In India, “Wahh!” is a common exclamation or declaration used to express pleasure, appreciation and surprise. Its rough translation is “Wow!” and the locally spawned ensemble that’s claimed it as a handle for the past five years has proven inherently worthy of it.
Wahh! World Fusion Band — which stages a very special “Musical Moments” presentation this Sunday at Straz Center — was formed by Shankh Lahiri, a well-regarded vocalist, composer and tabla player of traditional Hindustani music, and local bassist extrordinaire Ray Villadonga. Wahh!’s style is rooted in Hindustani music traditions but rockets into jazz, funk and rock territories, with Indian ragas underscoring modern Western harmonic melodies and rhythmic qualities drawn from both Eastern and Western cultures.
The uniquely mesmerizing results are sophisticated and otherworldly, yet earthy and prog-fusion familiar. The music swells and surges through fluid passages that are richly textural, marked by the distinctive thumping pulse of tabla, the near-tribal quality of Hindustani vocalizations and melodic scales of sitar, combined with searing electric guitar fretwork and a firmly driving, elastic-grooving rhythm section. It’s music in the vein of the John McLaughlin-led Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, one of the first Western groups to use tablas and Indian scales in its music. Both groups serve as inspiration, though Wahh! has a more refined and distinctive Hindustani flavor.
Villadonga had been enamored of Indian sounds since he was first exposed to Ravi Shankar and saw the classic live performance video The Concert for Bangladesh as a kid back in the ’70s. “It never felt foreign to me, it always sounded really cool.” His interest only grew as the years passed and he became a musician. “It’s probably the most complex melodies and rhythmic cycles known to me … There’s a total absence of harmony in their music. That’s where Western music takes a different track.”
He and Lahiri met via their respective ties to the Pandit Jasraj School of Music Foundation. “He knew I was very into doing an East-West fusion thing.” Lahiri began as a regular guest of Rayzilla’s PBS (now the Dreamboats), “just doing my songs, but bringing Indian spice to it.” Eventually, Lahiri invited a few of his own musician friends to join in, and Wahh! was born of these sessions.
Much has changed from the original ensemble that debuted at a concert for the school in 2010. “It started as a small setup, but it took a very different turn after we released our CD, Liberation,” Lahiri said. The original lineup was also more acoustic-oriented, and carried shades of flamenco via the influence of then-guitarist Alfredo Rivero. Liberation finds a group with more instrumental punch, Lahiri and Villadonga supported by guitarist Peter Mongaya, drummer/percussionist Michael Washington, and regularly featured sitarist Rajib Karmakar. “He’s the first person who re-invented the sitar as a double-neck,” Lahiri pointed out.
Lahiri leads the band’s creative trajectory, composing most of the music and using Indian ragas (or melodies) to create the structure of his songs. Indian ragas are associated with different times of day or with seasons, and thus nature dictates the sound and mood of the ragas. Liberation’s title track — “about liberating yourself, about reincarnation and rebirth,” according to Lahiri — was collectively inspired by a Yogi meditation, a mantra about liberation, and an early morning raga. It was the first composition Lahiri composed for Wahh! and as the album’s lead-off track, sets a striking, propulsive tone.
Sunday’s “Musical Moments” program is presented by Shruti A.I.M. (Association of International Music). The nonprofit organization was co-founded by Lahiri and wife Heather a few years back to promote understanding and enjoyment of world cultural music (with a focus on Indian sounds) via classes, workshops, outreach programs and concerts like this one.The goal is to showcase how Indian music has evolved from its traditional roots to a modern, more genre-inclusive fusion of sounds as featuring big-name Indian talent.
The concert opens with an Indian classical repertoire featuring Prattyush Banerjee on sarod (an evocative stringed instrument with ancient Persian roots) and Lahiri on tabla, followed by virtuosic siblings Deb and Jyoti Sankar Roy, aka “The Violin Brothers,” who’ve played under the direction of Ravi Shankar and recorded with John McLaughlin. They’ll deliver a set showcasing the similarities between Eastern and Western scales via compositions by Bach and Mozart that are fused with Indian raga music.
Then comes a virtual icon of Bollywood sounds and, along with Lahiri, the driving force behind making the concert come to fruition: Jolly Mukerjee, the singer, composer, arranger and producer known as India’s “King of Strings,” who was mentored by legendary Indian film score composer R. D. Burman. He’ll perform Bollywood songs influenced by Western Hollywood music. After a break, Wahh! takes to the stage, and a grand finale featuring all the musicians together closes the night.
“When you see us live, there’s a lot of smiles in the audience,” Villadonga maintains, and Musical Moments is guaranteed to bring on the beams.
Show details: Wahh! World Fusion Band Presents Musical Moments with Prattyush Banerjee, Jolly Mukerjee, Deb and Jyoti Sankar Roy, Sun., Dec. 6, 5-8 p.m., Jaeb Theater at Straz Center for Performing Arts, Tampa, $25-$50 ($150 VIP). Purchase tickets HERE. Listen to Wahh! below.