Exploration on a new scale

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      Wandering sarod master Anupam Shobhakar touches down in Vancouver to search out daring new musical fusion.

      Paradoxically, Anupam Shobhakar is both a throwback and an innovator–and that's exactly why he's one of the most fascinating musicians to visit Vancouver in quite some time.

      The young master of the sarod–an 18- or 19-stringed, fretless relative of the lute and the guitar–has benefited from his intensive training in Indian classical music. He's a disciple of Ustad Aashish Khan–the grandson of Allaudin Khan, the inventor of the modern sarod and guru to sitarist Ravi Shankar, among many others.

      "I studied sarod the traditional way, which is not really being taught even in India right now," explains the Mumbai-raised Shobhakar, reached at the West End apartment that's been his home for the past two months. "For three or four years it was only exercises–a lot of finger exercises, but no music. I got a little bit disillusioned, but that's okay: the philosophy behind it is, first you get your hands entirely ready, so that when the music comes to you, you don't have to worry about technique."

      Search for Shobhakar clips on YouTube or his Web site (www.anupamshobhakar.com/) and you'll quickly discover that he has no need to fret over his fretless technique: whether he's playing a slow, meditative melody or a frenzied, ecstatic improvisation, he's an intense and emotional performer. Dig a little deeper, too, and you'll find that he's more than just a classical virtuoso. In India, he's issued two polished albums of jazz- and progressive-rock influenced East-West fusion, on which he plays electric guitar, keyboards, and MIDI percussion, as well as sarod. This exploratory tendency, he explains, is one reason he's come to the West Coast.

      "Apart from being a traditional concert sarod ­ist, I want to really explore world music, and I've been wanting to do that for a while," he says. "I've been pretty much producing on my own: making all the music, adding all the MIDI instrumentation in my studio at home. But here it's better, because I can meet a lot of different musicians, a lot of different, diverse people."

      One of his new friends is Vancouver-based flamenco guitarist Juan de Marias. The two are working on a CD, which Shobhakar hopes will illuminate the South Asian roots of Spain's most popular musical export. "Essentially, if you go to the history of flamenco, it came from gypsy musicians who emigrated from Rajasthan, in India, thousands of years back," he says. "A lot of the scales are the same, a lot of the tonalities are the same, a lot of the embellishments and the flourishes of our music we share, a lot of the rhythmic aspects are similar. I've been wanting to do this flamenco-fusion thing for some time now, but in India it's very hard to find a flamenco guitarist; there are not too many."

      Shobhakar has also been booked for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this Saturday and Sunday (July 14 and 15), as part of the annual Collaboratory series of cross-cultural explorations. (Joining him will be violinist Jaron Freeman-Fox and Po' Girl singer Allison Russell, among others.) When he plays an evening show at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Saturday (July 14), however, he'll be focusing on his classical repertoire, as he will when he returns to the same venue on August 11.

      Whether he's working with centuries-old ragas or freshly minted explorations, Shobhakar stresses that all of his music is rooted in his early training–which was designed to induce a profound state of musical readiness known as tayarri. "That word has been broadly translated as, like, 'technically great'," he says. "But tayarri actually means 'to be ready'. To be ready when the creative thing comes to you, your fingers, your mind, your body, and your soul must be exactly in place for you to execute it."

      Obviously, this philosophy has extramusical applications: it may be why this peripatetic sarod player has been able to fit so easily into so many different roles during his stay in our city. But it's also why he'll soon leave us. After giving his August recital, he'll take some time off to enjoy the sun and then pack for Europe, where he's already lined up a concert series and some recording sessions with Italian classical and jazz performers.

      At 27, Shobhakar is clearly too young to sit still. But when asked if he has any final thoughts, he says sitting still is exactly what he wants his Vancouver listeners to do.

      "My one request is 'Listen to the alap,'" he says, referring to the slow, unaccompanied improvisations that usually open the performance of a traditional raga. The flashier aspects of Indian music–the light-speed percussion solos and the wild, melodic improvisations–are fun to play, he adds, but they mask the music's real depths. "The real music is in the alap. So I really, really urge people to listen to that, because that is the real meditative space. This music is not an entertainment, really: it's more about showing your own journey as an evolution that you're sharing with other people. You're trying to get people into that consciousness, and share what you have learned with others. And if you can do that, hopefully everybody will be on the same plane."

      Shobhakar is talking about what happens in the concert hall, but he clearly feels that bringing people together is part of his greater mandate as well. Vancouver's been fortunate in hosting this skilled and thoughtful musician–and with luck the relationship will continue even after he jets off in the fall.