By Bonnie Perkinson
March is a festive month. In India there is Holi, a festival of color and love, good over evil. It is mentioned in the Vedas, the most sacred books of India and the earliest record of Indo-Aryan civilization. Persia gives us Nowruz, celebrating rebirth and a joyous sense of belonging, going back thousands of years to Zoroastrianism.
Both festivals mark the end of winter and the arrival of abundance and with it, the joy of Spring.
On Sunday, March 15, the Ides of March (a Roman Holiday), the place to be was the Skirball Cultural Center. What a delight to welcome Springtime with the Ghazal Ensemble.
We had the privilege of hearing a musical marriage of two majestic cultures. The exquisite interplay of Indian Raga and Persian Dastgah, with their many tonal similarities, enables them to converse naturally. In the hands of the unparalleled musicians of the Ghazal Ensemble, the music soared.
Simply put, Raga is Sanskit for the act of coloring or dyeing the mind, mood and emotions. (A tonal framework for composition and improvisation.) Dastgah is Persian for “pattern” or “set of directions”. (A musical modal system in traditional Persian music.)
The Ghazal Ensemble included three remarkable artists:
Shujaat Husain Khan, a legendary sitar player, born in Calcutta to a family of musicians going back seven generations.
Kayhan Kalhor, born in Teheran, an innovative master of the kamancheh (Persian spiked fiddle).
Sandeep Das, an acclaimed tabla player, born in Patna, the capital of Bihar in northern India, who performed at the age of 16 with the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, rounded out the pulsating trio.
All of these gentlemen are composers and peerless on their instruments. Shujaat Khan also has a superb voice. More than once we had the pleasure of hearing him sing. He sounded magnificent and noble.
With the enormity of talent on stage from these Grammy-nominated premier musicians, the audience knew it was going to be an excursion into human emotion from the first note.
Four ragas were performed: Ragas Darbari and Yaman, both night ragas; a south Indian raga called Kirwani; and Raga Pahadi, a most beautiful and touching raga, informed by the mountains near Shujaat Khan’s childhood home,.
Each piece was transcendent, full of longing, fulfillment and grace. One moment the music took its listeners on an exploration of deep melancholic depths, perhaps surrendering to tears for those who were brave enough. Next, fireworks of jubilation took place with seismic shifts of rhythm moving us to rapturous heights of hope.
The Ghazal Ensemble nurtured the listener with profound soulfulness, inventive improvisation, tenderness, and illuminated the triumphant power of love, as music can do, in the hands of grand and masterful inventors. A perfect way to welcome Spring.