Ragamala was an epic experience — a 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall.
This was the fourth year that the Chicago Cultural Center has hosted an all-night Ragamala as part of World Music Festival Chicago. After attending a few hours of last year’s Ragamala, I decided to see the whole event this time. Learning from experience, I brought a pillow. So yes, I did doze off during a few of the performances, but I think the music still penetrated my subconscious brain.
Over the course of this Ragamala — the opening night of World Music Fest — I heard mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing music from India’s Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. Highlights for me included Partho Sarodi’s jaw-dropping performance on the sarod, a stringed instrument sounding a bit like an acoustic guitar crossed with a sitar; and the breathtaking vocals in the morning sets by the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe and Manjiri Vaishampayan.
This was also a rare opportunity to stay inside the Chicago Cultural Center overnight. The lights were dimmed in the middle of the night, and then the pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment.
World Music Fest Chicago, a festival of free concerts featuring musicians from around the world, finished up tonight. The five events I attended were outstanding, making me wish I’d had a chance to experience even more. I blogged earlier about the concerts by Hailu Mergia, Mahmoud Ahmed and Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa. Here are a few more of the performances I caught:
This was the third year of Ragamala, a marathon overnight performance of Indian classical music under Preston Bradley Hall’s beautiful dome in the Chicago Cultural Center. Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, musicians performed until 8 a.m. the following morning. I arrived a few minutes before midnight and stayed until 4 a.m. — longer than I’d planned. It was such an odd and beautiful experience that I wish I’d been able to be there for all 12 hours. (Maybe next time, if I plan better.) Some audience members brought pillows and blankets or even sleeping bags, resting or dozing off as the Indian musicians played their transporting melodies and drones. I nodded off a few times, but never lost contact with the lovely notes I was hearing.
When I walked in, the room was fairly crowded though not completely full. By the time I left at 4 a.m., there were about 100 people in the hall — and some new people were just showing up. I heard three sets of music: vocalist Sanhita Nandi, accompanied by Shyam Kane on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium; flutist Guruprasad Kathavate, accompanied by Sam Jeyasingham on mridangam; and vocalist Manjiri Vaishampayan, accompanied by Subhasis Mukherjee on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium. Each of these performances was delightful in its own way. Both singers had incredible voices that floated and flowed and danced through the droning harmonium chords. I didn’t know the meaning of the words, but the spirituality of it was clear. Guruprasad played flute in Indian’s Carnatic tradition, and his melodies were beguiling.
Based in Manitoba, Tanya Tagaq won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for her 2014 album Animism, which is filled with her weird, sometimes animalistic throat singing. Tagaq has sung with Björk, and she’s often compared with her. This Inuit singer from Canada’s Arctic north performed on Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Museum of Contemporary Art — improvising music to accompany a screening of Nanook of the North, the controversial landmark documentary from 1922 showing the same part of the world where Tagaq grew up. Violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin gave the music a structural foundation, while Tagaq sang, groaned and screamed with alarming ferocity. It was hard to believe she could make all of the sounds she was making. She stood still at some moments, but more often, she prowled the stage, moving like a dancer. Or an animal. She got down on her hands and knees and pulled rumbling growls somewhere from the depths of her body. It was a stunning spectacle to witness.
Zedashe Ensemble, a group of singers, dancers and musicians from the republic of Georgia, performed Sunday, Sept. 20, during a daylong series of concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center. They sing with harmonies that might sound strange to Western ears, reminiscent of the Bulgarian singers in Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares — and the effect was bracing and bold.