Dhrupad tours 2014

The most significant thing that I’ve accomplished in the last few months as a musician is completing two tours as a Dhrupad singer.  When I embarked on the Fulbright journey a year and a half ago I never dreamed that I would someday be performing as a Dhrupad singer.  I imagined I would go much deeper with it and it would become a bigger part of my life, but that it would mostly service my creative work as a composer and improvising percussionist.  But things changed.  I practiced hard (and continue to practice hard) and by the time I left India my Gurus were encouraging me to perform.

I work best when I have deadlines and targets.  I knew that if I didn’t have any performances lined up my practicing would languish and my progress would slow considerably.  So back in April I set up two Dhrupad tours: one in the Midwest and one up in the Montreal area.

The Midwest tour included four performances at U. of Wisconsin-Madison, a yoga center in Madison, U. of Northern Illinois, U. of Michigan, and a performance/workshop at Oakland University near Detroit, Michigan.  Todd Hammes accompanied me on these concerts, playing tabla.  Pakhawaj is typically the preferred instrument for Dhrupad, but there are no pakhawaj drummers in the Midwest.  I’ve known Todd for a long time so it was a great excuse to work with him.  He played beautifully and I enjoyed my time with him very much.  I learned something important, though: the tabla don’t have quite sustaining power of the pakhawaj, so we had to adjust the tempos upwards a bit so things didn’t sound so empty.  Interesting.

The performance at Madison was especially engaging for me as I was singing in the Morphy Hall, the same place I heard my Gurujis the Gundecha Brothers about twelve years ago.  Little did I know then how much they would change my life . . . At any rate, all five presentations in the Midwest were successful, with good turnouts.

The tour in Montreal was also wonderful.  Shawn Mativetsky was with me for those three concerts, which included two yoga centers and one bookstore (the bookstore was part of an improviser’s series).  Shawn is a long-time collaborator and although he usually plays tabla he got himself a pair of jori drums, which imitates the sound of pakhawaj.  He really did his homework and his jori playing was just as solid as the pakhawaj drummers I work with in India.

I loved touring as a singer.  Dhrupad is such a sacred and special place.  It was so enjoyable to get up each morning and focus my entire day around the evening performance.  I would sing for a bit, review my compositions, go for a walk, take a nap, stretch, do yoga, and then go perform, feeling the energy of the location and incorporating that into my singing.  Dhrupad saturated my every moment.

I grew by leaps and bounds.  I recorded each concert and listened back the next morning with hyper-critical ears.  Doing this sharpened my ears and I had a chance each night to improve upon the previous night’s performance.  Singing night after night also built a lot of strength in my voice.  I was pretty worn out by the end of each tour, but noticeably stronger as a singer.

This was also the first time I got to sing at Yoga centers and in some ways I prefer it to concert halls.  I’ve been very blessed to have performed as a percussionist and singer at many of the best concert halls in the world and I always enjoy that, but there is definitely a distancing from the audience that I didn’t feel at the yoga centers.  I felt much more connected to my audience.  I suppose it was the lack of formality, but it was really nice.

There is more to come.  Stay tuned . . .  And thank you so much to my Gurujis for all of their support and generosity.

Hike-in musical event

This morning eight William Paterson University students joined me on my first hike-in musical event.  I’ve been dreaming of doing this for some time and it was every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be.  The premise is simple: hike somewhere with some folks, stop and make music, then hike back.  Here we are in the parking lot:


Some of these students are in in my Indian Music class, and the others heard about it and decided to join us.  All of them are smart, hard working, and creative.  We talked as we walked, about a forty-minute hike to the top of High Mountain.  They asked me all manner of questions about music, practicing, and life, which I answered as best I could.  I also asked them questions about their lives, which are varied and interesting.  As a professor I am by definition in the business of being a leader and a role model for these young talents, but it’s a position that strangely makes me uncomfortable.  As I go deeper and deeper into music my feeling of humility grows ever stronger.  Although it’s true I’ve built a good career for myself and had many professional experiences that are worth sharing with my students, in some sense that is all superficial.  The real core of music is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty years ago when I embarked on this path.  What do I really know?  Only that I love music as much as ever, and am grateful to be on this journey.

So we hiked.  The weather was gorgeous.  The fall colors shimmered in the slight breeze.  We found a good pace that worked for everyone and soon enough we were at the top of the mountain.  We made ourselves comfortable on a big rock and got underway.  I brought a drone box up to serve as the tanpura, and also a nice silk kurta to complete the picture:


I sang Raag Todi, one of the most powerful and deep ragas of North Indian Hindustani music.  I sang it in the traditional Dhrupad style, with alaap, jor, jhala, and then the bandish (composition).  The text for the composition was most appropriate.  It’s a very old one about the mystery of music and how people who say they know a lot about music don’t actually know much at all.

I found I was a little nervous.  It took some time for me to calm down and get my voice stable, but the breeze helped smooth things out a bit.  You miss some nuance when you’re not under the microphone, but it’s also a bit more comfortable and less exposed.

As I explored Todi the sun grew ever higher in the sky.  The students could see New York City from their vantage point.  I had my eyes closed most of the time, but when I opened them I noticed that they were attentive and seemed at peace.  Dhrupad is very natural in many ways.  Combining it with natural settings amplifies its power.

