Blending tradition and innovation in song
Being a child of the sixties, I've heard quite a bit of Indian music. Ravi Shankar haunted our musical landscape; even The Beatles’ George Harrison took lessons from the renowned sitar player during the English band’s brief flirtation with India. Shankar’s music was that of northern India, coming out of the Hindustani musical tradition, with its Persian and Islamic influences.
This past Saturday I was able to hear the music of Bay Area resident Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, a rich and evocative blend of Carnatic musical tradition from South India, alongside the Western words and sounds that a boy growing up near Houston, Texas, might have had access to. Ganeshan’s art is based on Carnatic forms, but the texts are his own and “purely original”.
Carnatic music emphasizes the voice. And the long, involved songs are supported by small ensembles. In this case, the musicians accompanying Ganeshan’s compelling songs and improvisations included violin, tanpura and mridangam.
What was perhaps most unusual about Ganeshan’s songs is that the lyrics were sung in English. This gave the mostly English-speaking audience a chance to follow the unfolding of the song. Unlike Western lyrics, the songs arrive to the audience in short phrases that are repeated several times before another phrase is added, which increases the listener’s understanding of the singer’s story. Often these new phrases are added at the beginning of first phrase, so the compounded line follows a different logic than that of a sentence, to which phrases are added at the end, like a line of train cars.
Ganeshan began one song with the phrase, “her glance, her smile”. This was repeated over and over until it not only resolved acoustically but had formed a picture, complete with history, within the listener’s mind. To this first phrase, Ganeshan eventually added the phrase, “everything I sing I owe to”. The compound phrase then took on a circular structure and with it a different meaning: “Her glance, her smile, everything I sing I owe to her glance, her smile”.
The song’s structure developed rather like a round, or a more sophisticated version of one of the childhood songs we delighted in, when the beginning and end of the sentences were linked in a secondary meaning: Helen had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell. Helen went to heaven, the steamboat went to/ Helen had a steamboat …
Along with the evolving lyrics, implying a nonlinear sense of time, were stretches of improvised vocalese. These allowed the singer’s sound to sink into the musical ensemble. The storylines of songs often ride above the accompanying music.
The ensemble was quite wonderful. Rangashree Varadarajan played violin, a kind of second, unworded voice to the vocalist, echoing pitch and phrasing, and occasionally joining the vocalist harmonically. The violin is held differently in Carnatic music, the bottom of the instrument rests on the chest and the scroll rests on the player’s foot as she sits cross-legged on the musician’s platform. The bowing is similar to Western bowing.
Gopal Ravindhran played mridangam, the ancient percussion instrument constructed of the wood of the jackfruit tree. The drum is double-sided and pitched, with a treble and bass side. The treble side has a black disc in the center of its membrane, which gives the drum its unique and complex harmonics. Though still in his teens, the drummer Ravindhran showed mature skills.
The third instrument was the tanpura, a plucked drone instrument. Vijay Narayan provided the drone and sang later in the program. With a lighter and higher pitched voice, he provided an engaging complement to Ganeshan’s lower and more powerful sound.
The two-hour concert was held at the lovely and suitably intimate Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley. Run collectively, the Subterranean Arthouse is a gallery and performance space. And a small treasure in the downtown Berkeley area.
– Jaime Robles
Photo: From left to right: Gopal Ravindhran, Gautam Tejas Ganeshanm Vijay Narayan, Rangashree Varadarajan. Photo by Betsy Davids.