When I first saw them, I was quite suspicious because the Indian sitar player was blindingly white and blond, whiter than any high-caste Indian - worse still, he was a lanky, lolloping young Australian with a pony tail - all impediments not to be trifled with. When he closed his eyes in anticipated spiritual bliss before striking a single note, I was ready to leave.
His side-kick (and I use the description advisedly) on the tablas was no more promising, though the genuine article -sparkle-eyed, shoe-polish Indian alright. He was billed as a hospital worker from the Kent and Canterbury, rather than a nimble-fingered career musician with a vocation. Just having undergone medical tests in this and other regional establishments, I was not enamoured and clearly prejudiced.
As for the third party of the trio, he was invisible. Described as a young Greek picked up from a pavement in Greater Cyprus in Green Lanes, London, his unattended microphone simply divided the cosy Indian duo, causing howling feedback between them on tuning up. It was clearly a question of failed 'Enosis', joining with the fatherland or mother country, depending on your proclivities, being on the agenda but not yet achieved, as with the island of his provenance.
Then they started, hesitantly at first, interrupting their introductory taxims of melodious promise with the ill-timed cacophony of intermittent calls 'Can you hear at the back there?'
Eventually, they got into their stride, the Australian youth on stage re-opened his eyes and played the sitar as though he had learned it in a previous incarnation. After some absentminded DIY tapping on the side of his tablas to tune them up and turn us on, the KCC worker kicked in with some superbly crisp drumming, in which you could hear every single fingertip tapped, jointly as well as severally, at precisely waxing and waning urgencies. A few Indians in the audience started to give out the first odd moans of appreciation, an endearing cultural mannerism that, for non-Indians, is hard to disassociate from the lowing of smugly satisfied bovine beasts in moist, warm stables. A girl sitting beside me and intent on arousing her boy-friend, lost interest in the inside life of his denim pocket in favour of these unassuming musicians, and I began to feel bad about my initial prejudices.
In fact, they played superbly, very lyrical ragas that made the audience close their eyes, too, while Mr washed-out looking Australian caressed his sitar strings with open, inward looking eyes that had obviously absorbed the exquisite sophistication of Indian music.
The tabla player, all bonhomie and wobbly head-shakingness, now smiled consummately at his audience, almost as though he owned them - he literally had them under the palm of his hand by now. But what of the scarce Cypriot the scarlet pimpernel? He was found in the bar, drinking glasses of Courage (a brand of beer in England) - and 1 mean the courage he needed to perform. It turned out he had never consciously performed before, his pavement art being more a way of paying for the next cup of tea.
After the break, however, he materialised and squeezed himself in between the Indian and would-be Indian protagonists, unable to fold away his legs as neatly as his musical mates, and bent over a miniature instrument called a báglama. 1 happen to know all about it, given my long-standing interest in ethnic music, but most people looked in wonderment at the little tamagutchi he seemed to be cradling so close to his chest.
The báglama is the smallest lute there is, and like all good Greek instruments, comes from Turkey, thus hopefully reconciling any unresolved vicissitudes the shy young Cypriot might have felt. He awkwardly introduced himself, getting up from his cramped position like one of those folding platforms to get up to street lamp level. After lengthy re-settling, he tuned up his miniature instrument - very high pling-pling sounds, and while doing so explained that both the old music from Epirus and the Rebetika of the hashish dens of the Athens of the thirties were conveyed by this little toy instrument. Rebetika, because of its social messages, drug culture and explicit songs of love and sexual longing, had been banned by the Greek Colonels (just as is Rai in Algeria for the same reasons today), and had therefore seen its re-discovery and a huge revival in the last 10 years from which Greek Radio has yet to recover.
The tabla player now explained that this young Greek had shown a remarkable ability to use and adapt his own more oriental traditional musical mannerisms to empathise with the melismatic Indian ragas. And indeed, after a faltering start, with lots of embarrassed but nonetheless devastating smiles into the audience, young Yorgos (who else?!) joined in the oriental dreams of the Indian ragas, providing a soaring top line of moody meanderings to the more meditative musings of the sitar, while the table player imposed some rhythmic discipline over the sinuous strands of music that might have otherwise soared off heavenwards. It was absolutely sublime. The courting couple next to me had slipped down onto the floor by now, totally blissed out by the innate sensuality of this spiritual experience. What it is to be young, untroubled by the natural fusion of the physical with the spiritual! But the experience was by no means only for the young, even though the audience is always mostly made up of university students and a few die-hards like me.
The gig finished with a short, intensely tuneful, lyrical raga, and 1 was truly swept off my feet and floating up towards nirvana when those in the know started to hum along with it, ever so gently, looking transfixed. Apparently, it was Mahatma Ghandi's favourite raga, and every Indian person in the audience knew it, of course.
When they had finished, the audience sat there as if caught in a trance, unable to get up or come down from wherever they had been spirited to; only when these three magicians actually unceremoniously left the stage, did the people rip themselves up into a standing ovation, shouting for more and more and more.
When the tabla player made a joke, asking if we'd like to hear a late-night raga which would go on for about 70 minutes, people roared with approval, even though it was 11pm already. The poor man from the Kent and Canterbury had misjudged his audience completely - in fact, disastrously, because people did not want to leave after a mere and modestly simple repeat of Ghandi's favourite tune. And that was it! No more!
I, too, sat there as if paralysed - wounded by the searing beauty of the music - for quite a few minutes too long beyond the due time to get up and leave, and there was such a great feeling of fraternisation and all-embracing humanity in the audience that people smiled at each other with unbridled generosity. It was better than any drug party of the 60ies could have been. And it was obviously better than sex, if my neighbours were anything to go by. Turning to me, the bohemian looking boy-friend of the randy girl next to me said, to my utter surprise, if not quizzical consternation, that he looked forward to seeing me again at such an uplifting experience.
And I thought it was his girl-friend who would provide for the uplift!
Content © R Reisenberger, 1998