Sitar and all that jazz

Mar 09, 2013, 08:37 IST | Kanika Sharma

Neel Murgai, a New York-based sitarist, composer, frame drummer and overtone singer introduces Raga Chamber Music at Bandra today while plucking at many chords including civil engineering, Indian Classical music, his tryst with Bart Simpson and Co. and, of course, his amorphous ensemble

When you put together the image of a man born in New York who gives up a career in civil engineering, dabbles with Rock music and embarks on a soul-searching journey to Varanasi at 23 to mark his independence, you would probably call him a ‘flower child’. Debunking all those preconceived notions, meet a man who composes music as meticulously and logically as he would work on a civil engineering project.

Neel Murgai
Neel Murgai (third from left) in performance with his ensemble at Brooklyn

In the ever-buzzing suburb of Bandra, Brooklyn Raga Massive brings forth a promising evening with Neel Murgai who would be performing with talented musicians of our city - Jay Gandhi (Flute), Jake Charkey (Cello) and Shankhachur Lahiri (Tabla).

String the soul
The wild child image is passé; the civil engineer by education is introducing a logical concord between Indian classical music and Western tradition. He recently undertook a Masters degree at Goddard College in the US, as he was keen on creating “ideal instrumentation”. Trombonist, guitarist, sitarist and now percussionist (he plays the Persian daf and Egyptian tar - both frame drums), the experimentalist continues his quest.

He fills in, “While playing the guitar I realised that I could play my own stuff.” There onwards, he sought his Indian roots, kindling a long-time association with the sitar. Eighteen years hence, Murgai’s New York-based ensemble is mostly fixed but the group is contrived every time he moves on to a new city and thus bears a unique signature.

Trepidation regarding collaborations with new musicians are shrugged off as Murgai explains, “String instruments are culturally less specific and therefore, more universal in their reach. I write music that has Western notations. I write in Indian scripts too, for the musicians. In a sense, they are really hybrid.”

The keenness with which he analyses music in terms of chords, base lines and melodies anchors the improvisations he creates in the minimalist vein. “All musicians (of my Mumbai ensemble) are trained in both traditions. Jake Charkey, although a cellist, has formally studied Indian Classical music,” he elaborates. In New York, his group is a part of Brooklyn Raga Massive and consists of two violinists, a cellist and a tabla player. He quips, “We look like an Indian band but we are a Jazz band; kind of in both places.”

Serenade with The Simpsons
On a lighter note, he along with his ensemble has played the theme track of the much-loved American series - The Simpsons - on their 20th anniversary titled, Ode to Apu of Springfield. Brooklyn Raga Massive is dedicated towards creating a new understanding of Indian Classical music of which his ensemble is an integral part. He hopes to make the alliance a global platform by inviting collaborations from musicians across the globe.

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