amphetamine-like succession. The aesthetic change from feeling free of the clock to having every second underlined was jarring.
The opening Saturday evening had a full, tightly packed crowd, easily the largest that has shown up for this event. Some people bobbed their heads, others danced, others tranced. A contingent was prepared to be there all night, with yoga pads, bedrolls, pillows, loose clothes, and a warm, mellow demeanor. The crowd thinned into the night, which brought sets that alternated between traditional playing from musicians like Manik Khan and Sudhakar Vaidyanathan, playing a tribute to Ali Akbar Khan, and experiments like the saxophone and analog synth set from Kroba.
Perhaps the most ravishing single set was that from bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, playing at 9:30 Sunday morning. Gandhi is one of the great contemporary bansuri players, and his fantastic phrasing and subtle, detailed, expressive inflections were deeply beautiful and full of variety while never leaving the context of the raga. He kept it true while also expanding it into places few others can take it.
There was more traditional music Sunday, including Vinay Desai playing the santoor (a hammered string instrument in the dulcimer family) and vocalist Hamid Al Saadi. One reach into trance traditions outside of India, the solo set from Amir ElSaffar playing trumpet and working with analog electronics, didn’t work, as ElSaffar never went deep enough into either tradition or modernism, instead passing back and forth between them. But Samir LanGus’s Gnawa ensemble was right in the deep trance pocket. Even a long technical disruption couldn’t shake the feeling LanGus was delivering, which was full of bursting life and roots that seemed to dig into deep time. In the context of the trance traditions, Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic jazz trio, usually scintillating, sounded surprisingly staid. The playing was excellent, but with solos coming and going, one again was pushed out of the feeling of the eternal now, and missed it.
The final set was again something unusual but in this case also profoundly traditional: Parvathy Baul performed out of her lineage of mystic folk music (Baul) from Bengal. Baul music has Hindu and Sufi elements, tells stories in the folk tradition, and expresses mystical feelings. This is a unique, tremendous live experience. Just seeing her perform is astonishing enough, singing and dancing while also playing a monochord with one hand and tapping a drum with the other—both instruments strapped to her body. The music that came out of this, regardless of the language, was the kind of storytelling that encircled the crowd and brought them into another world, the world of the now, eternal, timeless, and true. Whatever one might find in that world, Baul left up to the listener.