Edinburgh Fringe 2022
Mixing Western and Indian instruments and styles, this five=piece band transports the audience across the world to celebrate traditions in unique and innovative arrangements.
The houselights dim. The Esraj begins a gorgeous and haunting melody over the drone of the electric soprano sax. The sax line leads into slow rhythmic hand drumming like a heartbeat pulse. The music is enchanting and we are slowly drawn in to what proves to be an hour of stunning music.
The Three Seas band has recorded and toured together for 13 years. It was formed when Australian composer and saxophonist Matt Keegan visited India in 2009 in search of new musical experiences and sounds. He found kindred spirits in Santiniketan, a township renowned for its literary and artistic heritage. There he met virtuosic Baul singer and Khamak player Raju Das; Himalayan multi-instrumentalist, folk singer and poet Deo Ashis Mothey; and drummer Gaurab Chatterjee from Bangla rock giants Lakkhichhara. They added Sydney, Australia-based jazz bass player Brendan Clark and the fit was perfect. The synergy among the musicians is palpable. They are keenly tuned into each other’s music vibes throughout every piece, and clearly are enjoying creating great music together.
The arrangements are designed to highlight the various instruments on stage, many of which I have never seen before. The scores highlight the breadth and range of these instruments, along with vocals that never overpower the instrumentals. The Khamak (strummed percussion) is a one headed drum with two strings attached to it that are strummed with a plectrum made from buffalo horn and pulled to alter the pitch to dramatic effect. The Dubki (hand drum) is a single headed drum designed to be held in one hand and struck with the fingers of the other. The pitch can be altered by the hand holding the instrument by pressing the fingers against the skin. The Dotara (Bengali banjo) is a fretless string instrument that sounds and is played in a similar fashion to the banjo. The Esraj (bowed fretted harp) has four main strings which are bowed, a medium length sitar-like neck with 20 metal frets and a rack of 12-15 sympathetic strings. Added to those are the traditional drum set, the electric bass, a baritone sax, and an EWI mid-controller played like a soprano sax but that can replicate sounds of wind instruments. Each of the musicians is a virtuoso in his own right, and together they beautifully bring the music to life.
The music transcends borders and traditions and is always dramatic and engaging. The opening piece builds by adding drums, pushing the pulse to a climax, then a diminuendo to the solo string line. It is breathtaking. The next piece adds solos on the Dubki, with intense rhythms that move the music forward. A Baul spiritual song is a poetic piece about the fact that one is not appreciated until after they leave this earth. A story feels like a mournful wail, but then breaks into driving rhythms over a simple bass line from the baritone sax. The band’s experience at a kite festival in India, where participants try to cut the strings of each other’s kites being flown off of the roofs of houses, inspires a piece with soaring horn lines. You can imagine the kites dancing into the sky as the music builds. A song about Lord Shiva, the strongest and “coolest” of the Indian gods, tells of the ladies in a village asking why a mother would allow her daughter to marry this powerful and complex character. The pieces are mostly in Western time signatures (6/8, 4/4), making it easy for the audience to sway with the rhythms. Several songs have melodies that are easily hummable.
The Three Seas offers a unique musical adventure unlike anything I’ve ever seen at The Fringe. This is a rare opportunity to experience the haunting sounds and rhythms of the special instruments, performed with precision by a finely-tuned ensemble. If you close your eyes at the concert, you will be transported to a beautiful world away from the local busy streets, soaring into the atmosphere on a moving journey to pure joy. One hour of this band is not nearly enough.