After I finished we discussed the raga for a few minutes and then headed back down.  Again we talked and again I was impressed with how committed they are to a life in music.  They know it’s not easy, but they also know that creative music is as important to the human condition as air, water, and sunlight.  It was a wonderful morning; one I will never forget.  I’m honored to have shared it with such extraordinary young people.  The future of creative music bright indeed.

AML 2014

The Allegheny Mountains Loop route is a 400-mile bike route that begins and ends at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Adventure Cycling Association mapped it out several years ago. It skirts the Virginia/West Virginia border, frequently moving between the two states. The route includes dirt rail trails, gravel roads, grassy two-track, and pavement. There are many, many brutal climbs, including two climbs of over 2,000 vertical feet up Allegheny Mountain.

I began the route on a Thursday at 3:00 p.m., after driving nine hours to get there. I was already tired from competing in a triathlon just a few days before and not sleeping much before the drive, but at least the weather was good. Here I am standing at the War Memorial on campus, where the route officially begins.


My plan from the start was to strike a balance between a touring pace and a racing pace. I wanted to move fast and light, but I also wanted to take in the sights and experience some of the local culture. I was wearing a SPOT tracking device so my family would know I was okay. Much of the route is remote and there is no cell service. Within a few miles outside of Blacksburg the amazing scenery starts.


Thursday afternoon passed quickly. I knew this part of the route from a failed attempt a few years ago. I remembered that some of the climbs were tough and there was the “Dog Gauntlet” from Pembroke to Caldwell, a lengthy section where I would get attacked by big dogs every ten minutes or so. I was particularly wary of this as I’m a bit afraid of dogs, but it began raining in earnest after a few hours. By the time I got in the Gauntlet most of the dogs were indoors. A few managed to come at me, but a quick squirt of my bear spray sent them off in the other direction.

By 8:30 it was dark, misty, and fog descended. As I climbed higher on some of the small passes the fog became so thick that I could only see a few feet in front of me. My world closed to a little cone of light, eerie and lonely. I pedaled and pedaled and eventually stopped at Moncove State Park. I leaned my bike against a picnic table and set up camp. Here’s what that looks like (though the photo is from later in the trip).


I kept hearing this loud “SLAP!!” and then a splash of water. It took me a minute to figure out that there was a beaver in the area and he wasn’t happy about me being there. Too bad. I was tired.

I was up at 3:30 and pedaling by 4:00. My goal was to make it to Glady, the furthermost point on the route and 140 miles away. It would be a long day of wet rail trails. Rail trails aren’t hard to ride, but the Greenbriar trail is punishing in a surprising way. It’s a 1% grade up, so if you stop pedaling you’ll drift to a stop in just a few meters. Plus it rained on me for hours in the morning, making the dirt soft and squishy. I worked hard, but only averaged about 11mph. It’s a nice trail, though, with lots of interesting historical markers and beautiful bridges. I stopped frequently to read the signs and enjoy the river.




One of the biggest challenges of the AML is the section between the towns of Cass and Paint Bank. It’s over 100 miles and there are no services. Water isn’t a problem; there are plenty of rivers and streams. I used a Sawyer Mini filter and it worked very well, though it’s slow. (Every time I stopped to filter water I lost 15 minutes or so.) But food is a bigger issue, especially for me. I’m a big guy and I eat a lot. When I got to Marlinton (mile 140) I stopped for 1.5 hours to wash my clothes, get a meal, and stock up on food. My SPOT was working when I got there, but apparently that was it. When I checked it in Glady 10 hours later it was dead as a doornail.

At any rate, I took another short break when I got to Cass to eat some pizza and stock up a bit more on junk food. I sat with a group of locals in front of the store and listened to them talk as the downed beer after beer. They were straight-up hardcore West Virginia rednecks and proud of it. Appalachian redneck culture is not a thing of the past. It’s alive and well. Even though I’m an urbane university professor I relate to it. Maybe it’s from growing up in Idaho, maybe it’s my Scottish/Irish ancestry, but either way I respect their fierce independent natures and their basic competency in the outdoors. This menu from the restaurant in Paint Bank romanticizes the culture a bit:


It’s not so glorious, though. Alcoholism rages through those communities, and brings with it all manner of domestic violence and child abuse. Meth addiction is also a serious problem. Several of the guys that I sat with looked like meth heads to me. They were scrawny and wiry and had the bad teeth and skin and jittery mannerisms that come from meth. I never felt scared, though. Even though they knew I was an educated Yank, they respected me from humping my bike up those steep hills by myself in the remote wilderness. “Sheet,” one of them said, “You gots to git water and et vittles whiles bustin ass over yonder mountains n’ hollers n’ thats gots to smart like a sonofabitch. Your ass is fuckin hard.”

Not my ass so much as my mental fortitude. Endurance sports are mostly about mental fortitude, about being mentally hard. My fortitude would be tested many times over the next couple hundred of miles.

