What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear…

I don’t often listen to pre-programmed playlists on Spotify, but one late night I wanted to listen to some Carnatic music before I went to sleep but didn’t have the energy or the will to search around in a genre I know so little about. (I only began to explore this music when we returned in February from a trip to southern India, where we’d heard live music at everything from a dance festival to a casual restaurant.)  So I clicked into an Indian classical music playlist and settled down with my headphones. About two or three tracks into the list, I literally sat up in bed. What was I hearing???

Ragam-Tanam-Pallav, Spotify told me with one click in the dark, but that didn’t even start to answer all the questions swirling in my head. Next morning I started poking around. The cut I’d heard is the first of the two tracks on the 1980 ECM release, “Who’s To Know” featuring violinist Shankar, accompanied by the incomparable Zakir Hussain on tabla and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman on mridangam, a traditional double-headed drum used in Carnatic music.

A couple of months before the night I was electrified in the dark by these astonishing sounds, I had heard Hussain at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert by CrossCurrents, a band with western and Indian musicians, including bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, singer Shankar Mahadevan and more. And may I digress to say that this was one of the most exciting live music events I have ever attended. Months later I still shiver with delight when I think of it.  

But back to the question at hand. What had I heard?  Turns out that in 1978 Shankar invented a ten-string electric double violin that has a range of 5-1/2 octaves, making it possible to accommodate the range of not only the violin, but also the viola, cello and bass.  String section on steroids.

Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi is not a song title, but instead a type of classical Indian improvisation for voice or violin that incorporates many aspects of musicianship and allows the musician to demonstrate breadth of knowledge and mastery.  Shankar’s outing on this Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi starts with more than 12 minutes of sweeping, swooping improvisation in which the violinist plays not only the melody but becomes his own bass player as well. When the tabla and mridangam finally join in, the mood rockets from introspective solo to intergalactic time travel.  Over the next ten minutes, the journey becomes ever more energetic and frenetic, careening wildly among stars and planets. However far and wide the sounds range, the musicians are never ever out of control.

Have a listen for yourself, and remember,  keep breathing!


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