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Raga for beginners: Tabla, sitar player introduces students to Eastern music.
By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

Sitting backward on a dark stage, Big Sky High School's best musicians heard their ideas of rhythm and melody turned upside down and sideways.

They were gathered around Sandip Burman, an internationally renowned tabla and sitar player from Durgapur, India. With a style as imperious as it was unmatchable, he demonstrated the mathematical precision of a musical style thousands of years old.

“It's the first time I've ever been introduced to a different culture of music,” said tenor saxophone player James Fahlgren. “I was watching the way he uses the tip and back of his tongue - I can try that with my reed.”

 

 

“I thought it was really complex,” added clarinetist Erin Amsdill. “I really enjoyed it.”

Just as his playing demanded fidelity to precise rhythms and melodies, Burman's teaching style demanded complete attention from the class. He spotted and challenged anyone who appeared distracted, and at one point, advised students to cease laughing at a quip he made.

Burman first played his 20-string sitar with guitar student Matt Berger, one of three musicians accompanying him on his tour. In what he called a “guided improvisation,” Burman would lift out melodies for Berger to mimic, sometimes playing together, sometimes echoing the other man a beat ahead or behind. The two would tune their strings without losing either the rhythm or the underlying drone of the song.

He then asked percussionist Nick Kokonas to play the tabla, a pair of vase-shaped drums. After Kokonas performed some stately polyrhythms, Burman struck his own set like a cobra. Twisting his shoulders and grinning for emphasis, he dropped perfectly punctuated avalanches of beats from the two drums. Then, just by the way he touched the skin heads, he played major scales and chromatic scales as if he were hitting keys on a piano. By shifting the edges and heels of his hands, he made the drums whoop, squeak, drip and gurgle like water in a pipe.

The skills came from starting musical training when he was 6, Burman said. He was accepted as a disciple of Pandit Shyamal Bose of Calcutta, one of India's foremost tabla gurus. He has since performed with Ravi Shankar, Bela Fleck, Al DiMeola and Jack DeJohnette.

“I'm trying to get students excited,” Burman said. “I hope this touring carries on and they get to become like us and carry on the traditions. It is not easy, the responsibility.”

The Big Sky visit was one of dozens of school master classes Burman conducted this spring during a 25-date performing tour of the Pacific Northwest.

For Big Sky band director Leon Slater, the experience was almost overwhelming.

“Really what this is about is opening kids' minds,” Slater said. “I had a similar experience in college hearing Ravi Shankar. It really opened my ears to listening differently. He uses time signatures and counting methods we never hear in Western music. When he plays, sometimes you could feel the groove and sometimes it was like he was flipping time.”