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What's this Carnatic stuff, you ask? Let's get started!

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NOTE: This article is meant for educational as well as humor. Please do not take offense - all opinions of music are valid. Thank you!

You've never heard of Carnatic and suddenly someone drags you to a concert. Maybe you think it's kind of interesting 'cause it's different, or that this music is kinda boring. Or maybe it's not. Whatever it is, you want to know more about it, so at least you won't fall asleep.

I could tell you Carnatic music is considered by many to be one of the most sophisticated systems of music, how it's more complex than any other, how it incorporates all aspects of melody, how it's amazing at training the voice, how Carnatic musicians can perform any other kind of music in the world, but I just told you that. So, what IS this music?

Carnatic (pronounced kur-naa-tik) music is the classical form of music in the Southern part of the country India, in Asia (this has little to do with the INDIANS who are Native Americans). Indian music in general is really devotional and started out folkish so it's all about the TUNE of the song. You could be humming a tune, and you're already understanding Carnatic. The language is hard to understand because it's in one of the languages of India or Southern India, usually Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, KannaDa, or MalayaaLam. Since the languages are pretty different, it's hard for people to understand them. Don't worry, sometimes even the singers don't know what the words mean!

As for the tune, you can start learning to like it by listening. You can hear a few songs on tape (or hey, MP3), and slowly you'll start to recognize them, because maybe you can hum them, or maybe you've heard something similar before. You'll notice that each song has a particular kind of tune to it - it tends to stick to the same sorts of notes. That's what is meant by the term raaga. Carnatic uses only particular notes in a particular song or section of a song. So you might think, hey, this song sounds a lot like that one I heard last night - and you'd probably be wrong because you were sleeping. But with practice you'd be right a LOT, because songs are sometimes written in the same raagas! So they're supposed to sound similar.

The other component of a song is rhythm. People on stage and in the audience keep beating their thighs or clapping their hands to the rhythm - no, this is not some strange masochistic ritual or a weird way of showing appreciation (appreciation is usually expressed with shaking of the head as if you're saying no, closing your eyes, and exclaiming Wa! Aahaa! or BEsh!), these people are keeping time. This rhythm or system of keeping time is called taaLa.

How can YOU keep time? Watch someone who seems to be pretty good. Make sure the person on stage appears to be going at the same beat (sometimes the audience can be really confident and really WRONG). Now copy their movements. You can do this softly on your thigh or hand without inflicting horrendous pain which will make you scream and make everyone else lose their beat! Slowly you'll start to see a pattern arising - usually of 8 beats or 3 beats on your thigh. Each cycle of the pattern determines what taaLa it is. If it's 8 beats (or 16) it's usually aadi taaLa, and if it's 3 (or 6), it's usually roopakam. The trick is keeping track of the beat even during complicated parts of the music. Learn to do that, and you'll be a pro! Then, you're worthy of sitting in the front row.

The people on stage can be of multiple types: singer types or instrument-performer types, female types or male types, young types or old types. You might even find a mixture of these in the same concert! The key point here is distinguishing a singer from an instrument. Singers are usually people. Instruments are not. Singers are usually moving their mouths a lot with sounds coming out. Instruments also have sound coming out, but not being people, they cannot move their mouths. However, those who PLAY the instrument are usually people, and they may occasionally move their mouths, but usually music doesn't come out. Singers are not divided into any sub-classifications. But instruments are.

There are a number of instruments in Carnatic. The main ones to worry about are the veena, the violin, the mridangam, and the tambura. The veena is the one that sounds like an instrument being tuned. There are always some sounds after the strings are pulled - and often it just "sounds Indian." Veenas are long and have a round end and a bulb that sticks down from the other end. It's the favorite instrument of the goddess of music, Saraswati. It's played with it placed across the lap, like a baby. Veena artists really baby their veenas. That's probably why Veena is such a common name in South India.

A violin is a violin. It looks like a small bass violin, or a small cello, or a fiddle. Basically it's brown with 4 strings and played with a long stick called a bow. Indian musicians play the violin by sitting on the ground cross-legged with the violin under their chin and facing down. Their left-hand fingers move on the violin and the right hand manipulates the bow. The violin player usually sits to the right of the main performer if the main person is a singer (right if you're facing the stage). The violinist usually plays along with the main artist and follows behind them, too. Beyond that, if you don't know what a violin is, you'd better get help.

A mridangam is a drum. It's got drum heads on both ends and is played from the side, one hand playing each side. The performer sits to the left of the main performer if you're looking facing the stage. This drummer plays for the main parts of the songs and often gets a separate time to play on his or her own. This becomes apparent because this is when a lot of people get up to go home or to the bathroom.

The tambura is not in all concerts. It's a long instrument with a round bulb at the bottom and a long stalk and 4 strings on it. It looks kind of like a green onion. The strings are tuned to 2 different notes, and the other two are the octave of those notes (the same note but higher). The person who plays it just keeps plucking those strings one by one to keep the pitch (called the shruti) steady. These days the tambura (and the tambura player) is often replaced by a particular instrument called a shruti box. The box doesn't get tired and can do all the cool things a tambura player can do except bring a glass of water for the artist.

During the concert, you'll see the main performer sing out just random notes without words but notes like "aaa" or "naa" or "reee" - this is also called raaga, but it's really them explaining the raaga. Why don't they just tell you, you may ask. But that would be a lot of work, so they just show you. That way you don't have to listen to them talk, because usually they're much better at singing or playing than talking. Plus there's that whole language thing.

Then there are times when they just sing strings of notes like sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da, ni. These are like do, re, mi if you remember The Sound of Music. If not, just think of them as random notes set to a specific pitch. This is to show they know the raaga along with the beat well and to show they can get the names of the syllables right at the same time.

Many things will tell you it's nearing the end of the concert: the fact that there are only five people in the audience, the yawns from shruti box, the violinist trying to play and look at the main performer's watch at the same time, and the kinds of songs that are performed. The songs are usually light stuff. You might even see people go up to the artists with slips of paper - this isn't to tell them their cat died, but rather to tell them that they should sing such-and-such song or else. Usually the artists pick out one or two songs from the audience to sing. They also sing not-so-devotional songs, love song, lullabies (as if the audience needs to be coaxed into sleeping), some North Indian songs, folk songs, and patriotic songs.

When it's all over, don't get up yet! They sing a mangaLam, which is to thank God for the great concert (some might be thanking God it's over, too) and finishing it all up. Then it really is over, and maybe someone will present them with flowers, or NOT, and you can leave. And when you do, leave a donation, singers in India are certainly NOT paid as well as Michael Jackson ever was, despite their great voices....

Next: Intro to Carnatic Music

Or you can go back to the Carnatic page and learn more about Carnatic or raaga or taaLa.

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updated on 03/20/2009