Most Americans know Indian music through Ravi Shankar and his astonishing stream of disciples, from the Beatles to Philip Glass. But while we all have had a taste of Indian court traditions, hardly anyone knows about India's "other" music, especially the rich song repertoire from village cultures.
For the programming staff of Round House Theatre's Monday music series, a classical sitarist or flute player would have been a safer bet than Bengali folk music. But this "Cultural Treasures" series is expanding our perception of the category.
What was sacrificed in audience turnout for the Ganga concert was gained in the quality of cultural exchange. Father Jita Brata Roy, who introduced the songs and traditions handed down orally, was as eloquent speaking as he was singing. But because of the power conveyed by the songs themselves, Jita Brata Roy could have talked less and made more music.
For centuries, the Bengal people have been singing mournful, refrain-based songs like "Jokhon Phool," which deals with the indifference of men to the aspirations of women; and "Chal Mini Assam," which documents a history of struggle against the British plantation system.
To some, the music might sound "simpler" than Ravi Shankar's. Compared with the flamboyantly polyphonic textures that sitarists weave over the course of an hour-long raga, a Bengali song is more like a Western folk tune -- monophonic, performed either solo or as a response. In contrast to the meditative quality of the raga -- which was demonstrated by sitarist Sanjay Mishra -- a Bengali song's direct message rides on the repeated refrain. Simple as this may seem, the music is hardly simplistic emotionally. The "breaks" of voice lend a defiant quality to the music, as do percussive contrasts like ankle bells and little brass cymbals.