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‘Carnatic Strings’: Raga Garage – The Lion King, the violinist, the pianist and a percussionist

‘Carnatic Strings’:  Raga Garage – The Lion King, the violinist, the pianist and a percussionist

July 20 2015

A double bill concert spotlights the stirring and different strands within classical south Indian music – and sees a unique blend of musical styles in the first half…

By Tasha Mathur

WORLD-renowned Indian violinist, Jyotsna Srikanth has returned to UK shores as she joins successful Western classical violinist Robert Atchinson, in yet another imaginative collaboration.
With a unique blend of Carnatic (South Indian classical) and Western music styles, Raga Garage, which plays one half of a double bill, creates a new and different sound that promises to introduce you to something different and unique. The name alludes to its classical Indian roots, raga (a classic basic melody) and ‘Garage’ denotes its popular appeal.
As Raga Garage prepare for their next big performance at the Purcell Room of Southbank Centre tomorrow, we had a quick chat with the team (Indian violinist Srikanth, Western violinist Robert Atchinson, pianist Shadrach Solomon and percussionist BC Manjunath) to find out what we can expect.
All are accomplished musicians with Srikanth playing music in over 200 Bollywood films and she is one of the best known Indian classical violinists based in the West. There is more on her here. (ACV): How was Raga Garage created?

Jyotsna Srikanth (JS): I went to “The Lion King” musical and the music was so nice that my son ran to the pit where the musicians were sitting. I told Robert Atchinson, that the music was great.
I told him that I’m also a musician and play the violin and we exchanged cards. Then Robert contacted me a few days later and we thought, “Why not collaborate?” So now he’s playing the Western classical and I’m playing the Indian classical. Normally with Indian music, the jazz style goes well and we didn’t know how Western classical would work. Then I worked with a keyboard player called Shadrach Solomon in Bangalore and included him too.

Robert Atchinson (RA): I wanted to work with Jyotsna once I realised how good she was. It was such an interesting subject matter for me because I’m very much lodged in the Western traditions and the Carnatic tradition is so completely different that I thought it would be a really good musical challenge for us to try and fuse those two disciplines together and I think we’re getting there now.

ACV: How would you explain the sounds that convey Raga Garage music?

JS: It’s an eclectic mix of Carnatic South Indian compositions with Western arrangements. I can say it’s exotic sounds from India and Europe.

Shadrach Solomon (SS) : Raga Garage is really raw. Rob is playing really authentic Western violin and Jyotsna is playing authentic Indian violin. I kind of play somewhere in between the two. So there’s a bridge that connects both the sides. I say it’s raw because both of these people are from two different cultures and I was brought up in a Western classical culture but my ears are also tuned to Indian music.

RA: What we’ve tried to do as oppose to actually fusing two styles is taking lots of bits from both of our cultures and trying to create something new. Because to actually have Carnatic music playing alongside Western classical music, is impossible because they are so completely different.
We’re trying to have some songs that are very Carnatic, some that are very Western and others that are uniquely ours. We’re trying to create a new style as oppose to just a simple fusion. Does that make sense? I’m confused after all that!

ACV: With Indian classical music and Western classical music being in such different styles, were there any challenges in trying to blend the two?

JS: It is challenging to blend two classical systems because the principles of Indian classical music and the Western classical music are totally different.
Indian classical music is all about improvisation whereas Western classical music is all notated. So blending these two was a challenge of course.

RA: I did have to research a fair amount of Carnatic music. It helps that Jyotsna has a good understanding of Western classical music as well but I had been listening to various Indian artists anyway, prior to this.

Manjunath (M): I’m trained in playing both the Western drums from my childhood and the Indian classical music systems; both Northern and the Southern. So I’ve found it easy to blend both because I know both the styles. So I can get any of the mathematics involved in music quite fast because I have been training in classical music.

ACV: Is there a particular audience you have in mind when creating Raga Garage music?

RA: I’ve always hated putting music into categories. For me, there’s just good music. It’s always been a frustration for me in the past with other things. All my classical stuff will go out under the classical music label.
I don’t like putting things into different boxes and I know a lot of people do but we’re a little bit out of the box. I don’t think we’ve gone out of our way to make our music appeal to a particular audience. We’ve just wanted to make good music and to have a lot of fun in the process and if that can be conveyed to the audience then they’ll have a good time as well and want to hear more.

ACV: Solomon, you mentioned acting as a bridge between Jyotsna and Robert, but how did this role come about for you?

The Madras String Quartet play the second half bill of 'Carnatic Strings'

SS: I was trained in Western classical piano but I had to play with the Indian musicians in India because I couldn’t find a Western classical group with whom I could collaborate.
So I started playing with an Indian band who played authentic South Indian classical music and I tried to play my Western chords or concepts with them.
I could sometimes see that the lead soloist didn’t like some of that. So I started to carve out some things of the Western classical to accommodate the feelings of the Indian musicians. And I actually modify some rules of the Western classical music to suit the Indian classical music.

ACV: What can audiences expect from your show at the Southbank Centre?

RA: It’s very interesting and easy to listen to music. If people come to what we’re doing with an open mind and heart with no pre-conceived ideas then they’ll really enjoy it. Just come with an open mind. One thing you won’t be is bored. And there’s nothing good on TV that night, I can tell you!

Not only do audiences have the unique opportunity of catching Raga Garage in action tomorrow, they will also have the chance to see the Madras String Quartet from Chennai in the second half. And with Raga Garage releasing some copies of their next album at tomorrow’s performance, it’s an opportunity you should not miss.

Madras String Quartet, is made up of the much respected legend in South Indian cinema and the Chennai Western Classical music scene, VS Narasimhan (violin), with popular concert and film musicians VR Sekar (cello), Mohan Rao (violin), and K Sasikumar (viola). They combine intricate melodic Indian classical compositions and Western harmonic principles, in their beautifully arranged repertoire.

Main top photo (l-r): BC Manjunath; Jyotsna Srikanth; Robert Atchinson; Shadrach Solomon; photo by Kiran Kumar of Nanatva

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture