Interview by Ken Farmer
OPUS 1 takes over Merriweather Post Pavilion on October 7th and to get you ready for what is sure to be an incredible mixture of art, music and technology, we have an awesome interview between Ken Farmer (creative director of Wild Dogs International / one of the folks behind OPUS 1) and Neel Murgai of Brooklyn Raga Massive. The band will be one of the first playing the Chrysalis that day, essentially kicking off all the amazing festivities to come.
First off, can you explain what raga is to those of us who may not know?
Raga literally means “that which colors the mind,” so a raga can be said to create a painting in your mind. Practically a raga consists of a scale, which may be different ascending and descending, as well as characteristic melodic phrases. This comprises a set of rules that an artist can use to improvise and bring out the mood of the raga. In North Indian classical music, ragas are associated with certain times of day and also seasons.
It is said that ragas have therapeutic qualities. Can you tell us about these?
Each raga has a certain mood and feeling ascribed to it. The highest level performers of Indian classical music and raga tune in to the mood and feeling of the audience to select a raga, and uplift and inspire equally.
Ritual and music are themes that suffuse a lot of the programming of OPUS 1. How does raga figure in some of the rituals of India?
Some of the ragas are said to have come from Vedic chants and rituals. Nowadays, elements of raga inspire melodies in songs from many different religions of India, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and more.
Your name – Brooklyn Raga Massive – illustrates very well that your work spans two (if not more) cultures. Can you tell us about how you achieve cultural fusion through the medium of music?
Many of the members of Brooklyn Raga Massive are well versed in numerous forms of music from around the world. To us the music is already fused! We are always on the lookout for more genres to work with. We feel that by treating each culture and style with respect, we can play and mix it up with anyone.
Is music better at doing this than other media?
Not better, but music is the most immediate and responsive form. You can hear musicians dialoguing, improvising and responding to each other in real time.
John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and more have all been the subjects of tributes by BRM. How do you go about choosing artists to cover? Do certain types of music lend themselves better to raga?
The songs and artists we choose to cover have one main characteristic: they have inspired us for years! Jazz has a particular affinity to Indian classical music due to its improvisational nature. Other modal music forms also lend themselves well. Early minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass found inspiration in the concepts of Indian music.
Why did you choose Terry Riley’s In C to cover, and what does it mean to perform that piece on the iconic new Chrysalis Stage at OPUS 1?
Indian classical music performance is a lonely affair compared to Western classical music, with a maximum of four or five musicians and often just two. As Brooklyn Raga Massive grew and achieved critical mass, we sought a way for the whole collective to play together and perform beautiful music. We identified “In C” as an accessible way for us to achieve that. Terry Riley is a long time practitioner of North Indian classical vocal music, having studied with Pundit Pran Nath. He began his raga studies after composing “In C,” but the piece certainly lends itself well to a raga treatment. In our arrangement we incorporate raga phrases and ornamentations, improvised solos and driving tabla rhythms. BRM welcomes the opportunity to share this iconic music with a new audience on an iconic new stage that seems tailor made for the psychedelic journey that is “In C”.