The uniquely percussive twang of an oud enters on the left, signalling that we're embarking on a visit to the Middle East. Soon, however, the oud slips into a deep, dark blues bass line, and a plaintive violin joins in. It's obviously the European instrument, not one of its ethnic cousins, but after sketching a melody that could be a John Lee Hooker tune as interpreted by Ornette Coleman, it takes on some of the timbre of the West African njarka, favoured by nomads and shamans alike. Meanwhile, a subtle drummer has been clicking along behind these two, his traps splitting the difference between a Manhattan nightclub and a Mississippi juke joint.
Five minutes into the piece-which happens to be "What Reward?", by world-music improvisers Trio Tarana-the violin starts to sound like it's laughing. And why not? This is a beautifully unhinged piece of music, at once deeply felt and wildly imaginative-much like the rest of the sounds collected on the ensemble's second CD, Miren (A Longing). And it's joyous, too. As the disc's title suggests, sorrow is not foreign to the world of the band's drummer and chief composer, Ravish Momin, but at heart this is music of hope and reconciliation.
Momin has a unique perspective on music's power to unite different cultures. Born in India, he's lived in Hong Kong, Bahrain, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and his music reflects the different influences he's encountered over the years.
"You know that Lawrence Ferlinghetti book, A Coney Island of the Mind? Well, I call this an imaginary folk music of the mind," he says, on the line from his Brooklyn home. "If you close your eyes it sounds like folk music, but you just can't quite put your finger on it 'cause it's not something specific. But for me, I'm hearing this imaginary folk music in my head."
The Ferlinghetti reference is apt, for Momin once harboured dreams of becoming a poet. "But my dad was like, ”˜Writer? That's not a job!' " he says, laughing. "You know, with Indian parents you have to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer."
He ended up receiving a degree in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, but the pull of art proved stronger than an engineer's salary.
"I was getting involved with some drum circles," Momin explains, "and I realized, ”˜Wow, I consistently enjoy hitting drums, so I might as well take some lessons and see if I can get good at it.' And once I started taking lessons, I realized that I already had this concept of form, coming from poetry, in terms of how to shape phrases and stuff."
Ultimately, the music he makes with Brandon Terzic on oud and occasional Bruce Springsteen sideman Sam Bardfeld on violin is appropriately poetic, seductively dreamlike, and sublimely accessible-even if it's sometimes hard to describe.
"People always want to label it," Momin reveals. "”˜Is it jazz? Is it folk music? Is it avant-garde? What is it?' And I'm like, ”˜I don't know!' It is whatever you think it is, you know. I just want to create music that's more floating, more open to influences."
Trio Tarana plays the Ironworks on Saturday (October 11).