Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for January, 2014

Percussion from India ― 3/ The marvellous double-headed drums


Umayalpuram L Sivaraman (left) on mridangam and Bhawani Shankar on pakhawaj

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla.

Like in the previous series, the aim is two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. The list of musicians may, however, not be exhaustive.

This month, we shall talk of double-headed drums used in different types of Indian music.

DOUBLE-HEADED or two-faced drums are used in north Indian Hindustani music, south Indian Carnatic music and different types of folk and devotional music. In most cases, the player sits on the floor and keeps the instrument on his lap, though in some types of folk music, he attaches it with a strap around his shoulder.

The main instruments in this category are the mridangam, which forms a very important part of Carnatic music, and the pakhawaj, which was earlier used in the dhrupad form or Hindustani music but is seeing rarer exposure today. The dhol forms an important part of folk music. A brief note on the various double-headed drums.

Mridangam: Known primarily for its use in Carnatic music, the mridangam is also heard in the Nepalese form of Newa music. However, while the Carnatic musician sits on the floor, the Newa musician stands and plays.

In Carnatic music, the mridangam can be used as a solo instrument with a violin accompaniment, or to accompany vocalists, violinists and flute players, among others. It is played with the hands. Often, it is one among the many percussion instruments used in a Carnatic concert. The others, which include the ghatam, kanjira and morsing, will be discussed in a later part of this series.

Besides Carnatic music, the mridangam is also used to accompany southern dance forms, particularly Bharatanatyam, and in theatrical dance forms like Yakshagana. Derived from the words ‘mrida’ (clay or earth) and ‘anga’ (body), the mridangam is said to have been played since the time of Lord Shiva.

Over the years, some of the best known players have included T K Murthy, Palghat R Raghu, Umayalpuram L Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore G Ramabhadran, Palani Sunramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, C Murugabhupathy and Mahadevu Radha Krishna Raju.

The mridangam has also been used extensively in south Indian film music by L Vaidyanathan, Ilayaraja, A R Rahman and others. It has also found a role in north-south fusion encounters, and in Mumbai, Sridhar Parthasarathy has often accompanied tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and other percussion ensembles.

Pakhawaj: A variant and descendant of the mridangam, the pakhawaj is used as an accompaniment for various music and dance performances. It is also played with the hands.

In Hindustani music, it was primarily used as an accompaniment to dhrupad and dhamaar styles. The famous Dagar brothers were accompanied by pakhawaj greats like Govindrao Burhanpurkar, S V Patwardhan and Ambadas Pant Angle. Other players from the older generation include Ramashish Pathak.

Rom the 1970s onwards, Bhawani Shankar has established himself as a leading pakhawaj player, accompanying instrumentalists like santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Legend has it that the tabla was created after cutting the pakhawaj into two halves.

Dhol: The dhol is used in folk and devotional music from various states of India. Ranging from bhangra and Sufiana music of Punjab and the Sindhi dhamaal, to Ganesh songs in Maharashtra and the Navratri festival of Gujarat, to the music of Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Kashmir, it reflects energy and rhythmic vibrancy.

Unlike the Carnatic mridangam and Hindustani pakhawaj, the dhol is played with a pair of sticks of different thickness, providing different tonal patterns.

Other double-headed drums: Among the popular types is the khol, used in Bengali and north-eastern devotional music and played with the hands. It is also used in Baul and Bhatiyali music.

In south India, the thavil is played mainly at temples, but is also heard at public concerts. It is also used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram. For a right-handed player, the right side is played with the hand and the left with a stick.

Other double-headed drums include the damroo, associated with the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the madal, used with dance and folk music, and the naal, which is tuned with bolts.

Each of these drums has a charm of its own, and add to the variety and diversity of Indian music.


CD review/ Recharge Plus: Anuradha Pal


Recharge Plus/ Anuradha Pal

Genre: Fusion

Sur Aur Saaz/ Rs 295

Rating: *****

A disciple of the great Ustad Allarakha and Zakir Hussain, tabla exponent Anuradha Pal has established herself as an outstanding and innovative percussionist in her own right. Besides accompanying Hindustani classical musicians, she has been involved with experimental music through her all-female group Stree Shakti and the fusion outfit Recharge.

