Saturday, November 28, 2009

Recent VOAMusic features

VOA's music reporters recently filed the following reports on music:

Lady Gaga, the stage name for Stefani Germanotta, appears in a video interview in the VOA studios by Larry London. She discusses her smash debut CD, The Fame Monster, which alone has produced four Number One Billboard Pop Songs chart hits. This achievement set a new record, overtaking albums by Ace of Base and Avril Lavigne, each having three songs in that category from a single CD. For her album, the artist received nominations for nine MTV Awards, and for five American Music Awards, including Artist of the Year. It is interesting to note that three different versions were released--regular, deluxe, and limited. Click here to listen to samples.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is the subject of another VOA video feature, focusing on a stage presentation of the music and dance of that era. In his report, Greg Flakus interviews the Museum's Entertainment Manager, Victoria Reed, who says the museum's theater, the Stage Door Canteen, was modeled on establishments of the same name created in various American cities and abroad for lonely U.S. servicemen during the war. The piece includes several examples of 1940's music and dance.

Carrie Underwood, who was the year's finalist in the 2005 season of the blockbuster TV series Americal Idol, has released her third CD, Play On, which is her third album in a row to debut (in the first week of its release) at Number One on Billboard's Country music chart. Listen to Mary Morningstar's radio report on the CD; excerpts from the tracks from the album can be heard here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider: a partial review

Earlier this month, Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh (spike fiddle), performed with Brooklyn Rider, an adventurous and groundbreaking string quartet, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

The kamancheh is a member of the class of musical string instruments known as spike fiddles, in that they are played with a bow, but held upright with the instrument resting on a spike that extends to the ground. Varieties of the spike fiddle, more commonly known in some variant of the word rebab, are found from North Africa all across the Middle East and Asia to Indonesia; the instrument also occurs in greatly altered form as the rebec in medieval European music.

As such, the kamancheh shares a number of similarities in sound, timbre, and technique to the instruments of the western string quartet: the violin, the viola, and the cello. Thus it was logical, in the era of world music, for Kalhor to collaborate with Brooklyn Rider, one of the more adventurous contemporary string quartet ensembles, which is "is devoted both to the interpretation of existing quartet literature and to the creation of new works."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tim Westergren of Pandora Internet Radio: Interview

Earlier in the year Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Radio, was in Washington for a "Town Hall Meeting" with listeners, and he was generous enough to come to the VOA studios amidst his day's busy schedule for an interview.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pandora, it is the world's largest Internet radio "station", with well over 15 million listeners, according to Westergren.

I asked Tim about the origins of the name, which is certainly evocative:

When I asked what prompted him to found Pandora, he explained that the origins of the company came out of his own experience, serving as a band member, and later a film composer, when the taxonomy of music (see my earlier post on this topic) became a central preoccupation:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

VOAMusic blog joins VOAWorldMusic!

The Voice of America has a substantial amount of music programming scattered among its various operations. When I launched the VOAWorldMusic blog last year, I also started a separate blog, VOAMusic, that attempted to highlight on a single site, updated regularly, as much of VOA's music programming as possible. That effort was discontinued last summer for a variety of reasons, with the promise of joining the broader role of this blog site--a commitment that I'm now happy to undertake.

Recent VOA music stories:

See Amra Alirejsovic's video report from Washington on a multimedia music project, named Playing for Change, started by music producer Mark Johnson. Johnson explains its purpose, along with a video of various musicians, in the Introduction page of its Website:

"Playing for Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. No matter whether people come from different geographic, political, economic, spiritual or ideological backgrounds, music has the universal power to transcend and unite us as one human race. And with this truth firmly fixed in our minds, we set out to share it with the world."

The project, whose mission, stated above, is along similar lines to the purpose of this blog, also has a Facebook page, with over 80,000 fans.

VOA's veteran radio and television broadcaster Larry London produced a TV package on Ne-Yo, whose impressive career as an independent music producer highlights include five top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and two #1 albums. Click here for the Ne-Yo's own Web page, which includes samples of his music.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Falu's video interview from VOAWorldMusic

Falu, a.k.a. Falguni Shah, was kind enough to give me a television interview last year when she was in Washington as the opening act for the Pakistani supergroup Junoon (see my last posting, which promoed her 1 October concert at Joe's Pub in New York), and at that time my colleague Ravi Khanna produced a fine brief video feature based on my interview, with a short excerpt of "Copper Can", one of her most compelling songs.

Now that I've developed the necessary video editing ability, I'm happy to offer more extended portions of the interview, videotaped by the ever-capable Ilyas Khan of VOA's Urdu Service.

