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The Dakshina Ensemble at the Asia Society

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We were most definitely not in southern India, and yet we were not in uptown New York City either -- we were in 'DakshinaLand'.
The Dakshina Ensemble at the Asia Society
The Asia Society
New York City, New York
November 8, 2007

The Dakshina Ensemble was created as a meeting of the minds, worlds and talents of alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath. The outcome of this cross- fertilization is a set of pieces composed by the pair which they named Kinsmen/Svajanam, "svajanam" being the Sanskrit for "kinsmen." This night was the first of two concerts, after which the band was going on tour. What we heard was two hours of ecstatic playing that created a musical world all its own.

Mahanthappa, along with Rez Abbasi Vijay Iyer, Sunny Jain and Samita Sinha (to name a few), leads the field in a variant genre known as Indo-Jazz. Avoiding the term "fusion" (i.e., different kinds music), he prefers to use "hybrid." Born in America but with deep roots in southern India, Mahanthappa is a child of two worlds, and has always strived to play music from both sides simultaneously in the creation of music that is a true mixture of Classical Indian Carnatic Music and American jazz, the result being that it is neither — in other words, a "hybrid."

The Dakshina Ensemble unquestionably reflects this desire. Seated on a platform, dressed in beautiful, flowing clothes were Gopalnath, who is known as the "Emperor of the Saxophone" in India for reaching the heights of Carnatic artistry while playing on a Western instrument, and violinist A. Kanyakumari, who is one of the most accomplished female musicians in India and Gopalnaths's main accompanist. To their left sat Poovalur Sriji, who plays the mridangam, a drum played at both ends, sounding a bit like the tabla.

Playing with this Carnatic group was the jazz group. Bassist Carlo DeRosa is the only "pure" Westerner, and his role was crucial in tying things together. Mahanthappa was stage center and to his right was Rez Abbasi, who played a straight electric guitar most of the time, picking up the sitar guitar but once. Behind them was drummer royal hartigan (yes, all lower case), who is a true student of drumming throughout the world.

The blending of traditions and creation of the new was apparent from the first notes announced by Mahanthappa in his compressed, intense style. A very heavy vamp built from the blues pentatonic was picked up by DeRosa, next the drums and mridangam came in, and we were off. Immediately, though, what might have been burning, deeply funky jazz, was twisted and forcibly changed by the entrance of Gopalnath.

The sound was phenomenal as his saxophone poured out line after line, clashing with the original rhythm, pulling and pushing it with the help of Sriji and hartigan, whose subtle playing supported both sides. Mahanthappa responded with a burning solo taken up by Abbasi who carried it higher.

If we had been in a club instead of a concert hall, there would have been shouts from the audience at this point. Kanyakumari took over and, amazingly, with very little body movement or seeming effort, raised the energy even higher, leading to a section—played just by the Carnatic group and DeRosa—that can only be described as smoking.

Note the language being used. Pure Carnatic music typically gives no indication of how long a piece will last, creating a feeling of timelessness combined with a high degree of spirituality and sensuousness. While this music surely had all those elements, we were most definitely not in southern India, and yet we were not in uptown New York City either — we were in DakshinaLand. Mahanthappa's avowed desire that Dakshina extinguish any thoughts of fusion and maybe even extend beyond music itself to become an event of socio-cultural importance seemed well within reach.

The rest of the concert, which lasted ninety minutes, had many similar moments as pieces from both sides of the fence developed and peaked. Individual musicians were featured also. Abbasi, using electronics and a very long delay, managed to evoke the sound of the pump organ that is used in Sikh temples, and DeRosa introduced a piece with a long, beautiful solo. The percussionists were not left out. hartigan was amazing, managing to keep the heartbeat rhythm, usually sounded incessantly by the tabla, with a loose high-hat as he played complicated rhythms all over his kit while Sriji responded with an equally astounding lesson on what can be done with one drum.

When the last notes from the trading saxophones were over, the audience practically floated to the reception held afterwards—and this writer is still floating. After the tour, a recording session is scheduled for a release on the Pi Records label. If the recording is anything like the music listeners experienced on this occasion, to have a permanent record of this group is indeed something to be cherished.

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