So I pedaled and pedaled, getting every closer to Glady, which sits at exactly mile 200, the midpoint of the ride. I was dog tired. Bone tired. It had been a long day and a half and I realized that deep down I was pretty burned out on bikepacking. I’d been doing a lot of it the last few years, pushing myself to ever further limits of my sanity and physical abilities. I needed a break. Problem was I was in the middle of West Virginia wilderness. I couldn’t exactly just call up Jessica and get a ride home. I had to finish this thing. One mile at a time. Getting to Glady became a mission, a quest. Glady, Glady, Glady. Darkness and rain descended as I rode on the West Fork Trail, a 22-miles stretch of rail trail that is rough and unmaintained. The constant rain rendered the ground mushy and slippery. I could either labor along in the grassy middle at 7 mph, or go a shade faster in the mud ruts, but then the wheels kept slipped out from under me. I fell over twice, cursing a blue streak. Why was I doing this? Why? Why? Why? I just knew I needed to get to Glady. I was deeply worried and out of sorts. This all sounds melodramatic, but believe me, when you’re by yourself in remote wilderness, you’ve been riding for 15+ hours, it’s dark, wet, and the trail is difficult, it messes with your mind. For some reason I thought Glady would make everything okay.

And then I realized I was in the throes of the first big illusion of this adventure. Why did I think Glady was the answer to how hard this was? What did I expect? My beautiful wife to be there with a hot cup of home-made soup and a back rub? Of course this was hard. Riding a mountain bike for 15 hours in one day in rain through wet trails and over mountains is hard. It’s hard for everyone. Some guys can do it faster, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier for them. If I wanted easy I would have stayed home, but I wanted a challenge, because without challenges we don’t grow.

At any rate, I made it to Glady and cached out under a dirty awning on a little building next to a pay phone. Home sweet smelly home for about five hours (the smells emanating from the depths of my bivy sack might best be described as “noxious”):


I was pedaling by 5:30. It was a rough start. The first big climb took me a while and the top of the mountain was cold and foggy. The descent was sketchy as the gravel road was rutted out and had many sharp rocks. I rode well, though, and avoided any sidewall gashes.

It was a day of climbing. First the gravel road climb, then up a paved road, state highway 250, over 2,000 vertical feet to the top of Allegheny Mountain. I made it, after much labor:


Then the most brutal climb I’ve done in a long time, the “Ridge Alternate,” another narrow gravel road that just goes up and up over seven miles at around 10% grade, again climbing Allegheny Mountain. Again over 2,000 vertical feet of climbing, most of which I did by pushing the bike. Here’s a photo of my GPS at the top, and me looking a bit peaked, as they say in WV:



I did that one in the middle of the day and it was hot and humid by then (though cold on top, which is why I had the rain jacket on before the descent). Sweat literally poured off of me and I burned through my water in short order. I was really getting tested on that one. “Why is this so hard?” I would ask over and over. But again, it’s the wrong question. Of course it’s hard, it’s hard for everyone. As the great cyclist Eddie Merckx once said, “It never gets easier, you only get faster.” A better question would be this: “How do I accept this difficulty? How do I get through this?” It’s been said that endurance sports are a metaphor for life and I believe that to absolutely be true. Most of the time we ask the wrong questions.

So, more climbs, more descents. I was doing okay on calories, technically enough to get me to Paint Bank, but of course I felt like crap. Lack of sleep, constant hard exercise, and junk food just isn’t a good combination. People often tell me that these bikepacking adventures make me really fit and healthy, but that’s not true. They are spiritually nourishing, but physically they’re terrible for your body. It’s really a triple blow: when you really need lots of quality sleep and healthy food to repair the damage from an elevated heart rate for extended periods of time, instead you end up increasing the stress by eating Butterfingers, Twizzlers, Slim Jims, and Chex Mix and then only sleeping three hours. But you have no choice. Perishable food doesn’t work well. It’s too messy and it goes bad quickly.

When I rolled into Mountain Grove I knew there was a store there and I was hoping I could at least get a microwave egg-and-cheese sandwich, but it was closed. As I stood there looking pathetic a man happened to come out of his house across the street asked me if I needed any help. We talked for a bit and I learned that he was an Entomology professor at Virginia Tech and came up to these parts every weekend since he was raised there and he still had a house there. He invited me in for spaghetti dinner. Yeah!



We had a wonderful time. I was deeply humbled by Stephen’s hospitality and found him to be an honest, intelligent, and sensitive soul. He shared all kinds of wonderful stories and anecdotes about the area. It was truly a highlight of the adventure. I bikepack to experience many things you don’t get in regular life, including different cultures.

That evening I stayed at a legitimate campground just ten miles past Stephen’s home. I was up and pedaling by 4:00. Again it was misty and wet, with a lot of fog. I rode for hours and hours in the dark, with nothing but that little cone of light. I worked hard at keeping my mind still, neither empty nor busy. Just still. If I thought about anything it was whether I was racing or touring the AML. I was kind of doing both. If I had truly been racing I wouldn’t have stayed two hours at Stephen’s house, nor would I have spent time stopping and reading all the historical signs, like this one:


Indeed, if I had been racing I wouldn’t have even taken any pictures. So I was more touring. But still, putting in 130+ miles per day average isn’t exactly a leisurely pace. If you’re a roadie that might seem pathetically slow, but keep in mind that the climbs are huge, the roads are often dirt, and the bike weighs 42 pounds with fat tires at only 35 psi. That’s a respectable pace, though I’m sure I can do it much faster next year.