I began the interview by asking Falu who her first music teacher was:

In the course of her answer, after crediting her mother, Kishori Dalal, for her initial training, she refers to her next teacher, Ustad Sultan Khan. (The term "ustad", on one level, is roughly equivalent to "maestro" among Muslim musicians, and is used on another level to describe one's honored teacher, equivalent to "guru" among Hindu musicians.) She also appends the honorific "Sahib" after his name, again as a sign of respect. You may notice her touching her ear when she says his name--this, too, is a customary indication of humility when speaking of one's ustad or guru, or of some great musical figure of the past. (The gesture is distantly related to the practice in South Asia of having naughty children cross their arms and pull both ears, sometimes while bouncing up and down as though sitting on their heels, as penance for bad behavior. . . .)

Ustad Sultan Khan is one of the world's leading masters of the sarangi, a fiendishly difficult box fiddle with a skin head, four main strings, and up to 40 sympathetic strings, with a haunting sound and expressiveness close to that of the human voice--which accounts for the fact that it historically has been used to accompany classical vocalists, mimicking almost exactly their improvisations after a split second.

Falu next mentions that she studied singing in the purely classical style with Vandana Katti, a disciple (the customary word for lifetime student) of Kishori Amonkar, one of the greatest vocalists in the Hindustani (Northern South Asian) style of classical music. She represents the Jaipur gharana, or musical/hereditary tradition associated with the princely Indian city of Jaipur. (I'll have more to say on the phenomenon of gharana in a later post.)

Next I asked Falu whether she remembered her first lesson, playful or formal:

Demonstrating how she was taught as a baby being fed by her mother, she sings (very quickly) the seven basic notes of the basic musical scale, or sargam, prevalent in South Asia (the same basic musical system exists in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, but in common parlance--and hereafter in this blog--the music is generally referred to as "Indian" music.). The word sargam is formed from the first three of the seven basic notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (Sa), which correspond roughly to the western Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti (Do). Click here for my more detailed description of the Indian sargam.)

She then sings the sargam--in a scale corresponding to the western major scale--shifted up one tone, in a musical process called modulation (key or chord change) in the west, but keeping the same names for the notes, since there is no absolute pitch in Indian music.

Then she changes the scale to that based on another mode or raga, Bhairav, with a flatted second (flat Re/Re) and sixth (flat Dha/La) and the rest of the notes natural. A raga is the format for the basic melodic structure in Indian music; click here for my brief definition of raga.

When I asked her what brought her to the U.S., she replied that while she felt extremely loyal to her classical Indian roots, she was attracted by western music and its various genres: jazz, blues, rock and pop, and the opportunities they offered her for innovation:

Knowing that improvisation is an integral part of Indian classical music, I was curious as to what circumstances led to her writing her first song. Her answer was immediate!

The next logical question was: "What was that first original song?"

Toward the end of her answer, I couldn't suppress a brief off-mike reference to "Both Sides Now", the seminal song by the legendary Joni Mitchell, and she agreed: "Yes, blame the clouds!"

She notes that the song was based on a classical raga, Bairagi Bhairav, a pentatonic (five-tone) raga, with the scale Sa Reb Ma Pa Nib (Sa) (Do Reb Fa Sol Tib (Do)--the "b" indicating the flat interval. In the course of the song, for a brief passage she actually sings the sargam of the scale, with the names of the notes as the words! (If I may be permitted a comment in my capacity of ethnomusicologist: the blending of Indian elements--including the raga--with a western pop sensibility and instrumental idiom in "Hey Baby" is stunningly effective, to the extend that no western listener is likely to hear anything foreign in the song, while at the same time someone familiar with South Asian classical music will most probably recognize immediately, at least subconsciously, the modal structure.)

Here is a brief audio example (used with permission) from "Hey Baby", in which she is actually singing the names of the notes--a common technique in a performance in the classical vocal style, khayal:

Finally, I referred to one reviewer's description of her as the happiest singer he had ever heard. Her response:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

From Lahore, Pakistan

After two weeks of intense musical activity in Pakistan, sponsored by the U. S. Department of State, my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I are spending our last day awaiting a television interview by the Associated Press of Pakistan. Between various commitments and somewhat slow Internet access, I have chosen to complete as many assignments (performances, being interviewed, and interviewing) as possible, in giving something of a survey of classical South Asian music and its audience in Pakistan, and planning to post later in more detail once we return again to the U.S.


In Karachi, we were honored to participate in the observation of the 8th Annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days by performing in a concert sponsored by the U.S. Consulate. In addition, we gave a lecture-demonstration at the The National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) (their Website is under construction), and after performing at an off-campus seminar of The Aga Khan University (their Website is, we subsequently heard an on-campus lecture on musical fusion efforts between Pakistani and Kenyan artists at, as well as a performance there by both classical vocalists and instrumentalists from a non-profit musical advocacy organization called sampurna (Website also under construction at