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December 31, 1999
Ragas in New York Subway
Raj S Rangarajan
I was walking up the steps to the Times Square subway in Manhattan a few days ago when I heard the strain of the sitar and tabla. For a moment, I thought it was a Ananda Shankar CD being played by a boom-box saunterer.
But soon I would find out the source of music.
Right in the central hall of the subway where several train lines -- numbers 1, 2 ,3, 9, R and S meet -- there was an Indian fondling his tabla while a white American played the sitar, under a 'Music Under New York' banner.
Meet Deep Singh, 27, from Woolich, England and Chris Rael, 38, from Washington DC.
I thought I had seen and heard it all in the subway -- the soloist with his guitar, the young girl practising her soul, strains of R&B, and New Age, the electric drum, the gasping trumpeter, the jazz lover, Christmas carolers, Spanish songs, Carnegie Hall wannabes.
But never before had I seen anyone playing Indian classical music in a New York subway. This must be a first.
"Finally our music has arrived," says an Indian woman. But another Indian commuter was not sure if the subway was a good place to play Indian classical music.
"First they made our classical music to Hollywood, made it sound silly by mixing it with American pop," he says. "Now, these two have brought it to the subway."
"Could not they play in a restaurant at least?" he asks.
Singh, who has accompanied well-known masters at Carnegie Hall and Waldorf Astoria in New York, and at Royal Albert Hall in London where he performed with vocalists Salaamat Ali and Sultan Khaaji, is not down and out. Performing in the subways is an earnest effort to take the music to wider groups of listeners.
Did Singh's musically conservative family approve of him playing in the subway?
"My family is more concerned for my safety in the subway than being embarrassed," he says.
Rae says he has been "surprised and delighted at the response in the subway."
The two belong to a larger band called Church of Betty and have performed in a number of clubs.
But the two also enjoy bringing exciting sounds and reverberating music to the busy commuter's crowded life, thanks to the 'Music Under New York', a city-supported project that encourages up-and-coming artists. Auditions are held every June and once approved, the individual or group receives a banner which has to be displayed by the party wherever music is played. It is all very official.
Deep Singh and Chris Rael pair have been performing for several years. But, it is the first time they have hit the New York subway, an institution that is very much part of the city's cultural landscape.
The two performers are in the process of recording a CD dedicated to music in the subway, appropriately titled Tunnel Ragas. As the two were performing recently at a subway station, Rael's 55-minute album, 'Fruit on the Vine', was selling briskly at $ 10.
At a recent special event at Penn Station the pair even got paid.
On other occasions,, the tips they get in the subways are theirs to keep.
Among spots they play are Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, Columbus Circle, Union Square (14th Street) -- and Astor Place, where Rael says: "the constant rat-a-rat of passing or braking trains can be disturbing."
Rael, who plays guitar, trumpet, keyboard, is also singer and composer. When he is not involved in musical pursuits, he is working as a science editor for a pharmaceutical company in the city.
His classical singing career started with his 1989 trip to Varanasi when he enrolled under Dr Patrakar, a follower of the Jaipur Gharana. He has since made many more trips to India. Of late, he has been learning from Ravindra Goswami, a well-known sitar teacher and All India Radio artiste.
Deep Singh became a disciple of Ustad Alla Rakha at the age of 10. His father Bhagwant Singh sings ghazals while his mother, Satnam Kaur plays the dholak.
"When I was just 3, my mother tells me, I used to play with saucepans and a rolling pin, sometimes my hands were bandaged," Deep Singh says with a chuckle.
"You could say, even at that young age, I was into heavy metal."
Rael, who has studied journalism at the University of Maryland, says he loves writing but dislikes the newsgathering process.
How does he collaborate with Singh?
"I try to combine Western orchestra with rhythmic chimes and chants backed by Indian melodic beats," he says "whereas Deep's personal experience and expertise come in handy." The band has been popular at several clubs in downtown New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Burlington, Vermont and Washington, DC. The other two members of the band are John, a percussionist and Joe who plays bass.
"Though I have played in International festivals including the 1993 Festival in Vienna, I don't think I am ready to be described as an advanced composer yet," says Rael who has made 14 CDs and has played at several major centers in the country. "Most of my compositions are Western classical with an accent towards progressive pop."
He also has an experimental remix with acclaimed Pakistani vocalist, Najma Akhtar, which recalls S D Burman's sound tracks.
Rael describes "it as a fusion with a typical Indian folk flavor, not very classical in the technical sense."
Deep Singh plays the harmonium and mridangam, experiments with bells and shakers and with Western and Eastern music. He has accompanied well-known singer Hariharan known for his ghazals and for the Colonial Cousins album.
He is currently experimenting with techno, hip-hop and New Age music and does programming for light drums. "My fusion music with Chris tends today to be more fundamental that submerges well in the subway," he says.
Did the ever-busy subway distract them?
"We have gotten used to the noise and now it's a question of mind over matter," Rael says, "just as we attempt to transcend our music over the noise underneath."
Adds a thoughtful Singh: "Over time, we have learnt to tolerate, I am very conscious of the rattle of trains, but then I have learned to improvise."
Singh says he gets the most satisfaction when he performers with classical singers.
"It is a different kind of uplifting joy playing classical," he explains, "It is quite a different thrill participating in light music and ghazals in the mehfils if you please."
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