Improvisational music is a sticky project. On the one hand, the freedom offered by removing the normal constrictions of music--melody and rhythm in particular--can foster new sounds and new innovations. On the other hand, in the hands of less experienced players, that same freedom can quickly degenerate into silly noodling and unlistenable sonic gibberish. Technical brilliance in some contexts becomes absurd in others, and the moment in which the audience is impressed and interested can quickly fade into disinterest and fatigue.
The Nada Brahma Music Ensemble manages to avoid all of those pitfalls, in part because there is a melodic center to its music and in part because it creates a sense of blissful, almost meditative consciousness in its audiences. It also helps that the ensemble is like nothing else I've ever seen in Sacramento: a
four-piece group performing a version of classical Indian music on acoustic guitars and tabla (a pair of classical Indian drums).
I've certainly heard Indian classical music before, but what sets the Nada Brahma Music Ensemble apart is its use of guitars instead of traditional Indian instruments, like sitars, shanai or harmoniums. The tonal limitations of the guitar require some dexterous playing on the part of bandleader Matthew Grasso and
steel-string-guitar soloist Leon Hu. Also, the guitar itself lends a jazz-like feel to some of the compositions, a feel that is decidedly American.
Grasso knows his music can be difficult for his audiences, and he helps assuage that difficulty by presenting introductory comments before each piece. He counts out the beats for the audience to the tabla playing of Alex Jenkins, also the drummer in rock band Daisy Spot. He then introduces the initial melodic line slowly, pointing out the intervals (skippedintervals and flattened and sharpened intervals being most noteworthy). Once the initial setup is explained, the ensemble slowly creeps into the work, starting slowly and almost ambiently before Jenkins' tabla enters and the melodic line is established. All the while, Eric Ramussen gently plucks the chord structure in an endless, cycling drone. In many ways, he has the hardest job in the whole group.
It's effective and interesting music, although admittedly it's not for everyone. The pieces are long (some pushing half an hour), and the interplay of instruments doesn't often resolve in the way that Western music does. Dissonance is left hanging, with the piece as a whole (rather than an individual measure or phrase) resolving only when the melody is reintroduced--sometimes not until the end of the piece. It takes something of an open mind and a temporary suspension of Western musical expectations, even if the acoustic guitar tones themselves are familiar.
Matthew Grasso: Guitarist, composer, and director
Raja Sivamani: Veena
Alex Jenkins: Tabla
Parteek Bansal: Tabla
Founded in 1997, The Nada Brahma Music Ensemble (NBME) is an Indian classical music group created by guitarist, composer, and musical instrument innovator Matthew Grasso. Their focus is to discover the common roots of Hindustani and Karnatak music. They perform common ragas found in both the North and of the South and use talas from the traditional eight or ten beats to the unusual 4 3/4 or 9 1/4 beats. NBME represents tradition and innovation through their performance practices and musical instruments. The current members are: Matthew Grasso, Raja Sivamani, Alex Jenkins, and Parteek Bansal.
The N.B.M.E was nominated twice for a Sacramento music award (SAMMIE) in the World Fusion category and has played at various music festivals, music societies, TV and live radio throughout Northern California. The NBME is active educating about Indian Classical Music through concert/lecture demonstrations and their music courses, Indian Classical Fusion Improv at Sacramento City College, and Intro to North Indian Music at California College of the Arts. In addition, N.B.M.E was awarded two grants in 2011 to promote Indian Classical Music through lectures and concerts.
Matthew Grasso performs on a 25-stringed raga guitar built by luthier Scott Richter of Fairfax, CA. The raga guitar is a hybrid of an extended 7-string classical guitar and the sarod. It has 7-playing, 12-sympathetic, 2-chikari, and 4-jawari strings. His distinctive style is a unique synthesis of his training with Ali Akbar Khan, and of the innovative ten-string south Indian violinist L. Shankar. Moreover, he has contributed to western classical music through his extended 7-string guitar, six CD recordings, transcriptions, compositions, articles, and pedagogy. He is on the faculty at California College of the Arts, Sacramento City College, American River College, and also teaches privately.
Raja Sivamani has been a student of the Veena for the past 25 years. His was trained under the Veena maestros Srikanth Chary and Vijaya Prabhakar. His advanced training has been with Srikanth Chary, with a style that integrates melody, speed, and precision. He has frequently performed in solo concerts, musical productions, dance productions, and in jugalbandhi performances that have included tours of the US, Canada, and in India. The Veena is composed of seven strings and is carved carefully out of the wood of the Jackfruit tree with frets placed on blackened beeswax. Apart from his love for the Veena, Raja has over a decade of training in South Indian vocal music as well as the mridangam, a South Indian percussion instrument.
Alex Jenkins maintains a full teaching, performing and recording schedule. Currently, he teaches percussion at William Land Elementary School, The Drum Lab, Sacramento City College and out of his home studio in Sacramento. In addition, he has done workshops and clinics for various colleges and schools, including CSU Sacramento, American River College, Cosumnes River College, Wood Creek High School and Orange Open Middle School. Due to his in-depth study of the music of different cultures, Alex's playing transcends musical traditions and boundaries. His expression of rhythm is heavily influenced by his study of Tabla. As a result, Alex has become known for his creative approach to music and being able to fuse rhythmic ideas from various disciplines into one cohesive performance.
Parteek Bansal began learning tabla as a child at his local New Jersey Gurdwara under the guidance of Bhai Harbhajan Singh Ji and Bhai Binod Singh Ji. After years of learning and accompanying in kirtan, he continued to supplement his education and training under Pandit K. Paramjyoti, a disciple of Ustad Amir Hussain Khan of Farrukhabad Gharana. In 2003 he continued learning with Sajjad Chowdhry, senior student of Ustad Shabbir Nisar of Purab Gharana (which refers to both Lucknow and Farrukhabad Gharana). In subsequent years, he attended workshops with Ustad Zakir Hussain and continues to collaborate with Daniel Kennedy a senior student of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. Parteek has also had the privilege of accompanying first-class musicians throughout Northern California: Steve Oda (sarode), Ravi Pandita (violin), Ganesh Swami (singer), Leslie Schneider (singer), and would like to give thanks to Kalyan, Robbie, and Bruce at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music for variety of support!
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