My familiarity with Indian music is pretty much limited to George Harrison's sitar rock, one 20-year-old Shakti album, and a Ravi Shankar LP that hasn't visited my turntable in at least 15 years. Truth be told, Indian music always seemed so dauntingly exotic that I never gave it much of a chance.
That is, until this CD arrived in my mailbox. Broto Roy's American Raga immediately won me over with its haunting riffs, arresting rhythms, and passionate improvisational exchanges in trio and duo formats. The CD features tabla player Roy, four clever guitarists (T.K. Smith, Paul Bollenback, Al Pettaway, and Tom Prasada Rao), flutist John Wubbenhorst, soprano saxophonist Carl Grubbs, and violinist N. Shashidhar.
Roy's seven innovative tracks combine ragas with jazz. Ragas are Indian classical melodies that combine ascending and descending notes to establish certain moods. A tabla is a tunable two-piece percussion instrument that's allegedly very difficult to play. In India, a tabla player studies under a guru, or master musician. According to Roy's CD notes, it takes 20 years of training to become adept with the instrument. Roy must have spent at least 30 years with his tabla because he seems a very accomplished rhythmist, and his debut release is both oddly soothing and subtly intense.
American Raga isn't New Age music. Recorded live without overdubs, it's trance-inducing, jazzy and intricate, and the energy level is surprisingly high. Fans of uncompromising fusion, sophisticated percussion, or fiery jazz guitar will not be disappointed.
Three of these seven tracks exceed 12 minutes in length, a duration that would normally try my patience, but somehow none of these cuts seems inappropriately long. The lengthiest song, "Digging Deep," is a 20-minute musical journey with some spirited interplay between the immensely talented Bollenback, Shashidar and Roy. "Rishi's Garden" is a beautiful ballad sung in English by Tom Prasada Rao and recorded live at the Kennedy Center in Washington. My favorite cut is "The Reason Why," a spacious but fervent piece with some dazzling guitar playing by Bollenback. Also noteworthy is John Wubbenhorst's masterful flute-playing on three tracks.
If you're a jazz fan who has never completely warmed up to Indian music, American Raga just might open your ears.