Neel Murgai (MFAIA ’10) at the Brooklyn Bowl
Hi, I am Neel Murgai, a 2010 Goddard MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts graduate. I am a sitarist, composer, overtone singer, frame drummer and teacher. My practice draws from many traditions, including Indian classical, jazz, minimalism, experimental music and more. I had already been a professional musician for over a decade before I attended Goddard. My education there helped me to delve deeper into many ideas and projects that I had been ruminating about for years. These inquiries continue to inform my current practice in profound ways. I was encouraged to examine my place within historical traditions and contemporary movements.
In my Goddard work I wrote about my musical studies, created new works, researched mathematical and metaphysical aspects of music, and took a long hard look at cultural appropriation. As an Indian-American sitar player I constantly deal with issues of orientalism and appropriation. My goal is to de-exotify Indian music and bring it into the modern conversation as a beautiful art form, not a mystic tradition. As I educate people about the music I have studied, I hope to never again be told “Oh you play the sitar? I like Belly-Dance!” People seem to equate and confuse the “exotic other” into one giant package of sitar playing, belly-dancing, yoga contorting, kirtan chanting, mystic tribalism. I aim to defuse this, but at the same time I have played music for belly-dancers and yoga classes. Was I helping or hurting the situation? I continue to evaluate my own and contemporary work in this context.
Goddard helped me to take my ideas and make them realities. The most beneficial part of my Goddard experience was my practicum. While usually a community project, since I am so often performing and teaching for the community, I was encouraged to take a more personal approach. I created a new band for my original repertoire and recorded and released a CD (my first!) on Innova Records. This band brought to life a sound that I had been envisioning for a long time. I combined my sitar, compositions and musical direction with tabla, violin and cello to create a chamber raga-jazz group that continues to be my professional working ensemble. We will be releasing our second album this summer.
In recent years I have embarked on what I consider to be another practicum, finally embracing the full community aspect. Born out of a personal tragedy, 3 years ago I moved back to Brooklyn, NY after being upstate for a couple years. I wanted a weekly gig to find therapy in music and expression. My Indian music community embraced me and we realized that together we had hit critical mass. We cofounded a musician collective, the Brooklyn Raga Massive and started a weekly concert series and jam session. I help to curate, host, promote the night and of course play in the jam session. We present Indian classical and bands inspired by Indian music (such as my own), in a very relaxed bar atmosphere, as opposed to the usual stuffy, formal presentation of Indian music. Our community has grown stronger than ever after 3 years of weekly shows that have attracted music lovers and an incredible talent pool of musicians in the area.
Now we also travel to present other concerts and workshops as the Brooklyn Raga Massive, a rotating band of all-star members. We have just released a compilation CD of over 3 hours of music by our members. With BRM I have been able to achieve another idea from my Goddard days – A (mostly) Indian instrument performance of Terry Riley’s landmark minimalist composition, “In C.” Indian music is usually performed by small groups of 2 or 3 musicians. I was looking for ways to bring together a much larger group. Not very often do you find a band of over 20 Indian instruments playing together – and making exquisite music. “In C” let us do that. Terry Riley himself confirmed that we were the first Indian music group to perform the piece. Now I am encouraged to work on original music to hone the energy of this collective, in full realization of a Goddard vision.
[Compiled by Devora Neumark]
Photos courtesy of Neel Murgai.