World-famous singer from Mumbai, Dhanashree Pandit-Rai, merged jazz and Indian music together for a performance at the University of Rhode Island this past Sunday.
Pandit-Rai, along with New York-based jazz pianist Richard Bennett and his wife Paula on percussion, performed songs from their record Mumbai Masala at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall.
Pandit-Rai has been performing for more than 25 years, and in 1990 she performed her first small tour in the U.S. She said that she was inspired to start singing by her mother who saw that she could hold a tune and loved listening and singing along to the radio.
“Even as a small child we had a music teacher who came to our house to teach us the basic notes,” Pandit-Rai said. “So I did it informally I would say, but by the time I reached eighth or ninth grade my sister said that I needed formal training. And that’s when the journey really began.”
Pandit-Rai’s family motivated her to attend Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, the School of Basic Music. After she completed her schooling at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, she attended Bombay University, where she earned her Masters of Fine Arts.
Paula Bennett, the percussionist that performed alongside Dhanashree, said the experience was “beautiful, it was like coming home.”
Paula said that she and Dhanashree have known each other for many years. The two met following Sept. 11, 2001, after she was invited to go to India to attend the Jazz India Vocal Institute. Paula explained that they had a kinship with each other, and after that, the partnership was born.
“Seeing her again was splendid,” Paula said. “She’ll look over at me while we’re up on stage and she’ll be at peace ‘cause she knows I’m right there with her. She’s such a tremendous singer, and she just paints a picture with her voice.”
Both performers have found that women working together on stage sends a “beautiful statement” without being harsh to musicians. Paula said that to be a strong artist, one just has to be passionate and work hard.
The performance displayed a beautiful blend of Indian music and jazz. Pandit-Rai and her group played 10 songs that each told it’s own story.
Richard performed his own piece called “The Swan Suite.” This song was an piano solo that he composed after Hurricane Sandy hit. He was on a walk down the streets of Brooklyn, found an enormous swan standing in the street. He described the experience as “a sign to write” and this piece came together.
“Working with Dhanashree is like working with a really great guitarist or drummer,” Richard said. “She is a master musician.”
Bennett and Pandit-Rai composed Mumbai Masala together last year. This year’s performance was their first time performing together on stage in two years.
“Dhanashree is an artist that opens the door for the audience to fest on,” Paula said. “She’s just a very humble singer.”
Miriam Dash, a URI student who attended the event, said the performance was very interesting.
“I liked the pianist a lot,” Dash said. “My mom’s Indian so I’ve been around Indian music before, but not like this.”
For Pandit-Rai, combining jazz and Indian music was very stimulating and she found that she could blend in with it. Pandit-Rai said that although there were difficulties along the way, world music is catching up now, and people need to hear it.
Pandit-Rai will also be performing semi-classical Indian music called “thumri’’ in Paff Auditorium on URI’s Providence Campus at 6 p.m. on Friday.