Raga music to sound for 24 hours at Drexel

The stars of classical Indian music will perform for 24 straight hours at Drexel University starting Saturday night.


The round-the-clock Raga Samay Festival might perplex some “world music” concert-goers who usually expect to be home by midnight. The West Philadelphia presenter Crossroads Music will adhere to the traditional way North Indian Hindustani raga is played.

“This isn’t marathon,” said festival organizer Daniel Flaumenhaft. “If you want to have the full experience of the whole thing, that’s great. But that shouldn’t keep you away.”

Mike “SloMo” Brenner, a Philadelphia lap-steel guitar player, haphazardly discovered the traditional Indian guitar called the chaturangui (pronounced SHAH-ta-RAHN-gee) while browsing a music store in Cambridge, Mass. Almost on a whim, he picked up a VHS tape by Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya about the Hindustani slide guitar with 22 strings.

What caught his ear were the drones.

“You have these high drones, these strings called chikari,” said Brenner in his Fishtown rowhome, plucking the instrument on his lap.

“And these low drones — they resonate these sympathetic strings,” he said, plucking bass strings that vibrated a series of smaller strings. The note shimmered like wind on the surface of a pond.

Brenner fell in love with the sound of those drones, which was the start of a odyssey into foreign music. Last year, he left his job and family behind for a month to study in Calcutta with Bhattacharya.

Last month, he released “Tripti,” a CD of mostly blues-based music played on traditional Indian and Western instruments. He and a tabla player have a regular Thursday evening gig at Tashan, an Indian restaurant on South Broad Street in Philadelphia, and he will open for slide guitar player Sonny Landreth at World Cafe next week.

But he is the first to say that he does not play traditional raga.

“I’ve been a rock musician way too long,” said Brenner. “It’s unbelievable music and I love this instrument, but I’ll never play pure Hindustani music.”

Time-sensitive music

Nine of the finest traditional raga players will congregate in Drexel University’s Main Building for the 24-hour festival of classical Hindustani music. From Saturday sunset to Sunday sunset, 15 rags will be performed (making it, actually, 25.5 hours, if you’re going to be counting), featuring sitar player Nayan Ghosh, santoor player Tarun Bhattacharya, mandolin player Snehasish Mozumder, and vocalists Arati Ankalikar and Sanhita Nandi.

According to Flaumenhaft, this kind of all-night and all-day schedule has not happened in America in almost 25 years. Nevertheless, the music demands it — most rags are composed to be played at specific times of day.

“Some of them are times of year — there are monsoon rags, for example,” said Flaumenhaft. “And then some of them — especially some borrowed from South Indian music, which doesn’t have this connection with time — some of them don’t have time. But most of them have times of day.”

Flaumenhaft expects only the hardcore native North Indians to remain inside Drexel’s Main Building the entire festival. Tickets can be purchased based on shorter blocks of time.

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