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Natraj, Ravikiran Rise Above Genres, Cultures

Aditya Nochur

Live review: Natraj featuring Chitravina N. Ravikiran

Connoisseurs of world music, take note: if you haven’t heard of Natraj before, they just might become your new favorite band. Named for the Hindu God of dance, the Boston-based ensemble has been playing a unique fusion of jazz, South Indian Carnatic, and West African music for the better part of the past 17 years, with no signs of slowing down. Comprised of Jerry Leake on tabla and percussion, Phil Scarff on soprano saxophone, Mike Rivard on upright bass, and Bertram Lehman on drums, the band exemplifies a cultural crossroads: four Caucasian men using atypical instrumentation to perform their own take on world music. On April 21 at Harvard Square’s Regattabar, the group was joined by Carnatic virtuoso Chitravina N. Ravikiran in a concert to remember.

The atmosphere at the Regattabar was far removed from the formal air that surrounds most Carnatic concerts. The audience, about evenly split between Indians and Americans, sipped mixed drinks and chattered excitedly as they waited at their tables for the music to start. Keeping in line with Indian tradition, however, Scarff, Leake, and Lehman all performed seated, wearing flowing kurta robes.

When Natraj started playing, the crowd was transfixed by the band’s elaborate musical blend for nearly three hours, cheering and whistling enthusiastically following major improvisations. The pieces often lasted 20 minutes or more, developing slowly and moving through multiple sections before reaching their climaxes. Rivard’s bass lines provided a solid foundation for the rest of the band, and Scarff’s melodies and Leake’s and Lehman’s polyrhythms took the music into unpredictable and exciting territory.

The four core members of Natraj began their set with the percussion-heavy “Ava de Se,” a piece adapted from West Africa, then proceeded to introduce Chitravina N. Ravikiran and invite him onstage. Ravikiran, one of today’s most famous Carnatic musicians, has a reputation as a prodigy; by the age of five, he already knew over 500 compositions and was giving vocal recitals under the instruction of his father. However, Ravikiran is better known for his talent on the unusual instrument that he is named after. The chitravina is laid flat on the floor and consists of a series of strings raised above the main body, and the fretless instrument is played by plucking the strings with one hand and rubbing a slide across the strings with the other.

Natraj proceeded to play three straight Carnatic songs with Ravikiran on chitravina, including two originals composed by the latter, “KK Suite” and “River.” Ravikiran was mesmerizing to watch, a look of intense concentration upon his face as his slide hand whizzed back and forth in a blur with incredible precision. His playing took on an almost funk-like feel at times against the polyrhythmic texture provided by Leake, Rivard, and Lehman, and he and Scarff took turns developing the melodic and improvisational sections of each composition. Ravikiran even proved his considerable vocal talents, stunning the crowd with an introductory a capella solo on one song, and the musicians paused for an intermission to raucous applause.

Ravikiran and Leake then kicked off the second set as a duo with another Carnatic piece. The stripped-down feel of this song was a refreshing contrast to the percussion-heavy pieces that had preceded the intermission. Before long, though, the remaining three members of Natraj were back on stage, and the band and Ravikiran played a few more songs together before finishing the concert (sans Ravikiran) with “Meet You Anywhere,” an jazzy original piece that was marred by its overall lack of cohesion, ending the night on a slightly disappointing note.

This was the band’s only misstep, however, as Natraj’s fusion of seemingly disparate elements proved seamless for the rest of the concert. The excitement of the night was captured perfectly in one moment during the second set, when Natraj and Ravikiran collaborated on a West African piece from the Dagomba tradition. Leake took center stage with a gungon drum, providing both percussion and voice, and Lehman led the audience in a clap along to the beat as Scarff and Ravikiran continued their intricate melodic dance.

As the piece entered yet another extended percussion jam, Ravikiran waved his hand animatedly to the beat, just as he would to a normal Carnatic song. The sight of an Indian man, onstage with American musicians, letting a West African rhythm move him, spoke volumes. Natraj has truly succeeded in creating music that transcends cultures, and that was clear to both the audience and the performers at the Regattabar last Wednesday.

For more information and tour dates for Natraj, check out http://www.windjam.com/artists/natraj/index.shtml. For Ravikiran, check out http://www.ravikiranmusic.com.

Aditya K. Nochur is a freshman at Tufts University, Medford, MA. He plays the guitar and loves creating his own music.

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