In a time of vast divisions of thought, Wind Whisperers of India seeks to align and mesh cultures, rhythms, regions and hearts.
Music is one field that binds everyone together,” says Vinod “V.R.” Venkataraman, a professional mridangam player and artistic director at The Music Circle in Los Angeles. “I am trying to introduce the music in a manner where integration happens between communities, between cultures, between people and between colors.”
Venkataraman, a Bombay native who came to America in 1986, has brought together four Wind Whisperers for a one-of-a-kind concert on Sunday, Sept. 10 – a musical “meeting of the minds” – at East Tennessee State University’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. “These musicians have not performed as an ensemble even once …” says Venkataraman, who organizes many musical mergers for The Music Circle.
“If we get to travel together on the flight, in the car, in the airport, on the tarmac … we are composing and playing the music right there. The people sitting beside us have a blast because we are composing and playing the music [for the concert] right there.”
The Mary B. Martin School of the Arts-sponsored Sept. 10 concert, starting at 6 p.m., will feature a unique mixture of musical styles from the North and South of India, Eastern and Western continents, the analytical/mathematical and creative aspects of Indian music as well as ancient, contemporary and even electrified techniques.
Joining drummer Venkataraman will be award-winning Indian artists Ronu Majumdar, “India’s ace flautist,” on Bansuri flute and “veena whiz kid” Rajhesh Vaidhya on the stringed saraswati veena or chordophone. Harshad Kanetkar, tabla soloist and accompanist, will round out this Wind Whisperers ensemble. The Bansuri (bamboo) flute and saraswati veena are ancient Indian instruments, the flute from the North and the veena – named after Goddess of Education Saraswati – from the South. The répartée between these two
instruments and musicians is called “jugalbandi,” Venkataraman says, an ancient art form of duet between different instruments and styles.
Separately, these musicians have performed the world-round with renowned artists including Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Bela Fleck, Larry Coryell and Philip Glass. Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder called Majumdar the “Dr. Feelgood of Indian Flute,” while Vaidhya is known for his blistering speed and use of electric and amplified instruments. Majumdar is a Grammy nominee who has also recorded extensively for Bollywood artists; Vaidhya has contributed music for a number of cinematic and documentary projects; and Kanetkar’s recordings include solo works and music fusing Eastern and Western traditions.
Venkataraman, who teaches applied mathematics and neurology at California State-Long Beach when not performing, was enticed to America and mentored by Dr. Robert E. Brown, known as “the Godfather of World Music in the U.S.” Venkataraman also has performed at ETSU in the past, as a guest of the Department of Music and friend Dr. Alison Deadman, who met the drummer while they both were attending UCLA.
Mary B. Martin School of the Arts found a date in the Whisperers’ brief U.S. tour at Deadman’s suggestion. “We are always trying to work with our faculty on campus as much as possible, and this is a good example of how that can work,” says School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis. “Dr. Deadman teaches international music in some of her courses … and when she learned that these musicians were planning a tour in the U.S. and asked if we were interested, I said, ‘Yes. We are!’ ”
The combination of a lively South Indian community in the area, as well as many people from the area who don’t have any experience with this kind of music – in addition to the university’s concerted interest in multicultural education – made Wind Whisperers a good choice for the campus venue, DeAngelis and Deadman say.
“So, this is a wonderful opportunity for people to broaden their horizons, be curious,” says Deadman, professor of Music History. “It’s also an opportunity to hopefully meet the musicians. They would love to answer questions. You’re able to talk to them about, ‘What is that instrument?’ or ‘What was that sound?’ It’s also a wonderful opportunity for anyone interested in improvisation to see how people in other cultures improvise.”
Indian music is mostly improvised, Venkataraman says. “Improvisation is very common in Indian music because of the technique of teaching that we adopt,” he explains. “Going back many years, Indian music is an art form that is taught from teacher to student with no written notation. You learn the music just from being in the home of your teacher or your guru.”
Whether the Whisperers get to “rehearse” in the airport or not, their U.S. tour concerts will each have a slightly different mix of musicians and will be a traditional Indian musical meeting of the minds – or what in America is called a jam session. “These guys are going to come up on stage,” Venkataraman says. “We [the drummers] will just give them the time signature and they will do everything they possibly can, mathematically speaking, to bring it back to the head with absolute precision and perfection, because the mathematics is an exact science in Indian music.”
As a mathematician, though, Venkataraman does have a plan. “I have written and choreographed the music in such a way that it blends into a nice ensemble with the drums from both North and South India, and instrumentation from both North and South,” V.R. says. “I take a scale that is common to both languages and I compose the music in a very particular scale and I hand it over to the musicians and give them the opportunity to improvise. So, they actually bounce off their own energy that they create on stage.”
While for the drummers, it is all mathematical – eight beat cycle with 32 pulses or a five-beat cycle with 50 pulses – the audience only experiences the magic – and the love – of the multicultural musical conversation.
“Music brings that together in multiple manners,” he says. “It is the part of healing that needs to happen. Therefore, my one statement to everybody is: Understand the music, understand the humanity behind it … Love will conquer all. Music is the medium to bring that love together among human beings.”
For more information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587).