When internationally renowned sitar master Ustad Imrat Khan died in St. Louis in November 2018, he left behind musical disciples who are determined to carry on the guru’s legacy.
Four musicians who’ve applied Khan’s teachings to different styles of music from around the world will perform in a new ensemble Saturday at First Congregational Church of Webster Groves.
Bandleader Todd Mosby steers the group into an innovative blend of eastern and western musical forms — a style so unusual, he needed to invent an instrument to play it.
World Fusion Ensemble includes Farshid Etniko on doumbek and the 11-string Persian tar; Seema Kasthuri, a practitioner of the vocal-heavy Carnatic style of southern Indian music; and Seema’s husband, Prasanna Kasthuri, a percussionist and guru of classical Indian dance.
Mosby, a St. Louis native, has spent years fusing elements of jazz and the Hindustani classical music of northern India, which is based on an extensive series of established rhythmic patterns and melodic forms.
To facilitate this melding of musical traditions, he developed a hybrid of guitar and sitar.
“It’s an instrument for the 21st century. It’s a bridge instrument,” Mosby said as he displayed acoustic and electric varieties of it at his home studio. He developed the prototype in 1998 with Khan and guitar luthier Kim Schwartz.
The double-necked, 19-string instrument, which he calls the Imrat guitar, allows him to play the library of chords sitting at the root of much western music as well as the resonating single-note patterns, organized around tonal centers, that feed classical Indian styles.
Mosby performs as a solo artist on acoustic guitar, leads his own New Horizons Ensemble, and plays with Will Ackerman’s quartet of guitarists. Compositions like “Water Dancer,” on Mosby’s newly released album “Open Waters,” meld chord changes familiar from jazz and the 16-beat melodies of north Indian music.
The four musicians he assembled for this one-off concert all had relationships with Khan, who was born in Calcutta to a revered musical family and became a master of both sitar and its lower-toned relative, the surbahar.
In the mid-1960s, founding Rolling Stones member Brian Jones sought out Khan’s instruction on sitar. The Beatles’ George Harrison followed suit, but later studied under Ravi Shankar when Khan withdrew from the London pop scene. Khan later said he was turned off by rampant drug use and was not interested in getting involved with pop music.
For the last 26 years of his life, Khan lived in St. Louis, where he was an artist in residence at Washington University.
Though Mosby has played separately with Etniko and with Seema Kasturi, the quartet featured in Saturday’s concert has never played together.
During a rehearsal at the downstairs dance studio at the Kasthuris' home, they tapped into their shared musical training to work out song arrangements and even build spontaneous compositions on the fly.
At one point they improvised overlapping vocals over a jazz chord progression.
“Oh, I love this,” Mosby exclaims after, “That was so cool!”
During a rehearsal break, Seema Kasthuri described the musical fluidity of the ad-hoc ensemble.
“Nobody has to spend too much time saying what to do or not to do. We just pick it up. It’s amazing that we’re able to pick it up and talk our languages, our musical language,” she said. “We were sitting here making music and it all just happened.”
Prasanna and Seema Kasthuri, both natives of India, are co-artistic directors of Soorya Performing Arts, which produces and offers training in various forms of classical Indian dance, music and theater. Last year, Seema released a collaboration with Columbia, Missouri-based rapper Zach Harrison. She’s also applied Carnatic singing style to more pop-based efforts.
Farshid Etniko shares the urge to combine musical styles, an aesthetic he developed while living and working around the world. He left his native Iran at age 17 and lived in France for 15 years before resettling in the United States 20 years ago.
“My personality is kind of a mix of three different countries, so my music is, as well,” he said. He’s picked up many musical influences in his travels. “I had the chance to play with a lot of different European musicians, gypsy musicians, jazz musicians,” he said, “and blues, of course. Later on … I got very much influenced by Latin music like salsa and bossa nova.”
He’s motivated the most, he said, by the thrill of musical spontaneity.
“What’s really important in my music is the improvisation and the jump in the unknown. What’s going to happen next?”
Toward the end of rehearsal, Mosby led the group through one of his compositions, a multi-part suite. He repeated a melody on Imrat guitar and looked around to see if his bandmates recognized it. He called it an “Imrat melody,” ingrained in Mosby’s style from years of training with the master.
“Remember that?” he asked. “I did that with Imrat about 200,000 times. I can’t get it out of my head. Like, everything I do has that in it.”
The influence of their friend and teacher was palpable.
But within it, creation sprang anew. Etniko played a new rhythm on doumbek. Mosby switched his Imrat guitar for an acoustic guitar. And the musical merge continued.
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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