On Thursday 1 August, the open air stage at Cairo's Beyt Al-Sinnari cultural centre gathered a few dozen listeners who were looking to get a taste of Indian classical music.
With its greenery and historical architecture, this peaceful hideout in the middle of the busy district of El-Sayeda Zeinab happened to be the perfect ambience to enjoy the introspective art of Raga.
Classical tunes of Northern India were performed by Iasonas Psarakis, 28 year old Hindusthani classical and experimental sitarist from Greece.
Following the Pythagorean philosophy of music, Iasonas is convinced that “the root of music is the sky, the stars and the nature of this world and universe” and believes in music as a way of healing the body and soul. For the last 8 years he has been travelling from Greece to Turkey, Kurdisthan, Iran, Lebanon, India, Bangladesh, in order to, as he says, “to learn, play and practice music, to find the inner self”, exploring European, Middle Eastern and Hindusthani musical traditions.
Currently, the musician is based in Shantiniketan, Kolkata, India and is visiting Egypt this summer to conduct a live music yoga retreat in Siwa Oasis and to perform a sitar solo program at Beyt Al-Sinnari, organised by the support of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Indian music sounds exotic and unusual, but in fact there is a lot in common between Indian raga and the Oriental Maqamat culture. Both are based on developing a musical scale within certain rules to create a specific feeling. So the elegant pastime of contemplating a mood evoked by a musical improvisation of a single instrument is not entirely foreign for the Egyptian mindset.
Iasonas Psarakis (Photo: Basma Kamal)
In fact, Egypt has been welcoming various types and levels of Indian art in recent years, not without the effort of the annual India by the Nile festival which continues to bring high profile performers from India. This July, Cairo has also seen a few concerts by Orien-trio featuring the Swedish sitar player KG Westman along with Suranjana Ghosh, Indian Tabla, and Egyptian Adham Al-Sayyad on kawala flute. The group played an amalgam of Indian and Oriental classical traditions at Room, Makan, Darb 1718, and El-Sawy Culture Wheel.
Iasonas Psarakis performed three ragas in the concert at Beyt Al-Sinnari. According to the Hindusthani music tradition of playing a certain scale at a certain time of the day, he started with the sunset melodies Puriya Dhanashree, then proceeded to the evening Rageshree and midnight Malkauns. Travelling without a group, Psarakis presented his repertoire alone, relying only on a set of ankle bells to mark the pace. In a classical setting, tabla accompaniment would be necessary to highlight and keep in check the complex mathematics behind the improvisation.
The musician concluded his program with a fusion piece on esraj, which is a lesser known Indian stringed instrument played with a bow. The piece brought together a traditional Japanese tune and the Indian raga Gunkali which happen to be set in the same scale.
“Music is an invisible painting. In invisibility, there is no such thing as borders”, comments Psarakis when asked about the similarities and differences of the musical traditions that he has experienced. “In Turkey and Greece, you find the same folk songs, same melodies but sung in different languages… Same root, same mother and father”.
From the way the musician expresses his thoughts, one can tell he is into poetry. Rumi, Hafiz, Khalil Gibran, Tagore are all time favorites. His first experimental world music album "Clay" recorded in Lebanon in 2014 features an instrumental composition called "Memories of Gibran Khalil Gibran". These days the musician mostly seeks to transcend the borders of words. “In the beginning of my journey, I was writing lyrics, but not anymore. I am focusing on Instrumental music, it is the universal language”, - Psarakis states.
Iasonas Psarakis performing at Beyt El Sennari (Photo: Donia Ahmed)
Sitar and esraj from India, Persian setar, tar, Turkish rebab, saz, lute, guitar “I play anything stringed,” he smiles.
Among all these, why concentrate specifically on sitar?
“For me, classical Hindusthani is the deepest music connecting you with your higher self; inner music,” Psarakis explains. “Also the vibrations of sitar are so powerful, they create the atmosphere of healing”.
To facilitate his research, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) awarded the musician with a governmental scholarship. Psarakis graduated from Sangit Bhavana Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal as a sitar player and has received training from notable gurus such as Ameena Perrera (daughter of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan), Pandit Debi Prasad Chatterjee, Shiraz Ali Khan and Sabyasachi Sarkhel.
Sharing his findings in music and self-exploration, this summer Iasonas, in collaboration with the Egyptian American yoga instructor Basma Kamal, launched a Yoga Meditation and Hindusthani Music Retreat in Siwa Oasis, where the meditative live sound of the sitar was used along with Hatha yoga practice. In India, classical music is considered a kind of yoga practice, so this blend is only natural. On 12-16 July, those who are ready do go one step further in musical experience than just attending a concert had a chance to get away from the noise of the city and focus on the sound, movement and the inner world.
“We chose a unique location in the Western desert of Egypt where the ancient energy of the place can support this kind of meditative state. There is no mental stimulation, just reconnecting to the emptiness and silence of the mind in the desert,” says Basma Kamal, the Hatha yoga and meditation teacher certified by the international Yoga Alliance.
According to Basma, the idea of the retreat was to initiate a relationship between the soul and the yoga postures practice. The sound of the sitar creates an atmosphere that allows to “transform the physical practice from an expression of the outer body to an expression of the inner heart.”
The organisers are looking forward to repeating the event in Egypt next year with a larger attendance. Meanwhile, Iasonas will be working on a number of ongoing musical projects, including one named “Panchamahabhuta” (Five elements of the Universe) with Ethno-Classical Recordings India, a sub-label of Turquoise Sound Pvt Ltd.
Iasonas Psarakis (Photo: Basma Kamal)
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