Anuradha’s latest album ‘Recharge Plus’ is a follow-up to the mighty impressive ‘Get Recharged !!!!’. Featuring an array of talented musicians, it is one of the most brilliant fusion albums to be released over the past couple of years, blending styles as diverse as Hindustani, Carnatic, Indian folk, devotional, jazz, Middle Eastern, African, Latino and even western classical to create some splendid sounds.

Besides composing the tunes, Anuradha herself plays an assortment of drums here. Apart from the tabla, she uses the pakhawaj, kanjira, djembe, darbouka, udu and bongos. And though other musicians chip in with mridangam, ghatam, cajon, timbales and the traditional drumkit, the album is not dominated by percussion. Smart and judicious use of keyboards, sarangi, sitar, shehnai, violin and saxophone, among other instruments, lend a complete feel.

Seven of the eight tracks consist of Indian vocals. Strangely, all the vocalists – Sandip Bhattacharjee, Aditya Khandwe, Nanu Gurjar, Vaishali Samant and Chandanabala – have been credited together, and one wishes the liner notes had mentioned who had sung which song.

The album begins with ‘High Voltage’, which stays true to its title. Bursting with energy, it begins with percussion and keyboards, before using impeccable vocal taranas and taans. ‘Desire’, which talks of waiting for a loved one, is a nice blend of the semi-classical thumri style with Latino and jazz melodies.

‘Just One God’ is a marvellous amalgam. It begins with the mantra ‘Ya devi sarvabhuteshu’, and goes on to include some breath-taking sargams, and a stretch from Carnatic composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s ‘Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham’ in raga Hamsadhwani. As a total surprise, we hear western classical snatches from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Beethoven’s ‘9th Symphony’.

‘Seventh Heaven’ is a wonderful adaptation of the Sufi piece ‘Kadi aa mil sanwal yaar ve’, written by Farhat Abbas Shah and popularised by Pakistan’s Mekaal Hasan Band. The singing on this version is simply soulful.

On the title track, Anuradha uses raga Miyan ki Malhar. While the first half contains some melodic sarangi, sitar and shehnai, a dazzling orchestral portion brightens up the climax. ‘Cloud 9’, the only instrumental piece here, is set in the rare nine-beat cycle, and has a heady combination of Carnatic music and jazz, with a mesmerising violin stretch by Raghavendra Rao.

‘Joy’ explores the Rajasthani folk style of Maand, using a soothing sarangi and crisp vocals. The piece, which celebrates the return of a loved one, also moves between the Hindustani, Carnatic and jazz worlds. Finally, ‘Recharged by Shiva’ is an invocation to Lord Shiva, containing a good selection of devotional shlokas.

Being primarily a tabla player, Anuradha ensures that each piece contains some amount of virtuosity on that instrument, and produces some dazzling stretches. Yet, she never makes the tabla dominate over the other elements, using it for just the right amount to fit in perfectly with the nature of the compositions.

For that matter, each composition is perfectly balanced, between genres and instruments. And going by the sheer energy levels, this is an album that is bound to recharge you repeatedly.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

Take Five: Western classical concertos


Sergei Rachmaninoff

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first seven parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends, the Motown superstars and the Velvet Underground influence, respectively. This month, we look at western classical concertos.

AMONG the various types of western classical compositions, this writer has a special weakness for concertos. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a concerto features a solo musician, who has a primary role in the piece, as against a symphony, where all musicians have important roles, but nobody is prominent.

Based on the instruments they are written for, we can have violin concertos, cello concertos, piano concertos, flute concertos, harp concertos, so on and so forth. At times, two or three soloists may also be used, and we can thus have a concerto for flute and harp (like the one composed by Mozart), or a concerto for piano, violin and cello (for example, the famous Beethoven piece).

A standard concerto has three movements – fast, slow and fast. While concertos are always a pleasure to listen to on CD or vinyl, watching them being performed live is a different experience altogether. The best place to hear them, of course, would be live in a concert hall, but besides that, one finds plenty of material on DVD and YouTube.

Before talking of five concertos that would be ideal for lay listeners, here’s a brief on the origin of the form. Here we are using the terms Baroque for music created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Classical for music created in the later 18th century, Romantic for music created in the 19th century, and Modern for 20th century music. This is as per the generally accepted descriptions of these periods.