So, racing or touring? I’ve wrestled with that one quite a lot this year, and part of the reason I dropped out of the Tour Divide is that I just wasn’t digging the race vibe. I like pushing myself and getting into a flow state of constant forward motion, but the constant pressure of maintaining calories and hydration gets enervating, and it saddens me that I often blow through interesting cultural or scenic opportunities because I’m so focused on time. There’s also a kind of materialism to racing that I dislike. More miles at a faster pace = better. That’s part of the reason I stopped doing so many sanctioned triathlons (and it gets way too expensive). What I really crave is being in nature in an active state. Why do I need to do that while trying to go faster than other people? What is the point? It often just seems like a lot of empty ego. What have I accomplished if I finish first in my age group, or second, or tenth? Who cares, especially if I’ve missed all the beautiful things that I came to see in the wilderness? Do I really need a medal or some kind of t-shirt so that I can show my friends and family how tough I am? Is that what this is all about? However, it’s inspiring to ride with other people, and sometimes competition is a good thing; it can push us to ever higher levels.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, I kept riding. The climb up to Mountain Lake was also extremely difficult, and again I pushed my bike up there. But it was cool to see the actual town where Dirty Dancing was filmed.


The descent was insane. Seven miles of paved road, with good sightlines. I hit 42 mph a few times, a huge grin on my face. Sorry, no photos of that . . .

The other thing I meditated upon quite a bit while I was out there was the financial aspect of pursuing endurance sports. It’s not something most of my friends in the endurance sports community like to discuss because it’s often a source of friction in their marriages and families, but it’s a big issue. In short, I’ve been spending waaayyyy too much money on endurance sports, especially given my income bracket. The sanctioned races have gotten completely out of control. Between race fees, hotel, and travel, it’s not uncommon for me to spend $500 on a single Xterra if I bring the family. I know friends who have spent $3,000 on a single Ironman. For a 12-hour race! This is one of the reasons I’ve stopped doing so many sanctioned races and turned to events like the AML. For this entire three-day adventure I spent less than $400. Next year I’m going to see if I can do the entire season with less than $500. That will mean only local, self-made adventures, but it will still be an amazing season.

And while thinking about all that I finally came to some closure regarding the Tour Divide, the 2,700-mile mountain bike race I dropped out of earlier this year. I had dreamed of doing it for years, but the reality is that it’s too expensive and too much time for where I am in my life. After seeing many friends stall their careers and destroy their marriages as they went crazy with Ironman training and racing, I realized I was headed down the same road with the Tour Divide. The AML is a much better fit for where I am in life. I can do it relatively cheaply and I’m done in a few days and can get back to my family and work. It’s easy to think that as events get longer they get better, but that’s a dangerous road to go down. People often say that the “real” changes inside only come after you’ve been racing X number of hours or days, but if that’s true then you can logically spin that out to absurd lengths. You think Ironman is intense? Then you haven’t heard of Ultraman. And if that’s not crazy enough, then try doing 10 Ironmans in a row in 10 days. Etc, etc, etc.   There’s nothing inherently better about the Tour Divide than the AML or an Ironman over a sprint triathlon. Changes can occur at any length if we’re open to them. Someday I might ride the Divide, but for now the AML is my race.

After the descent from Mountain Lake I was close, only about 20 miles left. But still more climbing! God, why was this so hard? I asked it again and again, but it wasn’t until I rolled up to the War Memorial at exactly three days and four hours after I started that I finally began to understand the answer, which comes in two parts:

  • It’s hard because it’s hard.
  • It’s hard because you won’t accept that it’s hard.

All that talk about pushing through walls isn’t quite accurate. It happens, but there’s just another wall, and another, and another. The more focused we get on pushing through the walls, the less successful we become at the pushing. Of course climbing seven miles in the remote wilderness up 2,000 vertical feet with a 42-pound mtb is hard. It’s hard for everyone. When I finally began to accept that it’s the pushing—not the wall—that is the essence of these pursuits, my mind quieted way down.

As always happens on these adventures I arrived at the finish line and there was no one there. No crowds cheering, no medals around my neck, no one to tell me congratulations. Nothing. It’s tough in a way, but it’s also pure. I rolled up to the War Memorial and nonetheless put my arms in the air and shouted “I did it! AML! I did it!”

But actually there was someone there. A young man was sitting on a bench and he turned around and looked at me. I asked him if he would take a photo to verify my finish. He did and we got to talking. Turns out he’s a hard-core ultra runner. His name is Henry and he’s completed multiple 100-mile runs, and all sorts of extremely difficult adventures, including two times at the Barkley Marathons. (Google that if you don’t know what it is. Most ultra runners consider it the most difficult race ever conceived. Only 16 people have finished it in over 25 years.)


Henry is an intelligent and kind person and the more we talked the more it became clear we had much in common. He understood perfectly what I had just accomplished and he did in fact congratulate me. The more we talked the more I wanted to spend time with him. I was completely filthy, though, swimming in three days of sweat and dirt. He offered me to come to his house and clean up and have some dinner. Trail magic! Again! I took him up on his offer and had my first shower in three days, which felt wonderful. Afterwards we went to a Mexican restaurant and spent several hours talking about ultra endurance sports, the wilderness, and discussing why we do these things. I found an instant friend, a kindred spirit who really understands the need to push oneself and to keep searching for ways to make our lives deeper and more meaningful. Henry is the real deal, a serious athlete whose intentions are pure and not polluted with ego or commercialism. I ended up sleeping on his couch and leaving early the next morning. But we plan to see each other again, something I look forward to very much.




