Acclaimed North American sitar player Josh Feinberg will be performing in Indianapolis this Saturday, May 16. I spoke with Feinberg via phone and he explained how his adolescent interest in North Indian classical music developed into a serious career within the art-form.
NUVO: I read that your interest in Indian music was born from your childhood studies of Western classical and jazz.
Josh Feinberg: I started classical piano instruction when I was four years old. From the very beginning I was more interested in creation and improvisation. I used to fight with my teachers about having to learn to read music. I actually didn't learn how to read music until I started playing bass when I was eight. So I had four years of classical music instruction playing by ear. They would play something and I would copy them.
At the same time I was improvising and making things up. Bass provided me an avenue to jazz which fulfilled my desire to improvise. I was also playing classical music on the bass, but I found that I became frustrated with the limitations of the instrument and the role of the instrument. I felt I had more to say than the instrument would allow in that incarnation.
I also was frustrated with the rough nature of some of the jazz I was playing. I longed for the refinement of classical music and the improvisation of jazz. That's why I felt I really found my music within North Indian music because it really combines those two approaches completely.
Just to trace the path, I was studying through the Center for Preparatory Studies at Queens College. I was in the program for about eight years. The drum teacher there was Dan Weiss, who is now a pretty famous jazz musician. At the time he was learning tabla with Pandit Samir Chatterjee in New York. He introduced me to Indian music and the music of sitarist Nikhil Banerjee. That's how I was introduced to Indian music. I was about 15 years old when I first developed an interest.
NUVO: So how did that interest in North Indian classical music lead to serious study?
Feinberg: I was learning a little about Indian music and listening to a lot of it. But bass was still my instrument until I was about nineteen. My frustration with the instrument and jazz in general reached a head in my first year studying at the New England Music Conservatory. At the conservatory there were a few Indian music teachers, one of whom was Peter Row who was one of the first Westerners to bring Indian music to a higher level here. He was primarily an ethnomusicologist, but he was also a performer. I began studying with him.
I'm the type of person that when I make up my mind to do something I pursue it with full force. I made up my mind to learn sitar. I would practice for a minimum of four hours a day and I took my study of the instrument to a fanatical place for about eight years.
NUVO: I recently interviewed tabla master Zakir Hussain. He talked about growing up learning the tabla while in his father Alla Rakha's lap - who was also a great master of the tabla. We often think of Indian classical music as a tradition one is born into. Was it a challenge for you entering the music as an outsider, and perhaps at a later age than than musicians who were born into a family tradition?
Feinberg: I'd say the perception of the challenge is more of a challenge than the reality. There are several musicians in Indian classical music who are considered masters at the highest level who didn't start taking lessons seriously until they were in their late teens or early twenties. I think people respond to the romantic nature of being trained from birth or the family lineages. When I examine my ability and career trajectory as a 31-year-old — regardless of my nationality or family lineage — I feel like my music is in the best place it could be for someone my age.
This is a tradition where being born into a musical family is a big leg up in a lot of ways because you don't have to prove yourself in the same way. Your guru gives you legitimacy in the eyes of the tradition and those who hold it dear. If you're born into a musical family your almost embraced naturally. Whereas someone else may have to prove themselves over a period of decades. It can be a challenge in that way for sure.
NUVO: You studied with the sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Can you share anything you learned about music from this great musician?
Feinberg: I studied with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan — or Khansahib as we called him — from 2004 until his death in 2009. My musical hero on the sitar is Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Khansahib and his father were Nikhil Banerjee's teachers. Ravi Shankar also studied with Khansahib's father. So I had always wanted to learn from him.
I remember him describing that this particular vibrato on a particular note should be played like "moonlight on the water." Not only did that explain what the music should sound like, but also why it was beautiful. He was a really special person, not only for his musical talent but also his devotion to teaching. It was one of the biggest blessings of my life to study with him.
NUVO: Can you tell us about your upcoming concert in Indy?
Feinberg: I'm playing with Manpreet Bedi who is a friend of mine. He has a really unique approach to tabla. He's a very jovial guy and we have a lot of fun playing together.
It's kind of traditional not to decide what will be played until the concert as we want to be in-tune with the moment and to see what the muse brings to us. But in general we play the main piece first which begins with a solo sitar introduction. Then two compositions with tabla that are fairly short fixed compositions which serve as a backbone for improvisation. As the concert goes on the pieces get lighter and there may be a few folk pieces.
Josh Feinberg will be performing with tabla player Manpreet Bedi this Saturday, May 16. The concert starts at 5pm and it's happening at the Clarion Hotel located at 2930 Waterfront Pkwy W Dr. You can call Mahesh Merchant at 317-733-9720 for tickets and more information.