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The Raga Ensemble delights with exotic melodies

New Worlds, Old Worlds
The Raga Ensemble.
First Congrational Church, Cambridge.
By Craig K. Chang

For the new listener, Hindustani classical music is very unapproachable. One would imagine that the strange instruments and exotic melodies simply do not appeal to the modern listener, or that the monotony and extreme duration of the pieces would scare away all but the most dedicated musicologists. But the hypnotic performance the Raga Ensemble gave on Friday in Cambridge demonstrated that attitude and passion have a universality strong enough to pull listeners into even the most unfamiliar musical territory.

The Raga Ensemble played in the First Congregational Church on an intimate stage, on which the players sat on small rugs. The scene seemed to be similar to a living room where, before the advent of convenient transportation, musicians would entertain neighbors. And yet beyond all this coziness, the musicians brought the audience to another world.

Against a texture of tamboura and tabla (percussion), vocalists Warren Senders and Vijaya Sundaram provided the heart of the material. Their first utterances drew from a primal passion and communicated a meditative lyricism. After all, Senders and Sundaram were in the realm of "khyal," a vocal art form that is poetry itself. Senders' voice at times seemed bare, but that only lent to the visceral quality of the music. The blending of his voice with the purring of the tamboura created a unique sonority so mesmerizing that it seemed more broad strokes of emotion than individual notes and chords.

But the sheer energy of the group did not flourish until the breakneck acceleration of the tempo. Only here did we completely realize the incredible technical skill of all the musicians. Fiercely knit, the small group created an altogether different texture with their manic energy. This was not mere technical fizzle, but an outbreak of pure speed exploding from the initial subdued verve and crying-out of the vocalists.

Further enhancing the complex texture of the music was George Ruckert on the harmonium and Jerry Leake's drum work. Ruckert's interpolations of the lyrics provided the perfect counterpoint to the wide-ranged vocalists. And Leake's insistent rhythm not only provided a sort of backbone to the music but also emphasized the emotional swinging of the symphony of sounds.

Also playing was Steve Gorn, one of the leading bamboo flutists in the world. With fantastic imagery, Gorn's flute made us completely forget about musical form and transformed sound into shapes, colors, and the essence of the raga. We could actually picture a Puckish dance of nuance or obvious gestures of humor. During numerous passages, we could hear numerous members of the audience gasp and performers on stage letting out hearty laughs at the mercurial effects Gorn blew from his instrument.

This concert served to establish the Hindu roots of Senders' widely acclaimed AntiGravity group, which mixes elements of Indian music and jazz to offer a pan-cultural feast for the ears. The similarities between jazz and Indian traditions are unmistakable. But no music exists in its distilled form. The Raga Ensemble proved that it can cut across cultural boundaries and tell a story all its own -- to everyone.

If you missed the Raga Ensemble last Friday, don't miss it at Killian Auditorium on Oct. 30.