The term concerto was first used in the early Baroque period to denote works involving voice and instruments in which the instrument had an independent role. Late Baroque composers, like Bach and Vivaldi, created some memorable compositions, but it was in the Classical period that Mozart revolutionalised the form, writing five violin concertos and 27 piano concertos. His senior Josef Haydn, though more prolific with writing symphonies, composed four concertos for violin, two for cello and 12 for piano. In the Romantic period, most composers wrote magnificent concertos, and the trend was continued well into the Modern era.

With so many great concertos written over the years, choosing five isn’t an easy task. Here, I have looked at four popular works, and one unusual example, all of which have been personal favourites.

Violin Concerto in D Major – Tchaikovsky: Written in 1878, this was the only violin concerto created by the Russian composer, who is otherwise hugely known for his ballets ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

One of the best-known among all violin concertos, Tchaikovsky’s piece is also considered one of the most difficult to play. It has three movements, and runs into 35 minutes.

The piece was written in Clarens, Switzerland, when the composer was recovering from his disastrous marriage. As he didn’t play the violin himself, he took the help of his pupil Iosif Kotek, who as per the grapevine was also his homosexual partner.

For Tchaikovsky’s concerto, one can check the recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Isaac Stern as the soloist. Other violin concertos one can check are the five by Mozart, the six by great virtuoso Niccolo Paganini and the one written each by Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and modern composer Jean Sibelius.

Cello Concerto in B Minor – Antonin Dvorak: This composition by the Czech composer ranks among the best cello concertos ever written, and it would be ideal to begin with the one featuring noted cellist Msitslav Rostropovich, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Dvorak wrote this piece in 1895, and this was the last concerto he created. It has three movements running into 40 minutes. Its London premiere in 1896 was conducted by Dvorak himself, with Leo Stern playing the cello for the London Philharmonic.

Among the other cellos concertos, the ones by Haydn, CPE Bach, Robert Schumann, Carl Reinecke, Edward Elgar, Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber are recommended. British composer Benjamin Britten also wrote what he called a ‘cello symphony’, where equal emphasis was placed on cello and orchestra.

Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor – Sergei Rachmaninoff: Of the four piano concertos that Rachmaninoff wrote, No 2 was the most popular, coming as it did after the terrible response to No 1. The Russian composer wrote the second concerto in 1901.

Written in the standard three-movement format, the piece became so popular it was used in Hollywood soundtracks. The opening section, which sounds like the tolling of bells that lead to the main theme, is a class by itself.
Among the recordings, one can check out pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy playing both Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No 2 and 3. There is also a priceless recoding of Rachmaninoff playing all his four piano concertos himself.

Over the years, numerous great piano concertos were written. Further suggested for listening are Mozart’s 24th and 26th, Beethoven’s five piano concertos, Frederic Chopin’s two, two by Franz Liszt and the two by Brahms.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major – Mozart: One of the last pieces created by the legendary Mozart before his death in 1791, the clarinet concerto was written for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is in three movements – fast, slow, fast.

As there is no autograph for this concerto, and it was published posthumously, critics have found it difficult to understand all of Mozart’s intentions. Yet, it stands out for the delicate interaction between soloist and orchestra, and has received an overwhelming response.

Among the recordings of this concerto, the one featuring clarinettist Sabine Meyer is outstanding. Among other clarinet concertos, those written by modern composers Aaron Copeland and Igor Stravinsky are noteworthy.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No 1 – Ravi Shankar: This was a pathbreaking attempt by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in the early 1970s to blend Indian music with the western concerto format.

Shankar wrote two such concertos. The first was conducted by Andre Previn for the London Symphony Orchestra. The base is Indian, as it uses four Indian classical ragas – Khamaj, Sindhu Bhairavi, Adana and Manj Khamaj. The second concerto, also called Raga Mala was conducted by Zubin Mehta for the London Philharmonic, and features ragas Lalit, Bairagi, Yaman Kalyan and Miyan Ki Malhar. However, the tempo of the movements has been kept in western style, beginning with fast, then going on to slow and then back to fast.

Summing up: Here, we have talked of four concertos that are purely western classical by nature, and one that is a fusion between Indian music and the western concerto format. We have also mentioned some of the other popular concertos, though this by no means is a complete list.

Like the symphony, the concerto has had its own role to play in western classical music. And if you haven’t attended a live concert featuring a concerto, it’s high time you do.

Tag Cloud