Sunday night. I could scarcely resist the come-on. "Hypnotic, ecstatic, and eminently danceable, Niyaz represents the best of both traditional world music and electronic music. Applying the jump-start to this vibrant evening will be Torotno's award-winning Tasa in performance of an inspired repertoire based upon the traditons of Northern India. The effect can both haunt and exhilarate."
I arrived at the Jazz Tent a mite early. Took a seat on the main aisle midway back from the stage. On stage, a work crew scuttled here and there positioning mics and amps for Tasa. Standard rock band set-up I thought. Full drum kit back centre. Flanking guitar and bass amps. Mic stand centred up front for a singer. Then something else - not rock. Off to the right, angled for clear sightlines to both audience and the band, an exotic element. A low riser covered with a burnished gold and red Indian rug. Cradles on the rug nestled a pair of tabla drums. The larger of the two called a bayan, metal-bodied, sparkled zaps of reflected light off its chrome-plated surface. Partially hidden by the bayan sat the smaller drum called a dayan; this one wooden bodied. Both were tilted forward enough for me to be able to see the tabla's distinctive dead-centred black spot comprised of gum, black soot and iron filings which give the drums their familiar bell-like timbre. Next to the drummer's cushion behind the tablas was space for the singer to sit.
In dribs and drabs an audience began to assemble as guitarist John Gzowski, bassist Chris Gartner, reed player Ernie Toller, drummer/percussionist Alan Hetherington, vocalist Samidha Joglehar and tabla player/band leader Ravi Naimpally ran through a brief sound check. The audience continued to swell in numbers as a rather stiff MC droned some announcements and acknowledgements. Mercifully, after his bland band intro, Tasa's exceptional coterie of musicians created a sonic place of unquestionable warmth, wonder and colour.
How to describe Tasa's musical effect. Try this. You walk into an Indian garment store. It's your first time ever. You've never seen the like. And you find yourself mysteriously seduced by the shifting, rich, almost luminous colours of the silk saris. And giddily surprised and delighted by the sparkle and glint off the intricate light embroidery designs and patterns of gold and silver threading with tiny mirrors and sequins. You think, what is this? I dunno. But I love it. And you think you've gone, somehow, rapturous.
How did the musicians do this? By being a perfect mix and blend of complimentary players.Guitarist John Gzowski, alternating between a pair of unusual looking instruments ( one like a small wooden cigar box, another like a small wooden half-a-cheese wheel, both with a short neck missing the usual guitar headstock), set, to my ears, to a particular Indian tuning, nimble-fingered wondrous raga-esque solos, chimed in with shifting chordal harmonies and punctuated melodic phrases with chopping sonic chunks like reggae beats. Bassist Chris Gartner blended strange electronic effects with standard bass tones, at times making his bass imitate the dark rumblings of Darth Vader, someone frantically calling out through a maze of PVC piping and a scat-singing jazz baritone. Reed player Ernie Toller blew achingly, often hauntingly beautiful, full-bodied solos on a variety of instruments including a soprano sax, a wooden flute and a very slender reed flute. Drummer/percussionist Alan Hetherington put on a dazzling clinic of inventive, complex and always entertaining drumming on the kit and jaw-dropping voicings on the triangle, shakers and a tamborine. Who knew a tamborine could be played so many ways and produce so many distinctive sounds? At Tasa's inspirational centre, the phenomenal (and elegant) table player Ravi Naimpally. Last, but not least, the exceptional vocalist Samidha Joglekar whose acrobatic mezzo-soprano voice was the apogee of expression and soulfulness.
The audience sat forward in rapt attention, lost and found in Tasa's world. Then, the area in front of the stage reserved for dancing, began to fill with scores of young adults; primarily lithe and limber women. Each sat on the asphalt, shoulders gently swaying to the rhythms. Then one, then another, then two more and on and on rose and began to dance. I suspect they were dance students who had taken belly-dancing classes (not the cheesy tummy-shaking cliche), but a form of languid shimmying with lovely, arched back lines and expressive arm and hand gesturing. Gorgeous.
Point of interest. You can find the roots of Indian music in Vedic chants going back in time to the first few millenia BC. That's way back, pal. Indian music is rooted in two major concepts: rag and tal. Rag, the melodic aspect and tal, the rhythmic.Brilliantly, Naimpally took some time to teach the audience tal by clapping hands in tricky combos of fingers, palm positions and time. Begining here, he took the crowd into the world of how a tabla is played. Basically, if you can say it, you can play it. By way of demonstration, Naimpally chanted some onomatopoetic phrases and then beat out on the tabla drums what he had just mouthed. From there, he recited some poetry in Urdu (I'm guessing here) which his fluttering hands and flying fingers translated into bright tabla recitations. Into this the vocalist mixed her voice and moments later, the rest of the band joined in. And suddenly, you knew how their music worked. It was a cunning invitation into an enchanting world. Which, I must say, richly deserved the thunderous ovations (and insistent appeals for an encore) the music received.
If you missed this extraordinary musical experience, rush out and buy the group's current CD, Urban Turban (from which most of the set's lineup was drawn.) It'll be the next best thing to having been there. And a reminder to catch 'em live when they're here again.
The headliner act, Niyaz, by comparison, seemed less sophisticated musically; frought with a numbing sameness (for me) to each number. Niyaz starred the alluring vocalist Azam Ali, backed by an oud (the round-bellied Middle Eastern lute often heard in Greek music and the music of other Mediterranean countries) player, an electric guitarviol (bowed instrument that approximates a cello) and tradtional Persian lute player, a tabla player and, underpinning (or modernizing) the band, a sound-remixer on iMac laptop and sound board.
Iranian-born, India-raised, LA based singer Ali has explained that her musical concept was to "transform very intimate music-making with a very introverted feeling into something more extroverted." As she said from the stage,"I'm trying to create music of spirituality and substance that you can dance to." Songs drawing from Sufi, ancient Indian traditions, and celebrated mystic Persian poetic, Rumi, the slender, long raven tressed singer, enthralled the throng of dancers in front of her with her ethereal voice floating above waves of electro-beats and live instrumentation.
One special moment to hold of the Niyaz performance. Ali introduced a number whose lyrics chronicled the loneliness and homesickness of a woman exiled in America from her homeland, Iran. A few bars into the song, an Iranian woman, perhaps in her forties, rose from her chair and quietly sifted into the melee of undulating teen and twenty-somethings. Slowly, deliberately, with heartfelt emotion and sincerity, her slow-dancing body language translated the Farsi lyrics Ali sang into a human story everyone watching her could universally understand. It was a truly moving moment that elevated Niyaz's music form clever Middle-Eastern dance club stylings to a more profound level.