Saturday, August 13, 2011

Music for Dinner

I went to the nice Indian restaurant in my hotel for dinner last night and was pleased to discover that there was live music being played during dinner. A duo played interesting music on sitar and tabla which kept me quite entertained through the meal and for a while after as I sat and listened.

They were on a raised platform in the center of the restaurant, and several times tourists went up and stood in front of them for their friends to take pictures - I understand the impulse, but it seemed a little disrespectful.

Of course, if I had realized there was live music I'd have brought my Flip and gotten some video, so I don't have much room to be critical. I would've filmed from my table, but the difference is only a matter of degree.

The music was quite interesting. The first time I heard sitars and tabla playing was in the film "Concert for Bangladesh" which documents the grand-daddy of all benefit/aid shows, 2 shows put on to raise money and awareness for the people in what is now Bangladesh, who were suffering from the effects of a cyclone as well as political violence. Here's an image of the concert's album cover:
George Harrison - Concert for Bangladesh
I was fascinated by the sound and different rhythms, quite strange to my western trained ears but very musical and impressive. I've heard sitars and tabla live at Traveler's in Seattle too, it's fascinating sitting close and watching the performers hands, I suppose that's the typical approach for a technical nerd like me: spend at least half the time watching how the performers make the sounds they make, rather than enjoying the music the whole time. I enjoy things more when I think about them and analyze them, I suppose, but that's just me.

The performance at the restaurant last night wasn't as intense, but it still was enjoyable. The sounds of the tabla, the higher pitched faster finger strikes on the smaller drum and the louder lower sounds interjected on occasion gave the rhythm a very full presence for having a single player. The sitar playing was also beautiful, with strange (to my ears) progressions and sounds, fast runs up and down the fretboard, and the drone strings - err - droning in the background.

The "rules" in Indian sitar music are quite different from what I'm used to. The music would often hit an intense climax, which in almost any western song would have been the end of a tune, but here they filled beats and drone under the climax, then kicked the melody off again. Sometimes they seemed to continue roughly in the same vein, other times it sounded a bit like they were moving to a different progression after the climax, and I found I couldn't predict which way it was going to go at all. That difference from my musical expectations is a good part of what makes the music seem exotic to me, and increases the appeal quite a bit. The "tone" - the specific character of the sounds, the twangy sitar melodies, the odd collection of notes combining for the drone, the way the tabla generates quite a few different percussive sounds off of just two drums through skilled use of hands and fingers - that's the other part that seems exotic.

My instincts are totally out of whack, though. I went to a Sikh Gurdwara and didn't take my Flip since I wasn't sure it was allowed. It was, and I missed filming a very interesting performance. I went to the worlds largest Hindu temple complex and took my Flip - I wasn't going to miss out twice - only to find that cameras are not allowed there, and there wasn't any musical performance as part of religious observations anyway. I went to dinner without the Flip and missed another performance. Batting 0 for 3 so far, I suppose it can only get better from here.

I think I'll go see if they have a musical performance tonight, if so I'll eat dinner there again - this time with my Flip.

Postscript: I ate dinner in the same restaurant last night and listened to a sitar/tabla performance. This time I brought my Flip! The sound isn't great due to the fountain I was seated beside, and on some clips the waiter obscures things for a bit, but I'm happy I got some videos!

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