I purposely planned to arrive in India this year in early December to catch the annual music and dance festival in Chennai. Growing up here, I learned to love it as a young child- I studied the vocal music and dance and somehow it is embedded in my intuitive, musical brain in a way I can’t explain. It touches my heart and moves me. It’s highly expressive, improvisational and similar to jazz. But it’s definitely a cultivated taste and not for everyone, especially for the Western listener.
For me it’s a treat! Where to begin? To the Western ear, it sounds very strange, especially the vocal music. Perhaps it sounds nasal. Twangy? Slithering and sliding up and down strange scales. But when you realize that much of the singing is totally improvisation (like jazz) on a strict raga (scale), you better understand the musician’s talent in interpreting the raga. Ragas has special moods and colors- this is expressed in the improvisation.
Percussion is central to this style of music. The other evening walked into a free concert and wished I had arrived earlier- an amazing percussion ensemble was just finishing and I caught the tail end. Here we go- rock and roll! This group features several percussion instruments: ghatam (a clay pot); kanjira (an ancient tambourine); a “Jew’s harp” and even a Western drum set!
Then came two sisters singing, with a female violinist (unusual) and the typical mridangam (a two-headed drum) and behind that musician, another percussive instrument. This will likely sound more strange to your ear. But just appreciate that these snippets constitute improvisation- following a particular scale (or raga) and rhythm, but improvising the sounds and melody. Traditionally women mostly sang, but now you see women playing the violin and other instruments as well!