Off Into The Mystic: Sitar Sounds On the East Side

Date: Oct. 13th, 2010

Concert review by Jim Hoey

photo by Ren Udae

Coming into this show on the Lower East Side a song or two late, I felt a rush to finally be inside the dark interior of this theater, ready to hear sitar, sax, and drums played in a mystical way. It was a cool October evening, leaves outside in the wind somewhere, the stage where Dawoud the sitar mystic was playing designed for theatrical performances, with seats rising up, a dark, bare sliver of an amphitheater (hey, it is NYC after all). Once inside, the music of Dawoud on sitar,  Ravish Momin on drums, and Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi on sax rose up and hit me as I made my way around and down to a seat in the front, confronting my ears with an East-meets-West improvisational mix.

I’d seen this lineup before at the University of the Streets months ago, but tonight the vibe (and when discussing mystical-sufi-sitar music there must be no qualms about discussing the ineffable intangibility of “the vibe”, I believe) was more touch-and-go.

Dawoud on a traditional cushioned dais of sorts, supporting his electrified sitar, made the picture of the mystic, with
Ravish Momin to the right behind the set with some electronics nearby, and Saadat in between, hair pulled up
into a signature grey top-knot, an Iranian “Green Movement” shirt on.

First off, all three of these musicians are operating on an enlightened level, playing with years of experience and their own take on their respective instruments: Saadat (of The Tehran-Dakar Brothers) from Iran balancing on the edges of the modern avant-jazz idiom with drops into skronk and arabic/sephardic tones, Momin (leader of Trio Tarana) from India able to reproduce the classic tabla rhythmic accompaniments that traditionally back sitar and able to experiment with electronics and sampling, and Dawoud from the midwest, USA, yet a Muslim-Sufi somehow steeped in the mysticism of the Far East, carrying the Ravi Shankar/George Harrison banner into the next generation.

All this adds up on-stage to incredible moments at times, especially on the more traditional numbers. I found myself transported in the way anyone familiar with classic sitar would know: layers of knowing expressed through music pulsing out, a building tension moving in non-Western scales, with improvisational segments in the right places, and the musicians with the skill to smoothly transition from part to part.

So it was on the more mixed pieces where breaks in the spell first started to creep in, or some repetition began to break the mood. The trio seemed to be caught on these songs between the familiar territory of the classical style and the next step into the experimental. What’s ironic is that individually it seems that all of them can make that move, but they just hadn’t found the best way that this trio would be doing that together (when outside the more traditional pieces). It looked like Saadat wanted to add more chaos and speed to his parts as he was pacing the back area of the stage behind the drum set and testing the door to the backstage (“Let me out of here” or “Let in some fresh air” ?) , but was held back by the structure of the songs, or maybe directly by the leader Dawoud, and that Momin after so ably supporting the mystic sitar pieces, was ready to swing off into trip-hop or blast beats or even jungle breaks, but again, just never did.

And then there’s Dawoud, putting down the sitar to pick up a guitar and play a beautiful jazz progression only to go off into new age Hendrix stylings that were out of touch and went on and seemed unsupported by the other members in the band. At that point, they lost me, as I wondered about this bill too. Dawoud’s group was the only one playing this night, so even though this venue is set in the heart of the village, surrounded by NYU and hundreds of jazz cats who would be happy and lucky to play on this bill, despite that, there were only five or six people there and no other bands to make the night more lively. At that point also, I recalled the other night at the University of the Streets when I caught their show and I remembered that there was a similar turnout. I can’t help thinking that, as hard as it is in NYC to get people to support the music, the artists have to do as much as they can to make the night as attractive as possible. It was a let down not only to see such a quiet ambiance (I could have forgotten that and felt like I stumbled upon a secret, hidden gem of a night), but also to see such obviously talented musicians looking a little stranded themselves. Chalk it up to an off night perhaps, or something a little more deep-seated, but if I go back to another show, I hope I can catch some whirling dervishes in the act before or after, maybe a belly dancer or two, and some other artists to offer a contrast and a bit more energy to the whole scene, especially when there’s such a tempting glimpse of the sublime to be found in the middle of it all.

Read and watch more about Dawoud in DBDBD