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Neel Murgai Ensemble: Raga-Chamber Jazz

It's not every day that a sitar player gets a phone call at home from Cyndi Lauper. It's even less likely that such a call would result in the appearance of said sitar player on David Letterman's Late Show, plucking his many, many strings alongside Lauper and bhangra bastion DJ Rekha over Wyclef Jean's "Slumdog Millionaire." Neel Murgai might now claim the distinction of being the man who brought Indian instrumentation to 21st-century late-night television. ("A s-s-sitar? Is that what it is?" Letterman stammered at a cross-legged Murgai, who sat on the floor. "Can I get you a chair?")

Murgai has brought the sitar to prime-time TV, too -- Indo-fying The Simpsons' iconic theme music for the show's 20th-anniversary special, for example -- and to documentary film in The Yes Men Fix the World. But he's no one-trick pop sideshow: Murgai trained in the ancient holy city of Benares, bastion of traditional Hindustani music. The classical credibility cultivated there cuts through all his projects, whether he's wilding with odd time signatures and dissonant scales in his recent "Reorientation Suite" (commissioned by the American Composer's Forum) or heading even further afield into exotic territories like Tuvan throat singing, Persian frame drum or Eastern European gypsy rows (disentangled from the current Balkan craze sweeping the "world music" genre). Even when Murgai is breaking the conventions of classical Indian music, the feel is as forwardly traditional as can be -- bona fide "raga-chamber jazz."

To put it another way: The "Ancient Future Traditional" claimed in the liner notes of the Neel Murgai Ensemble's debut record -- and represented in the magnificent "Space Twang" -- isn't as New Agey as it might seem. It is heterodox, though not without precedent, to put members of the violin family in the same room as tablas and a sitar, but Murgai and his band do sitar and violin more seamlessly than Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. The melange that manifests in "Space Twang" is fusion at its best, a presentation natural and convincing enough to make listeners forget that the viola is not an Indian instrument.

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Anil Mundra