When we think of Indian raga, most of us will think of the sitar, and perhaps the sarod, the most common instrument used in performing this classical Indian music. What we don’t think of is flutes, in the case of this performance of the Raga Hindolam/Malkauns a flute duet (known as a jugulbandi) that sounds in places like “Benny Goodman Goes Subcontinental.”
The two soloists on this recording represent the two main schools of Indian music. Hariprasad Chaurasia hails from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and is a practitioner of the Hindustani mode, while “Flute” Ramani received his training in Madras, a stronghold of the southern Carnatic tradition. While both schools rely on the raga, with associated tala, as a basic melodic form, they approach the actual rendition of the music quite differently, with varying tonalities and colorations and, in fact, a different approach to the way a raga is actually structured in performance.
The main work on this disc is a combination of the Carnatic Raga Hindolam, a pentatonic raga, and the Hindustani Raga Malkauns, both very popular works in the Indian canon.
The flutes used are bamboo flutes, with a basic sound akin to the Japanese shakuhachi or the American Indian cedar flute, but the range of coloration that these two artists pull from their instruments is nothing short of amazing. The opening is a softly melancholy interlude over a sinuous drone; performed by Ramani, it progresses to some amazing riffs that call to mind a trumpet in some of the colorations employed. Chaurasia provides some beautifully understated replies in this section that serve as an exceptionally apt foil to the excitement of Ramani’s playing.
The teental is a percussionist’s delight. The mridangam, played in this recording by Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, is the reigning percussion instrument in the south, while the more familiar tabla, here by Anindo Chatterjee, is its northern counterpart. The teental, always the percussionist’s showcase in raga, is in this performance an intricate and sometimes mesmerizing interchange — I got completely caught up in it.
The role of improvisation in raga is a basic one — without it, the form would be radically different that what we hear, and undoubtedly not nearly so interesting. The interchanges between the two flutists are deft and intricate, sometimes indeed calling up echoes of American jazz but going far beyond anything I’ve ever heard from that source. The range of colors Ramani and Chaurasia call forth is astonishing — like a tour of an orchestral wind section, with some brief forays into the brass.
The collection finishes with a brief movement from the Raga Pahadi, a Hindustani raga that has a very “country” feel to it — an indication that Western musicians are not the only ones who periodically dip back into their folk music roots. Chaurasia takes center stage here, with telling commentary by Ramani, in a quietly lovely movement that amply illustrates Chaurasia’s reputation for incorporating the feel of the natural world into his music.
(Felmay Records, 2004)