Ragas and Reels

A meeting of East and West full of 'dreamy embellishments and flights of fancy'

Utsav Lal is still only 19, but for some years now he has been forging a reputation as a pioneer in cross-cultural musical collaborations, and was named Young Steinway Artist on the world-famous piano company’s roster in 2010.

For the final event in this year’s Diwali & Samhain Indo-Celtic Festival – the first in Ireland, and which has been organised by the multi-cultural arts initiative, ArtsEkta – Lal teams up with young Irish flautist, Sam Comerford and tabla player, Kousic Sen to reprise Ragas and Reels, an 'Indo-Irish confluence of music' which has already toured successfully in Lal’s native India.

Before introducing Comerford, Lal usefully performs a taster of the 'raga', the basic template of Indian classical music, playing a truncated version of what might, he said, easily last an hour and a half in real-time performance.

Lal’s dreamy embellishments and flights of fancy as the musical material slowly unravels emphasises the hugely different concepts of time and space in Indian music, compared to the tightly goal-directed, intellectualised structures of the western classical tradition, where improvisation is virtually unheard of.

Enter Dubliner Sam Comerford, easing his way diplomatically into the next raga via a soulful Irish flute melody floated delicately over the drone accompaniment, suggesting teasing parallels between the two traditions in his warbling arabesques and ornamentations.

It is the introduction of Kousic Sen on tabla, however, and the expansion to a trio, that really sets the musical sparks flying. Sen is a massively experienced player, and a master of improvisation: a practised flick of the wrists on his pair of hand-drums can either calm the music suddenly, or send it spurting off in new, unexpected directions.

Lal, in particular, feeds off the older player’s guile and experience, and swaps witty, increasingly complex rhythmic patterns with him, much to the audience’s pleasure and amusement.

Comerford too is palpably energised by the trio format, introducing Irish reel material into the mix, and peeling off increasingly furious flute-licks as the two Indian musicians mischievously crank up the tempo at the conclusion of the liveliest raga of the evening.

Lal’s own playing veers from delicately decorative, through intelligently probing, to full-tilt, propulsive spearheading of his raga trio. Though Dublin-based since 2008, he is currently studying jazz at the Royal Scottish Academy, and you can feel it in his contributions.

In quieter moments, he’s the Phil Coulter of raga (where the piano is not a commonly used instrument), but at other times the sweep and inventiveness of his improvisations recall Keith Jarrett.

‘But I don’t know anything else!’, mouths a panicky Sam Comerford, when the enthusiastic audience at the Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio insist on an encore at the concert’s conclusion.

He does, though: one final, totally improvised meeting of east and west sends a virtually full house home happy, mulling over the intermeshings which are possible when cultures face each other sympathetically, finding areas of commonality and overlap where previously it seemed that none existed.