Tour Divide 2014

After two years of training and dreaming I finally got my chance to ride the Tour Divide, a 2,800 mile mountain bike route that goes from Banff, Canada all the way down to the Mexican border.  Before I would ride, though, I spent a few days in Banff, which is a wonderful town.


The bike all shiny and clean before the race started. Just outside of Banff.


Crazy Larry. He’s one of the unofficial organizers of this unofficial race. He’s awesome. And a bit crazy.


I stayed at the YWCA, with about 60 other bikepackers. It was a fun hang. Bikes and cool gear everywhere.


The bike after one hour of riding. We were hit with very cold rain right from the start. Within an hour it was snowing. Mud, mud, and more mud.

Finally we got started at 8:00 a.m. on Friday morning, but alas, the weather was unbelievably bad.  It rained every day, for hours and hours on end, with each day only giving us an hour or two of clear weather.  The rain was cold and it turned to snow up on the passes.


Ah, no rain. This was toward the top of Cabin Pass, a massive climb that took me several hours.


Also towards the top of Cabin Pass. That’s usually how I felt after climbing for hours on end.

My body and bike held up just fine, but I just wasn’t focused.  I’m going through a lot of big changes musically and professionally and I kept thinking I should be home practicing and composing.  However, I still averaged about a 100 miles a day this time, and finished 450 miles of the route in five days.  That was much slower than I had hoped for, but the elevation and weather was giving me some trouble.  I rode from about 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. each day.


The rain was relentless. This is a shot from the hotel floor on the second day. (I shared a room with four other dudes. $20. Perfect. It rained all night . . . ) I wasn’t the only one trying this. But it didn’t work that well.

The terrain was a mixture of single track, double track, gravel roads, and pavement.


Look carefully and you’ll see a few bikepackers towards the top of that hill. Singletrack/bushwack.

Sometimes the trail just disappeared and became a river, like this photo below of the bottom of Flathead Pass.  We had to carry our bikes for miles through the icy cold water, or try to navigate the brambles on the side of the “road.”  Fun!


I rode with other people off and on.  I never tried to catch up to stronger riders as I didn’t want to injure myself.  That was a good strategy.


All this junk food plus some slices of pizza in my back pocket would keep me going for another 100 miles of rugged wilderness. It’s not great food, but it’s portable, doesn’t go bad, and is all that’s available in small towns.


When the sun did come out for a few minutes my cockpit would become a clothes rack.

There was a lot of hike-a-bike.  Miles and miles every day.  In the photo below are some avalanche remnants across the trail on Whitefish Pass in Montana.



Top of Redfish Lake Pass. Gorgeous place. I was by myself for most of the day and had a lot of time for thinking, which is always more clear in the wilderness.

  So, somewhere in the middle of Montana I called it.  I have no regrets.  It was an incredible experience.  I’ll be back next year and I look forward to finishing it.  Not a second goes by that I don’t think about that route.  It’s very original and American in all the right ways.  There’s nothing else like it in the world, riding the spine of our continent from one end of the country to the other.  I really appreciate Jessica’s support.  She “gets it.”  I’m a lucky guy.  I also appreciate all the efforts of the people behind the scenes, like Matthew Lee, Joe Polk, Crazy Larry, and the folks at ACA.  Congrats to the riders who finished.  One day I’ll be able to say the same.


Performance/Lecture at India Culture Lab

Last night I enjoyed performing and lecturing at the remarkable Godrej India Culture Lab. I was amazed to see a large corporation running an experimental, interdisciplinary program with the only goal of exploring and seeing what might be possible. Many American corporations have open-ended R & D departments, of course, but they are technical in nature and ultimately the goal is produce revenue-boosting products. Once again I’m impressed with how much energy Indians invest into the arts and creative thinking. Special thanks to Sachin Nikarge and all the good folks at USIEF for initiating this event and bringing me down in such a nice fashion.

Parmesh Shahani runs the India Culture Lab. He’s an intelligent and gregarious man who travels constantly and has an insatiable intellectual curiosity. It was clear he runs a tight ship, but with a healthy dose of irreverent humor. Hi colleague Diane was my host and she showed me around and made sure I was comfortable. She was especially keen to show us the warehouse where they had hosted a large multi-media/audience-participation event the previous year. On a long afternoon over 7,000 people attended the event. Impressive, to say the least.

I started with a short performance of John Cage’s “Solo No. 58” from his opera Song Books, in Dhrupad style. The performance went well, though I’m still quite uncomfortable singing with a microphone. My voice isn’t as stable or rich when amplified, but I think the solution is just to perform more and spend more time with the mic and find the right space. (I have one at home I can practice with.) After I sang for a bit I gave a lecture on Indian/America fusion music, especially the music of Terry Riley, Michael Harrison, Shawn Mativetsky, and Reena Esmail. The audience seemed to enjoy the talk and I fielded many good questions afterwards. I always enjoy sharing my music with non-specialists. They often hear music in ways I don’t since I’m so deeply entrenched in the technical aspects of being a professional musician. All in all, it was a fabulous way to end a life-changing Fulbright experience.

