Each year, an All Night Concert of Indian Music is held in the Synod Hall of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City — this year’s will be on May 13. The concert mirrors a North Indian tradition for the insufferably hot spring season that precedes the monsoon rains, when sleeping all day and staying up all night is a survival tactic.
I attended the concert once, several years ago, and made it to about 5 a.m. before I began seeing spots and decided I’d better make for the subway before I passed out completely. It was an extraordinary experience, not unlike my stay at Kopan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal: meditative, challenging, illuminating and baffling and humbling. I wondered who would attend such an event and was surprised to find a majority of Indians, many with books of ragas in which they followed along with the musicians, evincing a sophisticated level of appreciation that makes the season-ticket holders at Avery Fisher seem like dabblers.
Though European classical music has been known to go for the extended composition, the very idea of an all-night concert of it is nonsensical. The temporal structures are too crucial to the music, and the concentration demanded of the audience is considerable. Even abstract classical works tend to have architecture and a kind of narrative propulsion that reward close listening from beginning to end. They tell stories and express passions.
Hindustani classical music, by contrast, is steeped in the meditative traditions of India. You’d be hard pressed to find anything like an Ode to Joy, much less the bellicosity of an 1812 Overture or the romantic passions of Ravel or Stravinsky. Instead, there are rises and falls of intensity as the musicians drift apart and come together again, unified by a raga but improvising within it. I was told once that the way to listen to Indian music is to wait patiently for something to happen — some moment when the musicians find a momentary spark or convergence — to be aware that this may happen only occasionally over the course of a performance of many minutes or hours, and to accept each moment of the music as complete in itself. (This is also a good way to listen to John Coltrane.)
In this, Hindustani classical music is indeed much like meditation, in which the mind wanders, is refocused, wanders again, achieves a few instants of fleeting clarity and peace, and then floats off once more. Rather than expressing our passions, Hindustani classical music expresses the emotional experience of mastering them.
The most famous Hindustani instrument is the sitar, and its most famous musician is Ravi Shankar. “Ahiri-Lalita” is a straightforward short sitar raga.
The next piece, “Ghara-Dadra,” contains no sitar at all, though I have had people listen to it and insist otherwise. The sitar-like instrument is a Hawaiian guitar, played by Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra, in this case on the album Call of the Valley, which was a sensation when it was released in India in 1968 and is widely considered to be the best-selling Indian classical album of all time.
And then we come to Indian Vibes, with Paul Weller of The Jam on electric sitar and acoustic and electric guitar, Gerard Farrel on sitar, session musician and Weller associate Marco Nelson on bass, and Crispin Taylor of Galliano on drums — or at least that’s the best information I can find. There is no group called Indian Vibes, and the album, simply entitled Remixes, consists of nothing but seven versions of the 1960s Krieger Volker composition “Mathar,” first performed by the Dave Pike Set in 1968. I first heard this appealing little artifact while riding in a taxi — actually a small blue hatchback — from the Nepali city of Pokhara to the trailhead for our Himalayan trek. It remains an obscurity, although you tended to hear it a lot in Nepali record shops — though not nearly as often as the dreaded Tibetan Incantations version of the Buddhist chant “Om Mani Padme Hum,” complete with grandiose Chinese orchestration and New Age synthesizery pablum. Put on that record — or better yet, put it on two competing boom-boxes, out of sync — light up a little Nag Champa incense, and you’ll get a good sense of the Kathmandu tourist experience.