Carnatic Music – an ancient South Indian “jazz”!

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!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Phyllis M Skoy says:

    Loved the percussion ensemble!! And your housing looks typical, a lot like my sister’s friends home. Sounds like you’re eating fabulous Indian food! Makes me hungry.


    1. Yes, I was amazed at this percussion ensemble. I wish I had heard the entire concert! Cynthia


  2. dehlidiner says:

    Thanks for amazing music snippets Cynthia. You have a real talent for finding great homes & really getting into local experience. Glad things going well. When does your term start? Lots of love, Christine

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks Christine. I’ll be doing my first one-day introductory training this Wed to department heads at a Catholic women’s college. But the real stuff won’t begin until January due to the Christmas holiday- which gives me time to settle in, breathe (even if the air is polluted), and get my bearings. I’ll training (so far) at six different colleges in Jan/Feb and March. More soon! and Happy Holidays! Cynthia


  3. Tomas Wolff says:

    Hey, I really like Indian music, especially ragas!
    Thanks for those clips.


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