I was talking with an aficionado about Indian music and he began raining compliments on the concerts brought to the area by Triveni, a Western New York nonprofit organization dedicated to the arts of the sub-continent.
Sunday's performance of "The Rhythm of Rajasthan" was an opportunity to witness the truth of what I was told.
The program consisted of a narrator, a dancer and five musicians, all of them intent on showcasing folk music from Rajasthan, an Indian state riding the border of Pakistan.
Given their homeland's geographic location, an area that has seen a slew of invaders over the years, each of whom has left a portion of their legacy behind, it isn't surprising that folk music traditions on display Sunday were a blend of Hindu- and Muslim-influenced arts with a touch of Romany (Gypsy) tossed in for spice.
Listening to Rajasthan folk music is not like listening to Indian classical music. The latter has it's own rigidly defined systems of playing, but the instrumentation of sitars, sarods, tablas, etc., associated with Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain give way to instruments which seem more at home in the countryside in the hands itinerant musicians at festivals and community functions. It's analogous, in terms of Western music, to hearing banjos and fiddles at a barn dance instead of violins and harps in a concert hall.
As the narrator noted, the players came from a class of people with a long history of providing music for festivities. Since the musicians playing on Sunday were Muslims, they included Sufi poetics and rhythms along with more traditional Hindu material in their sets. At times, it was like listening to a Qwalli recital by Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan or the Sabri Brothers, Pakistani superstars whose vocal skills won them international renown.
The musicians definitely had talent. The morangi (harp) player used different methods of plucking the metal bar, changing the shape of his mouth to create a constantly fluctuating set of tones from what is essentially an instrument used to provide a background drone to whatever else was going on.
The man playing the khartal, a set of small wooden paddles similar to castanets or, in the American folk tradition, rib bones, kept coming up with a wide range of rhythmic effects, changes of meter and sheer showmanship that added greatly to the visual appeal of the act.
Dancer Suva Devi was impressively dressed in an outfit of many colors, dappled with spangles and tassels. While she demonstrated a series of dance moves closely aligned to what you might see in a belly dancing demonstration, there were other moments, such as when she engaged in footwork while balancing on a footrest-sized bridge of three knives (cutting edge up) that were sheer showmanship.
All of this was received by an appreciative audience which often applauded or gave verbal approval in the middle of a performance for a particularly impressive display of musicianship.
Rhythm of Rajasthan
Sunday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.