Wednesday, January 20, 2016. (pre-blizzard)
If music be the food of warmth, play on. If there was ever music that could strike a flame from the third-eye to the collarbones, it’s definitely the notes of Carnatic vocalist Roopa Mahadevan.
It’s chilly here at ShapeShifter Lab, where I’ve turned up for Brooklyn Raga Massive, an artist-managed weekly concert and jam session that serves as a platform for all lovers of Raga music, both listeners and practitioners, to be on the pulse of NYC’s live Indian classical music scene.
You never heard of Raga? What’s Raga?
Raga is a mode of Indian classical music. The word derives from Sanskrit and refers to the act of coloring or dyeing, or figuratively, “something that colors one’s emotions.” I know nothing more about Raga than one can easily learn on Wikipedia, but I’d promised myself I would not miss Roopa the next time she invited me to an event. So here I am at Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Benefit Concert for Chennai Flood Relief. I also know nothing of Chennai or their recent floods, but I’ve seen Roopa once before and she took my breath away.
I’ve got a nice glass of Cabernet, but I find I must place my coat over my shoulders and my scarf around my neck. The musicians are keen to get started, feeling that performing will warm them up too! I’ll admit: just staring at Roopa’s brilliant burnt-orange sari prompts a faint mystic heat across my forehead and sternum.
Roopa is touted a “rising star” of the Indian classical music scene. She’s trained in the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition, a Fulbright Scholar who received advanced Carnatic vocal training in Chennai, India. Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, which includes a principal performer (usually a vocalist), a melodic accompaniment (usually a violin), and a rhythm accompaniment. Wouldn’t you know, the greatest concentration of Carnatic musicians are to be found in the city of Chennai? Tonight’s audience is largely South Asian, and appreciative. Roopa is performing with Rajna Swaminathan on the Mrudangam (the wooden double-headed drum of southern India) and Anjna Swaminathan on violin. Proceeds of this event are earmarked to replace instruments lost by Chennai musicians.
I’m a burgeoning enthusiast, but no expert. I hear the word “classical” applied, but to my ear, it feels like roots music, similar to bluegrass, by which I mean accessible. It also feels improvisational, like jazz. Okay, truth: I’m not musical.
But I’m emotional. Roopa sits cross-legged center stage in her brilliant orange sari. Rajna and Anjna sit cross-legged, close by, on either side, in loose pants and shirts. All are barefoot. I feel a ceremony more than a concert. The music is like what I hear in my head when I’ve just awoken from a vivid and tender dream of which I can’t remember a single detail. Roopa’s astonishingly versatile voice covers a range of notes that seem to originate in an other-world of sad joy.
When Roopa is not singing, she appears to converse with Anjna’s plaintive violin. She listens to what it has to say, and not without judgement. On her face I even see notes of mild discord. Is the violin putting on a con? Pleading a case?
While Roopa’s right thigh is as percussive an instrument as any, I become fixated on the drum, which has a melody all its own. Might I refer to that as a “warm” sound? The lively drum lays a steady foundation, and Rajna’s graceful hand is expert and nuanced.
Roopa describes the trio’s combined effort as “pleading with the mother of three worlds to create salvation.” It’s a sound balm so soothing that I close my eyes and hear notes I didn’t know existed, notes in between notes, where melancholy meets rapture. If a voice captures light, then can it be described as “luminous”? What if it captures warmth? “Lush”? My review in sum? Epic.
The set is a toasty sound bubble of about ninety minutes, after which I duck back out into the cold. It murders me to part with my glow! How might I float home and straight to bed? I splurge on a cab ride home. Bring on the heart-breaking dreams, I’m ready!
Proceeds of last Wednesday's event will go towards helping Carnatic musicians in Chennai recover from the extensive loss of personal property from the recent floods. You can click here to contribute: https://www.gofundme.com/ChennaiInstruments
Roopa Mahadevan is the artistic director for the NYC-based vocal group, Navatman Music Collective. She also performs R&B/soul music and theatre. Brooklyn Raga Massive and Pioneer Works are teaming up for a 3 month artist residency and an ambitious weekly concert series starting in February, so stay tuned.