Dhrupad Mela 2014 concert review

The Dhrupad Mela is a four-day festival of Dhrupad in Varanasi, U.P., India, usually held in late February around Shiv Ratri.  2014 marked its 39th year.  The concerts start around 7:00 p.m. and go until about 7:00 a.m. the next morning.  They are held under a tent by Tulsi Ghaat, one of the centers of the city, right on the river.

Varanasi is pretty intense.  There is a magical energy to the place, and it has been a bastion of Indic culture and intellectual achievement for millennia, but it is has fallen into serious disrepair in recent years.  The city has a horrendous rubbish problem and the roads are crowded and dirty, with the usual Indian panoply of animals, humans, and vehicles. 

The tent for the Dhrupad Mela holds about 200 people and at times it was jam packed.  Since it is a mela there are different levels of musicians.  None of them were rank beginners, but there were plenty of intermediate-level performers.  While listening to them wasn’t inspiring, it was educational, and I was glad for the opportunity.  The issues that I’m struggling with in my own singing were often on display and it was helpful for me to hear them from outside my body.

Dhrupad is a small field and there are very few performers working at a high level.  As far as male singers go, my gurus the Gundecha Brothers and a handful of others are singing at the highest level.  I heard several other big-name Pandits and Ustads at the Mela but they were horribly out of tune, their voice culture was flimsy, and they were distracted and unfocused.  That’s a big problem for this music.  In the Western classical tradition if a bad orchestra butchers a Beethoven symphony at least Beethoven is lurking in the background; at least there is an incredible work of art in there somewhere.  But with Dhrupad the responsibility is 100% on the performer to maintain every aspect of the artistry, and the most fundamental parameter is singing in tune with the tanpura.  When that is gone, nothing remains but mannerism.  I heard a lot of Dhrupad mannerism, but precious little Dhrupad.

The audience was 90% foreigners, and most of them were young, counter-culture “hippies”.  I’ll explore that phenomenon in another post, but it was interesting to see how few Indians were there. 

Despite how enjoyable the Mela was in many respects, the infrastructure for the venue was poor.  The presenters had put up thin sheets as a “roof”.  When it started raining the second night the sheets immediately soaked through and water started dripping vigorously onto the audience.  We moved around to try to find dry spots, but it was fruitless and after about twenty minutes of this the audience largely cleared out.  Those who stayed were herded into a building in the back where we could stay dry and still see and hear the performers, but the connection with the artists was lost.  Add to this the constant noise of Hindi pop music blaring from neighboring houses, car horns, fireworks (for Shiv Ratri), dogs and monkeys running around the venue, garbage littering the venue, including near the stage, etc., and I felt badly for the artists.  It’s sad to see an artist of the caliber of Uday Bhalwalker having to perform in such sub-standard conditions.  I suspect some of this is partly because Dhrupad as a genre is still somewhat ghettoized compared to Khyal, but it was also largely just typical Varanasi/Indian lousy infrastructure.  As much as I love India and Indian music, I passionately hate the infrastructure problems here.  It is so depressing to see such a rich and deep culture held back so strongly by lack of basic infrastructure. 

The third night the presenters had made somewhat of an effort to offset the impending rain by putting up tarps.  However, they were full of big holes!  By 11:00 p.m. it again started raining heavily and within minutes there were rivers of water pouring through the holes.  The artist at that moment was shrieking away, completely out of tune, and I decided I had had enough.  I went back to my hotel and practiced for a bit and then listened to a recording of Gundecha Brothers.  I had an incredible mystical experience when listening to that recording, which I’ll discuss in the next blog.

Despite my kvetching, I’m very glad I attended the Mela.  I learned a great deal and when the weather was good I had some wonderful moments listening to the top artists.  I applaud the presenters for keeping it going.  I know from personal experience how much work it is to make something like this happen.  But they should work harder to find better financial backing in the future to produce a more professional environment.  The artists deserve better.

Dhrupad FAQs

Many of my friends at home have asked me about Dhrupad, so here are some questions and answers:

What is Dhrupad?

In India there are two major systems of classical music: North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic.  Dhrupad is a genre of music from the North Indian Hindustani system.  Dhrupad is characterized by long tones, extreme precision of tuning pitch, and the use of syllables such as “ahh ruh nuh nuh.”  Some scholars believe these syllables have their roots in a particular Vedic chant.  Dhrupad performances typically unfold in four parts: alaap, jor, jhala, and bandish.  The alaap, jor, and jhala only use the syllables, and increase in rhythmic density and complexity.  In a full Dhrupad performance these sections may take at least an hour.  The “bandish” is the composed composition, using text. The barrel drum the pakawaj joins here.  Dhrupad includes improvisation, of a highly codified and sophisticated nature.

Dhrupad is said to have originated from an even more ancient religious music form, Prabandha (2nd to 7th AD). The language of Prabandha was preeminently Sanskrit, whereas Dhrupad used mainly medieval Hindi or Brijbhasha. Today, modern Hindi is also used. The word Dhrupad is the Hindi form of the original Sanskrit, Dhruvapada, a combination of Dhruva = structured or rigid, and Pada = word.

The birth of Dhrupad coincided with the Bhakti movement of Vallabh Sampradaya and resultantly was devotional in nature. Dhrupad was sung in temples, the singer facing the divinity or it was sung by Vaishnav mendicants in their wanderings. This was the genesis of the Haveli Dhrupad. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated, classical form of music.  (Last two paragraphs from Uday Bhalwalker’s website)

How does one learn to sing Dhrupad?

