Steve Oda

oda 2

Kanda Rakudoan September 21, 2014

Steve Oda—sarod
Ayako Ikeda – tabla
Fumie Negishi – tanpura


Steve Oda is a masterful musician steeped in Indian music. His performance was a stunning example of the depth and power of Indian music, and a testament to how difficult it is to play, and how overpowering it is when it’s played right. Japanese fans of Indian music were once again thrilled to attend workshops and performances from Oda during his annual tour of Japan. The evening concert was half musicians from the afternoon workshops and half fans from Oda’s previous tours, with a sprinkle of Indian culture lovers in between.

The evening got off to a start with “Marwa,” one of the many types of raga. It was an excellent opener, lively, intense and involving. The crowd eased right into the music from where they sat on cushions on the floor. The timbers of the Rakudoan, an old building near Kanda station, seemed to come alive as the music seeped into the old wood of the building and the smell of spicy-milky Indian tea, brewed up on burners by the front windows, filled the air.

Oda’s long lines on “Marwa,” as well as the following two songs, were increasingly captivating. Compared to jazz, the intervals in the melodies leap and skip in delightfully different intervals, while the start-stop feel of the rhythms is less metronomic and more human than jazz in many ways. Oda was masterfully fluid over the tonalities, imbuing each of the first-set songs with constant surprise, rapid-fire complexity and a dream-like intensity.

Oda’s tones on sarod, with its 25 strings, were densely packed. Oda seems to have a relaxed approach to the music that belies the incredible skill needed to produce such full orchestral sounds over such long pieces. The constancy of producing tones creates a powerful sound stream. His working all those strings, seemingly all together at once, conjured up images in a sonic narrative of devotion and wonder. Catching hold of any one of those images and their feelings would have been useless grasping, though. Better to drift into the flow of the music and enjoy them all as they pass.

Ayako Ikeda on tabla was an intense, directed, and powering companion. She followed Oda’s moves, but supported them and pulled away, too, to keep the music flowing and slowing at all the right moments. Her drumming style moved nimbly alongside Oda’s string work, emerging to accent or emphasize certain points before ducking back under, only to rise up again, in a beautiful duet of tension and syncopation.

Fumie Negishi kept up the plucked pattern of harmonic resonance on the drone function of the tanpura. This “wall of sound,” as it were, was crucial to the overall feel of the music. As Oda explained it, “The tanpura is like headlights, showing you where to keep heading.” Negishi’s harmonic resonances were as varied as the cyclic buzzing of insects in late summer, a feeling that expanded the overall soundscape marvelously.

“Bhairavi,” the last tune, is a traditional song played in the morning, when concerts in India usually end. The audience would have stayed until morning, but applauded as if waking from a trance, setting down their tea cups, readjusting the floor cushions, and instinctively leaning towards the instruments, like children, to see from where the magic came. It will come again next year, when Oda tours again.

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