“We are just musicians having a conversation,” said sitar maestro Ustad Shujaat Khan when introducing the Ghazal Ensemble’s performance at Zankel Hall on Friday, November 12th. Although the humility of this statement was all too quickly belied by the virtuosity displayed by Khan, kemancheh artist Kayhan Kalhor, and tabla accompanist Samir Chatterjee, its message rang true throughout the concert. Through their interplay, the artists breathed new life into the age-old adage, “Music is the universal language.”
A bit of context: No doubt, Khan and Kalhor have ripe territory for collaboration, thanks to the overlap between various Persian scales and Indian ragas. This melodic common ground makes sense, considering the cross-pollination of cultures that occurred over the centuries through the spice trade and Mughal invasions of India well before the sub-continent was a twinkle in the eyes of the British Empire. In fact, the sitar itself evolved from a Persian three-stringed predecessor called a setar. And the kemancheh, or Persian spiked fiddle, just as well lends itself to the Indian idiom, considering that the modern violin is a staple of Carnatic (South Indian classical) concerts.
The group opened with a middle eastern-sounding piece—a series of improvisations set to a North Indian raga called Darbari (flat 3rd, flat 6th). Khan introduced the melody with phrases plucked in a harp-like fashion on the sitar’s sympathetic strings. Kalhor followed these phrases with a raw, gravelly rasp that evoked the harsh winds of the Gobi desert. As Kalhor then took the reins, the notes produced by his powerful bow-strokes soared like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of these dark tones, displaying the remarkable range of his instrument. Behind the musicians a subtle background of changing light perfectly mimicked a desert sunset. The mood was set.
As anyone who has been to Zankel hall has likely noted, it’s an extremely live sound. One can hear a pin drop (or, late-comers shuffling to their seats). The sensitive acoustics at Zankel are well suited to a performance involving acoustic instruments like the sitar and the kemancheh, which rely upon a resonating gourd for their sound. And while the background noise from the hall can make it difficult to tune a finicky wooden instrument, the theater is an excellent setting for an audience to lap up the ocean of tones, undertones, pizzicatoes, sympathetic-string resonances, and the inspiring range and sustain both the sitar and the kemancheh can produce. These nuances contain half of the brilliance of any performance by Khan and Kalhor, as their mastery lies not only in their speed but their unparalleled control over the dynamics of their instruments. Few others are so intuitive in their touch, and it makes for a truly rich aural experience for the audience when the sound is not inhibited by the hall’s acoustic limitations.
The Ensemble’s next piece was set to a scale most closely resembling South Indian raga Kirvani. After a call-and-response opening similar to the first piece, Khan’s vocal stylings took center stage with a composition in the form of a ghazal (folk song). Khan and Kalhor traded solos and improvisations with such dexterity that I nearly lost track of who was following whom.
After a short pause to re-tune, (during which Khan jokingly apologized for “cutting into dinner plans,”) the group closed with improvisations based loosely around Khamaj, a cheery melody similar to the major scale found in Western classical music. The choice to close with this familiar scale served as a gentle reminder that the conversation between the musicians was not solely between them but with the audience as well, a reminder that music speaks to something universal that is within all of us.
For me, the mark of a good concert is one that leaves me energized, which is often a tall order after a long day at the office. The Ghazal Ensemble’s 1.5 hour performance of only three songs not only energized me, it left me wanting more. I’m hopeful that Carnegie Hall and World Music Institute will bring them back soon!
Next up – NCP gets into Eastern fashions?