One learns this music directly from a guru, or teacher.  Dhrupad can’t be learned from books or audio tapes or YouTube videos.  One must apprentice under a master teacher for several years to gain the proper understanding and techniques.

 Is it difficult?

It is extremely difficult.  I have a parallel career as a Western composer and percussionist.  I graduated from the most competitive schools, procured a tenure-track job, and have toured the world in that capacity, performing Western classical music in top venues like Carnegie Hall, so I can state with authority that singing Dhrupad is as difficult as learning Western classical piano or violin or percussion.

Can a non-Indian learn this music?

Yes!  There are many non-Indians performing Dhrupad at a high level all over the world.  The color of one’s skin or country of origin is no matter.  Just as people from Asia or South America have become virtuoso Western classical or jazz musicians, so have many Westerners become virtuoso Dhrupad performers.

The singing style is different than Western classical singing, right?

Yes, it is.  It is a totally different voice culture.  Dhrupad singers never use vibrato, as that would destroy the pitch precision.  We also use more resonance in the nasal cavity, though a proper Dhrupad voice should always be rooted in the throat.

Does Dhrupad include improvisation?

Yes, though it is of a highly codified and sophisticated sort.  One doesn’t just “jam out” on a mode.  It takes years and years of dedicated to practice to learn to improvise correctly in the Dhrupad style.

But wait, I thought you had a career as a Western composer and percussionist . . . ?

Yes, I do, and I maintain that as well.  I’ve learned over the years how to balance the forms of music and practice more effectively to maximize my time.  It is possible to do both at a high level, though one must be extremely disciplined.

What is the drone instrument and why do you use it for Dhrupad?

The drone instrument is called a tanpura.  It is the large, guitar-like instrument with four strings.  Typically one of the lead performer’s students will play it, seated behind the soloist.  The strings are tuned so as to emphasize the root note of the raga, the tonic, or the shaddhaj.  Tanpuras are magical instruments.  When tuned properly they emit a whole rainbow of fundamentals and overtones, producing a highly complex sound field called a drone.  This drone is essential for Dhrupad performance.  Every note a Dhrupad performer sings or plays must either disappear into the drone or bounce back from it in a very specific way.  The pitch precision of Dhrupad is only meaningful in combination with a tanpura; one needs the tanpura as a reference point for each note.  Some performers also use electronic tanpuras, especially for practicing or performances where it isn’t possible to use a real instrument.

Is Dhrupad “hippie” music?  

Many Westerners associate Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar and the “hippies” of the 1960s, and the attendant drug and free-love culture.  This is regrettable.  Most Indian classical musicians are highly disciplined people who work very hard at their art form and live a conservative lifestyle.  Indeed, Ravi Shankar himself was such a disciplined musician and while he was glad that Westerners were interested in his music, he discouraged his Western students from using drugs and leading a sloppy lifestyle.  This music is far too difficult to practice or perform while stoned or tripping.

Is Dhrupad a kind of meditation?

Yes it is.  Listening to Dhrupad will clear your mind and body and open up you to higher levels of thinking and feeling.  And it will also energize you if you listen carefully.  When I hear a good Dhrupad performance I have tremendous amounts of energy for days.  It is both calming and energizin

Is the tuning system different than Western music?

Yes, if you mean the Western piano, which divides the octave artificially into twelve equal notes.  This system is called Equal Temperament, and while it has advantages for the harmonically-advanced music that developed in Europe in the 19th century, it is very square and unnatural for modal music, which is what the Indian system is based on.  Dhrupad musicians mostly sing justly-tuned intervals, that is, intervals with low ratios that are found in the natural harmonic overtone series.  (E.g., a 3:2 for a perfect fifth or a 5:4 for a major third.)  These intervals feel quite different than the intervals you hear from a modern piano.  They resonate in your body and your mind in a very different way.  They’re not necessarily better than Equal Temperament, but I argue that they are more natural for singing over a drone.  That being said, my favorite percussion instrument is the marimba, which is in Equal Temperament!  I’ve performed hundreds of concerts as a marimba player and the instrument sounds beautiful to me.  The tuning discussion is far too complicated for a FAQ.  Take me to a sushi lunch and I’ll explain in detail; it is quite fascinating.

Some Dhrupad Artists who have made recordings and have YouTube videos that you should check out:


Gundecha Brothers (the best!)

Uday Bhawalkar (also amazing!)

Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni (a Westerner who has mastered Dhrupad on the cello, a wonderful musician)

Senior Dagar Brothers

Sayeeduddin Dagar

Z.F. Dagar

Z.M. Dagar

Manik Munde

Bhavani Shankar

Wasifuddin Dagar

Ritwik Sanyal

Mallik family

Artistic Success

I’ve been on this planet long enough to notice why some people in my field develop into first-rate artists and others don’t.  My students ask me all the time if I have any secrets or tips for gaining mastery as a musician.  Spending time with the remarkable Gundecha Brothers has confirmed my thoughts on this matter.  They perfectly embody what I think are the traits needed to become a great musician, which are (in this specific order):

  1. Talent
  2. Passion
  3. Vision
  4. Work Ethic

Let’s look at each of these.  The notion of musical talent is complex and involves a lot of #2 and #3, but at its most basic level is the ability to learn music quickly and accurately, a feeling for the nuances of pitch, and good basic rhythm.  These are skills that can be developed, but a certain amount of it has to be innate, and if you don’t have it from the beginning, you’ll never get it. 

