Percussionist Sameer Gupta Opens Instrument Portrait Series At Real Art Ways

Every so often, you crave the middle: The heart of an artichoke, the center of a Tootsie Pop, the halftime show.

In music, that could mean the stuff between the intro and outro; a groovy bridge section; the inner voices of a Bach chorale; the gut-level register that’s neither high nor low; the tempo between slow and fast; the walkable beat you lose yourself to.

Much of “A Circle Has No Beginning,” a new album by Brooklyn percussionist Sameer Gupta, takes that middle path.

“It speaks to the idea of droning, the way that the body, the middle of the sound, fills up like water,” Gupta says. “The water is like the drone. I wanted to make sure there was a feeling of that, a body that was present over the course of the whole album.”

Gupta, who plays drum set and tabla, brings six members of his ensemble — keyboardist Marc Cary, bansuri (a side-blown flute) player Jay Gandhi, carnatic violinist Arun Ramamurthy, cellist Marika Hughes, sax player Pawan Benjamin and bassist Rahsaan Carter — to Real Art Ways in Hartford on March 3 at 7:30 p.m.

The concert kicks off the three-part Instrument Portrait Series: Drum, which is underwritten by the Richard P. Garmany Fund.

Each installment — in addition to Gupta, there’s Kaoru Watanabe’s Néo (March 17) and Jason Treuting and Steven Mackey in “Orpheus Unsung” (March 31) — includes a conversation between RAW managing director and series curator Amanda Baker and the artist.

The goal, Baker says, is to expose people to different kinds of instruments and “to give them a deep dive into how that instrument is constructed.” (Last year’s instrument was the harp.)

Gupta is the co-founder and artistic director of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a nonprofit musical collective. As an undergrad, he studied Western classical music performance. Later, he toured as a jazz drummer, after getting swept in “the amazingness of it, improvisation, the history of jazz,” he says.

Eventually, Gupta discovered north and south Indian classical music. “I felt like I wanted to address this thing that was kind of an intimidating thing to take on as a musician, to try and unlearn all the things you've learned that are so Eurocentric,” he says.

As a kid, Gupta’s parents played and sang music from the Golden Age of Bollywood (roughly the late 1940s through the early 1970s), “before the Westernized use of instruments became the thing,” he says. “They were using sitars and santoors and vibraphones and bongos. It’s acoustic-based, and also very creative. They would compose on top of the Indian classical raga framework.”

Indian classical music, Gupta says, elevates audiences through a combination of technical virtuosity and “the meditative and ecstatic nature of the melodies and the songs and the way they’re delivered.”

Another reason: the drone. “It’s the foundation under which things are built, and that’s fundamentally different than jazz music. It’s also the matter of how do you negotiate those two things to realize what the essence is that they both share.”

Gupta released “Namaskar,” his debut album, in 2010, shortly after moving to Brooklyn from San Francisco. “I was starting to meet a lot of great musicians who were starting to blur those lines [between musical traditions],” he says. “To me, it was a very compelling thing, not just because it was interesting musically. There seemed to be a natural development coming out of the people I’m with.”

“Circle” tracks are studies in texture (sitar player Neel Murgai and harpist Brandee Younger appear on several songs, and Cary plays a Wurlitzer electric, rather than an acoustic piano), melody and groove.

Highlights include a pulse-quickening cover of activist-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” (sung by Morley Kamen); the proggy, Mahavishnu Orchestra feel of “Innocence in Harlem”; the freewheeling intro to “Crows at Sunset,” which spins into King Crimson-ish darkness; and the blistering pace and future-raga of “Run For the Red Fort.”

“Prog-Raag Bhimpalasi,” the last, longest track, finds richness in the interaction between players (there are many) and overlapping textures, conversing in a common language, all saying different things.

Both “Namaskar” and “Circle,” Gupta adds, involve “checking out how to improvise on top of raga forms, the melodic raga framework, and also leave space for the feel of the musicians and the way the musicians hear the time. … To put enough on it, but also leave enough off the paper so that the musicians can really be liberated by it.”

For Gupta, and other American-born musicians of his generation, weaving together musical traditions from across the globe feels completely natural.

“Radiohead, all the way from Led Zeppelin and Louis Armstrong, just everything,” Gupta says. “You get turned on to all these different kinds of music. All of that informs the creative process in a very genuine way.”

“It's something that we've grown up with,” Gupta adds. “In previous generations, it was more on the exotic tip. Those two things are not ‘fusion’ anymore. They're just one thing.”

SAMEER GUPTA performs at Real Art Ways in Hartford on March 3 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Instrument Portrait Series. Tickets are $20. Kaoru Watanabe’s Néo is March 17; and Jason Treuting and Steven Mackey in “Orpheus Unsung” is March 31.

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