“East is East and West is West,” Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, “and never the twain shall meet.”
Kipling never met Reena Esmail. A composer who is thoroughly trained in both Western and North Indian classical music, she comfortably combines the two in her personal experiences and work. And bringing that cross-cultural blend to a broader public has become her mission.
“I worked very deeply within both of these traditions, and the music that I write really aims to combine them and to draw the things that I love from both traditions together,” she says. “In a lot of situations, I’m the bridge from one culture into another, and I take that very seriously.”
Together with composer/percussionist Payton MacDonald, Esmail leads Shastra, an organization that aims to musically overthrow Kipling’s poetic decree. Or as the website states, Shastra “connects musicians working in both the Indian and Western musical traditions.”
“Shastra is a global organization,” Esmail explains. “People who do this work are all over the world, and it’s our mission to provide a global community. We do events in various places (where) we find artists within the community and feature them.”
Esmail and MacDonald bring their boundary-breaking project to the Dairy Arts Center in “Shastra! Indian/Western Fusion,” a concert featuring Front Range artists. “It’s basically a single evening of artists who do this kind of collaboration,” Esmail says. “It’s musicians but there’s also dance.”
In addition to the concert, The Dairy will present MacDonald’s film Sonic Divide in the Boedecker Theater. The film documents MacDonald’s 2016 bicycle ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, from Antelope Wells, New Mexico, to Banff, Canada. He rode the 2,500-plus mile route alone, stopping along the way to perform music composed specifically for the event.
Wednesday’s concert will feature MacDonald, performing works for voice and drone that are partly improvised, and local Indian fusion band JAMkey JAM, a duo of sitar and tabla (Indian drums), with additional percussion players. Boulder singer Sangeeta Ganguly will perform songs by Rabindranath Tagore.
Sarah Morelli, an ethnomusicology faculty member at the University of Denver, will perform Indian Kathak dance. And finally, written compositions by Esmail will be performed by clarinetist Conor Brown and viola d’amore player Matt Dane, both from Boulder.
“Every one of the musicians is outstanding,” says Jim Bailey, the Dairy’s curator of musical events. “It’s a project that’s not without complication, but it’s a project very much worth doing. And the music is great.”
One of the most fascinating cultural blends will be Ganguly’s songs of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Growing up in colonial India, Tagore heard Western music from childhood. Later in England he learned the folk music of that country, Scotland and Ireland.
Tagore wrote more than 2,000 songs, many of them with melodies that incorporate Western influences, but put into a distinctly Indian context. Ganguly, a Boulder resident, has specialized in learning and performing Tagore’s songs.
Esmail’s “Jhula Jhula” is the opposite of what Tagore did by placing Western melody in an Indian milieu. Here, the composer has taken music that has been passed down through many generations of her Indian family and written them into a piece for clarinet and piano. “This is an example of how Indian themes combine with Western harmonies and Western instruments,” Bailey says.
Another approach to the Indian-Western crossover is represented by JAMkey JAM. The group was started by two Nepalese musicians, Bijay Shrestha playing sitar and Nabin Shrestha playing tabla. Both grew up with traditional Indian music, which they have studied since childhood.
With a motto of “traditional music goes contemporary,” JAMkey JAM bases performances on traditional Indian ragas (a pattern of musical notes that is used as the basis for improvisation). Bailey says for the Dairy program, “they will be playing a classical Indian piece that will morph into a Western-Indian fusion.”
Esmail hopes that the Shastra organization and the Boulder concert will get more people interested in all the ingredients of their East-meets-West product. “Hopefully what will happen is that people who attend will get a sense of what the Indian-Western crossover community looks like,” she says.
“Maybe some people who only know Indian music will attend and hear something that appeals to them, and the people who know only Western music will attend and hear something that appeals to them. We hope to provide both of those experiences.
“People can come in and get their feet wet. Maybe one artist will really speak to them, and then they know someone new.”
On the Bill: “Shastra! Indian/Western Fusion.” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 3. Sonic Divide, film by Payton MacDonald. 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 2. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-444-7328.