As we all know, 2020 has been a trying year in so many ways, but it has been one of the best years for music in my recent memory. And Brooklyn Raga Massive’s In D touches me as deeply as anything in this extraordinary music year. I find it hard to put in words the joy and peace that this music brings me. I only hope that I can observe its online performance during the Ragas Live Festival on November 21, which is also this recording’s release day.
Brooklyn Raga Massive is a collective that is “dedicated to expanding the Indian music audience by breaking conventional formalities, while genuinely presenting and representing a deep appreciation of Raga music, with top-notch Indian Classical and Indian inspired musicians in all their diversity.” That’s a direct quote of their mission from their Facebook page. What began as a casual weekly gathering of friends and jam session has grown into a mainstay of the New York City arts scene since Neel Murgai, Brooklyn Raga Massive’s artistic director and a sitarist, came up with the idea for an ensemble that would include all of the collective’s musicians in Raga-related musical endeavors.
The first project the ensemble undertook was minimalist composer Terry Riley’s “In C,” a piece comprised of a series of short melodic fragment composed for an indefinite number of musicians to perform. “I thought ‘In C’ would be a project that could bring our whole community together on one stage,” said Murgai. It was, and it was a hit and brought them critical notice in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and elsewhere. They released it as an album and a video, which was featured on National Public Radio. Riley saw it and reached out to the group. Plans to get together on a project fell through, but Murgai and co-artistic director David Ellenbogen wrote “In D,” as “the piece that we wished Terry would write for us,” as Ellenbogen said.
This recording was put together with a large grant from The Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation, recorded at the midtown Manhattan studio of the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, produced by legendary engineer Jay Newland, whose 14 Grammys include Norah Jones’s biggest hits. The ensemble’s 24 musicians were masked and performing at least 6 feet apart with baffling between them. The orchestra includes raga maestros Jay Gandhi (bansuri) and Abhik Mukherjee (sitar) and some other stellar names includng klezmer and bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman on mandolin and clarinet, percussionist Ron McBee of the Sun Ra Arkestra, violinist Charlie Burnham, and guitarist Gyan Riley, Terry Riley’s son.
The program of In D has three pieces, separated into three tracks that flow into one another on the album. It begins with the joyful, peaceful “Raga Bihag,” a romantic evening raga; progresses through the darker, somber “Raga Bairagi”; and ends with the majestic “Raga Darbari,” which ends in a hopeful mood. The piece as a whole reflects our pandemic year, in which, out of hopeful beginnings we have been plunged into fear and at times despair, but see the possibility of hope before us at the end once again. It comes, appropriately, just weeks after America’s presidential election of 2020 with its promise of change, even as we’re facing a troubling resurgence of coronavirus cases and deaths.
I enjoy all three of these pieces. The opening “Raga Bihag” is endeed beautiful, beginning quietly with flute and delicate vocals. All of them rise to dramatic crescendos that include the full 24-piece ensemble. I have to say my favorite is, unexpectedly, the middle “Raga Bairagi,” especially for Andy Statman’s klezmer-colored clarinet solo in the final third of the piece.
As I said, I’m hoping to watch and listen to at least some of this program online. If you’re wavering, here’s a teaser for the album itself, and you should visit the BRM website and Facebook and the Ragas Live Festival website. Hope to see you there!
(Brooklyn Raga Massive, 2020)