Exploring New Musical Frontiers in India

The slide guitar is a beloved voice in blues, country and rock music. In India, slide musicians favor an ancient instrument called the Chitravina. N. Ravikiran, one of the country's best-known players, hopes to expand the instrument's popularity and push its musical frontiers.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On to a story about a remarkable musician in India. His name is N. Ravikiran, and he's a master of an ancient string instrument called the Chitravina. It uses a slide like a slide guitar heard in the blues or Hawaiian music. Ravikiran lives in Chennai, India, though he travels around the world as an ambassador of his instrument. Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers introduces us to Ravikiran and his music.

(Soundbite of Chitravina music)

JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS reporting:

The Chitravina is shaped something like E.T. Its neck extends from a deep, wooden bowl across a big, bulbous gourd to a carved dragon's head. Ravikiran sits on the floor in front of the instrument, gliding over the strings with a Teflon slide.

(Soundbite of Chitravina music)

RODGERS: Ravikiran's Chitravina is about 80 years old, but the instrument's history goes back more than 2,000 years. Recently he designed a modern version he calls the Nava Chitravina.

RAVIKIRAN: It has 20 strings. As you can see, there are six on top, three on the side for drone and...

(Soundbite of Chitravina)

RAVIKIRAN: ...a set of 11 sympathetic resonating strings below. So these actually produce a fantastic resonance right through the time you play.

(Soundbite of Chitravina)

RODGERS: The Chitravina is a very different animal than the Indian slide guitar popularized by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. He won a Grammy in 1993 for his CD with Ry Cooder, "A Meeting By the River." Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Ravikiran represent different branches of Indian classical music. Bhatt plays north Indian Hindustani music, while Ravikiran comes from the south Indian Carnatic tradition.

(Soundbite of Chitravina music)

RODGERS: Compared to its northern counterpart, Carnatic music, generally speaking, is friskier and funkier.

(Soundbite of Chitravina music)

RODGERS: Ravikiran's family has almost single-handedly kept the Chitravina from obscurity. His grandfather passed the tradition to his father, who in turn began teaching Carnatic ragas, or melodic scales, to his children practically at birth.

RAVIKIRAN: He would just walk into the room and sing something incredibly attractive, and the child, whatever it was doing, it would just look up. And then he would just whisper the name of the raga. And that would register so beautifully into the child's head that, you know, it would be tough for the child to forget it. I mean, this also presumes that a child is also a bit gifted to start with. But my father's belief was that any normal child is already gifted enough to learn the fundamentals of music, and so he taught me something like 325 different ragas by the time I was two years. And so...

RODGERS: Ravikiran's bio brings new meaning to child prodigy. At age two, he appeared on stage with his father and reportedly identified by ear hundreds of ragas and talas, or rhythmic cycles. He began giving vocal concerts at age five, then debuted on the Chitravina when he was 11. In Ravikiran's hands, the Chitravina expresses all the nuances of the human voice.

(Soundbite of Chitravina music)

RAVIKIRAN: (Singing in Indian)

RODGERS: On a CD called "Mumtaz Mahal," Ravikiran echoes the singing of blues man Taj Mahal.

(Soundbite of song)

TAJ MAHAL: Uh-huh, uh. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm. Mm, mm, mm, mm. Now, y'all, come on. Play in my good town. Honey, don't you be ready (unintelligible).

RAVIKIRAN: The mode of oscillation and the micro tones that are possible on the human voice, you can just bring it out on the slate. In fact, that's one of the things that really fascinated Taj Mahal when he recorded with me. He used to sing all this minute, you know, micro tonic phrasings in his blues kind of style. And this could almost produce anything that he sang. It was really fascinating for both of us.

RODGERS: These days Ravikiran is immersed in his most ambitious cross-cultural project, which he calls melharmony. His melharmonic music is written for Western orchestra, with or without the Chitravina. He plays a sample passage on his computer.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: Indian classical music has no harmony, per se. It's based entirely on melody and rhythm. The idea behind melharmony is to fuse raga-style melodies with harmonies that follow the rules of the raga.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: Now in his late 30s, Ravikiran continues to play and teach Carnatic music, while collaborating with artists around the world. His recent CD, "Rays and Forays," brings together musicians from Brazil, China, India and the US.

(Soundbite of music)

RAVIKIRAN: The main thing is I still feel that, you know, the full potential of the slide can still be exposed further.

RODGERS: For NPR News, this is Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.

(Soundbite of music)

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