Variety is the Spice of North Indian Music

I attended three excellent concerts in past last week, each featuring a different side of North Indian music: the irresistible Kiran Ahluwalia, the wonderful sarodist Annette Bauer, and the fabulous Kronos Quartet teaming up with the virtuoso pipa player Wu Man and the legendary Asha Bhosle. 

Kiran Ahluwalia is a refreshing voice, both musically and in the way she speaks about the ghazals and Punjabi folk music she performs. She also has stamina. She and her excellent band played two substantial sets at Ashkenaz in Berkeley last Thursday night, after Kiran did more than an hour of “lecture – demonstration” about the history and nature of the ghazal form, and about her somewhat innovative approach to composition and presentation.

Kiran Ahluwalia Kiran's Emsemble

The “lecture –demonstration” portion of the evening was given in conversation with the equally irrepressible Dore Stein, host of Tangents on KALW. Apperantly, Ashkenaz received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to present a series of these pre-concert lectures they are calling “Taproots: cultivating world music” in order to foster a deeper audience appreciation of the culturally diverse music they often host. The program deserves both enthusiastic applause and community support.

So, incidentally, does Kiran. She brings a clean, sweet voice to her ghazals, as well as a modern sensibility in composition, arrangement, and selection of poetic text. If her ghazals are sumptuous, the Punjabi folk songs she sings are, of course, exuberant. Both were terrific. It’s a good thing for all of us that Kiran ditched her career as a bond trader to become a recording artist.

Annette Bauer is a student of the incomparable sarodist Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and gave a wonderful house concert in Half Moon Bay on Sunday evening. Annette gave substantial attention to explaining the ragas and talas she played, and speaking in general about the development of Hindustani classical music. Her improvisations were well-structured and nicely nuanced – and there’s nothing that beats the intimacy of a performance in someone’s living room.

Annette Bauer Annette Bauer

Last night, the Kronos Quartet delivered a program that represents a departure – even for a group that has been departing, exploring, and innovating for nearly three decades. They were joined by Wu Man on the pipa, a Chinese lute, and by the 73 year old Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle.

The performance opened with a sensational new six-movement composition by Bay Area composer Terry Reily entitled On the Cusp of Magic. The exotic beat cycles (the piece spends little time in standard, evenly-measured rhythmic patterns) and multi-layered lyricism displays the ensemble’s ability to unlock the richness and complexity of challenging music, and to render it accessible and exciting to a diverse audience. Wu Man’s contribution to the music merits an essay of its own. Her phrasing, which alternately invoked Asian classical rigor and a jazzier free-play, and the earthy timbre of her instrument was both counterpoint and astoundingly harmonious with the performance style and sound qualities of this traditionally composed chamber quartet. This is a piece of music well worth acquiring if it is ever recorded.

Kronos Quartet Wu Man

What came next is a bit harder to describe. The quartet-plus-pipa played a selection of music by the Bollywood composer RD Burman, joined by a tabla player and the one-and-only Asha Bhosle, who was married to Burman. I actually caught Asha at a stadium show a couple years ago (with Adnan Sami), figuring that she couldn’t possibly be around for much longer. Who knew that she would not only be around, but playing with the Kronos Quartet!

Asha Bhosle

To listen to Asha sing familiar old Bollywood tunes as Kronos-plus sawed and plucked away at an impossibly elaborate and quite interesting score was an almost surreal experience. At its best, it actually worked, with the highly textured instrumentals providing a rich and pleasing backdrop for Asha’s unmistakably identifiable, singularly reedy filmi vocals. When it didn’t work, which was usually, the singing was so bizarrely disembodied from the accompaniment that it felt like we were witnessing a wildly imagined karaoke. And yet, even then, it was good – or if not good, thoroughly fun. The Kronos-treatment of the now-standard Hindi film soundtracks was smart (as one would expect) but also somehow worthwhile. And how could anyone resist hearing Asha sing this music, live, in a small concert hall!

Just another great week of music in the Bay Area – and think of all the great shows I missed!

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