Phenomenal Cambridge evening from masters of their art, Jasdeep Singh Degun and Harkiret Bahra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cambridge Music Festival: Jasdeep Singh Degun (sitar), with Harkiret Bahra (tabla). Pembroke College, Cambridge, 7.3.2024. (CC)

Harkiret Bahra (tabla) and Jasdeep Singh Degun (sitar) rehearsing.

In the setting of the John Davison stage of Pembroke College’s wonderful new concert hall, Royal Philharmonic Society award-winner Jasdeep Singh Degun performed a short concert together with master tabla exponent Harkiret Bahra. The actual concert itself featured one raag, Jhinjhoti, with a short encore based upon Charukeshi.

The performance of raag is a high art form. A raag may be ascribed different parts of the day, and Jhinjhoti is an evening raag that is described by Wikipedia as ‘light and playful’; Bollywood lovers might like to know it was featured in the 1964 Telugu film Dr Chakravarty.

The performance of Jhinjhoti began, as is traditional, with an extended alap, an introductory section that more often than not emerges naturally from the settling down and tuning process. Singh Degan almost teased the performance into existence, allowing rhythm to gently infiltrate until it climaxed a markedly rhythmic passage, with strummed chords forming the bedrock of the higher-pitched improvisation. Throughout, one notes a very subtle, and varied, use of ‘vibrato’ and more extended bending of pitch.

The sheer variety of colour was astonishing from one instrument; in the sitar-only opening section, tabla player Harkiret Bahra looked entranced – and often delighted.

While one can map some of the musical processes heard in raag onto Western praxis (registral imitation, for example, or descending stepwise scales enhanced by upper neighbour-notes and, later, good old turns – music theorist Heinrich Schenker would have a ball!), raag has its own highly individual world. Honed through many centuries and offering a tradition of vivid improvisation still vibrantly alive today.

The tabla entered ever so gently. Singh Degun and Bahra are regular collaborators (as you can see a lockdown performance of the raag Charukeshi on YouTube, whose relevance will become clear shortly). The lower pitched of Bahra’s two drums seemed almost to speak its own language. Together from that point, Singh Degun and Bahra provided a varied route: there is a real analogy here with the idea borrowed from the art world of Paul Klee’s ‘taking a line for a walk’, perhaps (a line is a dot taken for a walk). Here, it is the raag itself that gets fresh air, and while many performances are linear in their increased striation towards a fast (and louder) climax, Singh Degun and Bahra offered an altogether more variegated experience. Most notable were the moments of near silence when the musical surface seemed to evaporate down to its barest essentials, and thence to silence, only to be taken up again. This was daring improvisation, and all the more exciting for it …

… and when the fast and furious passages came, they flew past, with sitar glissandos like slingshots. This was, from both Singh Degun and Bahra, a prime example of what the Western world would call ‘virtuosity’; and yet it was so much more, it was an explosion of possibilities from the raag itself.

One encore: Jasdeep Singh Degun released his debut album, Anomaly, in 2022. Here, it was the track Veer, based on the raag Charukeshi referred to earlier in this review.

A phenomenal evening, received with enthusiasm by the capacity audience.

Colin Clarke

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