Some information about how I got into Hindustani music.
I'll never forget the first time I heard Hindustani music. By the time I was twelve years old I was in the habit of patronizing the Idaho Falls, Idaho public library several days a week after school. I checked out heaps of books and I also regularly left with an armful of LPs and cassette tapes. At that age I was mostly into jazz but I was also starting to get into Western classical music and various world musics. One day I found a stack of records that looked particularly interesting. Ravi Shankar. Ali Akbar Khan. Allah Rakha. I wasn’t sure I was pronouncing the names correctly, but the images of those musicians with serene looks on their faces playing exotic instruments intrigued me. What the heck. I checked out the lot.
The next morning as I was getting dressed for school I put one on the turntable. Ravi Shankar, Live at the Monterey Pop Festival. After the applause died down Shankar began speaking, remarking that he hoped it wouldn’t rain, which produced a chuckle from the audience. Then he explained a bit about the piece he was going to play, which he called a “raga” (pronounced “raw guh”). The exact title was Raga Bhimpalasi. The audience grew quiet and then the music began.
I immediately sat on my bed, my shirt unbuttoned, sockless. That sound. It hit me like a lightning bolt. I was electrified and entranced; completely taken by a sound in a way I had never been before. It flowed into me and activated every cell of my body. An initial twang that quickly blossomed into a rainbow of color, pulsing and radiating joy, bliss, raw energy. At once energizing and calming, inspiring and humbling. That sound.
I was over three hours late for school that day. I listened to that record at least four times, as well as several others. I inhaled the liner notes and was able to get an initial grasp of the music. I learned that in India there are two main forms of classical music: North Indian “Hindustani” and South Indian “Carnatic.” (Ravi Shankar et al are from the North Indian tradition.) I learned that Indian classical music is based entirely on melody and rhythm. They have no harmonic system like we do in the West, but they’ve elevated their melodic and rhythmic systems to levels of sophistication unheard of in our culture (at least until the 20th century).
When I got to the University of Michigan for my undergraduate studies I met up with Julie Spencer, an American marimbist who had also studied some tabla at Cal Arts with Swapan Chaudhuri. Julie was a fabulous tabla teacher and she set me up with a solid technique and some basic compositions. Later, when I attended the Eastman School of Music for my MM and DMA, I met up with Bob Becker. Bob was a virtuoso tabla drummer (as well as an incredible Western percussionist) and he took me to another level as a tabla drummer. Eventually he introduced me to his teacher, Pandit Sharda Sahai. Sharda Sahai was one of the greatest tabla drummers of the 20th and 21st centuries and I studied with him for ten years. He changed my life in myriad and powerful ways. I traveled to India twice to study with him, as well as his home in London.
When Sharda Sahai passed away in November 2011 I was adrift, not sure where to go next. I knew I wanted to continue studying with a master Hindustani musician, but I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with tabla. I had taken some voice lessons off and on for a while and my teachers had all been very supportive, so I decided to pursue voice lessons further and see where it might lead. I had always been passionate about Dhrupad so I decided to contact the singers I felt were the best in the field: Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha. Fortunately Ramakant taught lessons via Skype and we started working together in June, 2012.
Things moved fast with Ramakantji. By December of 2012 I was in Bhopal, India, where I stayed at the Gundechas incredible "Dhrupad Sansthan" school. By the time I left I was singing four hours a day and improving by leaps and bounds. A few months earlier I had applied for a Fulbright to spend the 2013/2014 year in India working with them and in February 2013 I found out I got it. I spent nine months in India from July 2013 to April 2014, singing six hours a day and eating, breathing, and sleeping Dhrupad. Towards the end of my stay I made my official debut as a Dhrupad singer at the famed Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. The critics were kind and it was a successful performance. I'm now singing as a Dhrupad singer in the United States and elsewhere.
For many reasons singing complements Western percussion and composing better than tabla drumming. I still play some tabla from time to time to accompany people, and for enjoyment, but I don't think I'll return to doing solo concerts. I will always be studying Hindustani music. It still affects me as deeply as it ever did. It's the most dynamic and sensuous spiritual practice I've ever encountered and it has influenced every aspect of my life, including of course my composing and improvising on Western percussion instruments.