However, even the most talented people will get nowhere if they aren’t passionate about music.  You have to really want it, more than anything else.  It has to get you excited.  You’ve got to feel a burning desire to make music that is more powerful than anything else in your life.

But talent and passion still aren’t enough.  What are you going to do with that talent and that passion?  What is your vision?  You can love music more than anything else, but in order to develop to a high level you need to be able to point that talent and passion in a specific direction, otherwise you’ll just drift.

And that brings us to the last trait necessary for artistic success: work ethic.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Gurujis have arrived at the Gurukul at 10:00 a.m. to put in five hours of teaching, coming straight from the airport, where they arrived after an overnight flight following a concert.  They never stop.  They’re either performing or teaching.  When they’re in town they teach seven days a week.   Once in a while they might go for some tourist activity when they’re traveling, but that’s about it for entertainment.  Mostly they work.  And work.  And work.  I challenge you to name one great musician who is any different.  You might have a great vision of what you want to achieve as a musician, and you might be very talented and passionate, but if you’re not willing to give up your Friday nights and Sunday mornings to long, hard hours of practice you aren’t going to make it.  I’ve done pretty well for myself as a musician, but as far as talent goes, I’m somewhere in the middle.  Not the best, though certainly not the worst.  But I’m deeply passionate about music, I’ve had a vision of where I wanted to take that passion, and day after day, week after week, and year after year I work at it.  Not because I have to, but because I want to.  I just love making music.

People ask me all the time “how do you do it all?” and people also ask me why I work so much.  Well, here’s the secret: it’s not work!  Work is paying taxes or sitting on boring committees.  Music is bliss and a privilege.  I’m happiest when I’m composing or practicing, and the more challenging the project, the more satisfaction I get out of it.  I can manage a lot of things at a high level because I work on them every day, and because for a long time I’ve had a vision of how I wanted my life to turn out as a musician.  I’m also fortunate that I’ve had guidance from the best people in my field, who have all embodied the traits listed above and are always inspiring.

Why My Hindi Isn’t Getting Much Better, or, the Emotional Experience of Learning a Language

I’ve been India for almost six months; I’m two-thirds of the way through my trip.  My Hindi has gone from about 10% to 20%.  (I took a class a few years back and can read and write the basic Devanagari script, but I only speak a little bit.) Not bad, but far below what I had planned. 

“This will be my fourth trip to India,” I said to my friends back in June, before we left.  “And this time I’m going to leave speaking Hindi.”

It’s not going to happen.

Why?  Because learning a language is an emotional experience for me, and I only have the energy for one language at a time.  I thought I could learn to sing Dhrupad at a higher level and get my Hindi together simultaneously, but what I’ve discovered is that the emotional energy required learning a new musical language is equally intense to the emotional energy required to learn a written and verbal language.  My primary objective coming here was to get my singing to a much higher level.  I’m on track in that regard, but it has taken every ounce of physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that I have to stay on track.  I’ve tried working on my Hindi late at night after a full day of practicing and going to class and studying recordings, but I’m just too wiped out.  It goes in my head and then it’s gone the next morning.  It doesn’t stick.

(The other big issue is that most of the people I interact with here speak English, and most of them are fluent.  There’s no reason for them to use Hindi with me when we can communicate much quicker and better through English, and most of them want to practice their English.)

Way back in March of 2013 my friend Kaliope told me that learning a language is an emotional experience.  She teaches in a French school and is 100% fluent in English, French, and Greek, so she knows what she’s talking about.  I thought I understood what she meant at the time, but I didn’t.  Now I do.

What does that mean that learning a language is an emotional experience?  For me it means that words and phrases (spoken, written, or sung) are rooted in real-world, physical experiences that are intertwined with feelings.  I learned the Hindi words and phrases that I know well through real experiences.  The book work is useful of course, but only as a supplement.  I can’t learn a language from a book any more than I can learn a style of music from a book.

Learning Dhrupad is the same thing.  When I sing certain phrases in certain ragas I have very distinct memories of when Gurujis taught me those phrases or when I picked them up from a recording.  I also remember the feelings I had at those moments.  They are not just sequences of notes; they are definitive moments in my live, real emotional experiences.

I’m pretty hard on myself, much more than most of my friends realize because of my sunny disposition, so I’ve been beating myself up about not doing better with my Hindi (among other things), but perhaps some time in the future.  I know enough to get by with Hindi/English conversations, and I can read signs and I do reasonably well with pronouncing the text in the traditional Dhrupad compositions I’m learning (which I write in Devanagari since it’s much more precise than the English transliteration).  But that’s probably about as far as it’s going to go with this trip.  Maybe I can come back some time in the future and do a two or three-month immersion intensive.  But for now my focus is Dhrupad, and how lucky I am to be able to focus on that.  My life is vastly better now that I’m singing Dhrupad at a higher level, something I could only have achieved with nine months of intense immersion under the right teachers.  It’s an infinite journey, but I’m actually becoming a bit of a Dhrupad singer, something I’ve dreamed of for years.  I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing music with my friends and audiences back home.