Shamir | Revelations | Father/Daughter Records

Shamir
Revelations

Father/Daughter Records
Street: 11.03
Shamir = NAO + Michael Jackson + Janis Joplin + Les Sins

I didn’t give Shamir the kind of first listen he deserved. I did pay attention when I first heard him—that voice! How can you not be curious as to whom it belongs? Shamir signed to XL for his debut album, Ratchet, and he deserved that for the sheer variety he brought to the table—I just never stopped to listen to the whole album. His countertenor voice melds with whatever genre or sound he’s playing with. It’s hard to categorize, and in retrospect it feels so much more deliberate. Ratchet had songs you could play at a house party and songs you’d play at a wake.

It’s a reminder of the talent that was relentlessly asserting itself in 2015. (The best thing about 2017 might be that it gave all those artists time to release new work. It’s been a good year for art.) Thing is, Shamir really stood up to all the new acts, and this album, Revelations, reigns in the energy for a much more pared-down sound that ultimately feels much more expressive and personal than Ratchet. Lead track “Games” is cold and repetitive, anxiety inducing, but it’s Shamir’s heartfelt voice that guides you and grounds you: “I don’t have much to offer you / But my soul, my heart, and everything I’ve been through.” The second track, “You Have a Song,” lays a chunky bass line against a wailing guitar, and he drones, “Your smoke is heavy like your soul / And I pretend like I don’t know, but I know.” The lyrics are always sweet, sometimes saccharine and seldom bitter. There’s a warmth to Revelations that was backgrounded in Ratchet—not only is Shamir still exploring how his voice pairs with different sounds, but his presentation is comforting, and his lyrics are kind. “Blooming,” “Cloudy” and “Float” all are anchored in guitar, expressing a rise, confliction and resolution in lyric and sound. “Blooming” is your carefree, jukebox banger (“You know I’m different, I can’t be the same / But I feel we missed it, and spring finally came / I don’t want the pollen and hay fever to kick in”), while “Cloudy” is moody and weary, Shamir singing, “Through cloudy eyes it’s hard to see / The bright side to everything / We gotta learn to love ourselves / No matter on earth, no matter in hell.” Finally, “Float” feels warm and reaffirming, Shamir slipping into a ballad of determination, always moving toward another day, the sort of song you want playing at last call.

Revelations lacks the theatrics of all of Shamir’s previous work. There’s nothing to dethrone “On The Regular” as a genderless sort of Broke With Expensive Taste with some Toro y Moi sprinkled in. “90’s Kids” feels the most passionately assertive, but it still lacks a danceable beat. Revelations has none of that, and I trust it to be completely deliberate because what’s here is drenched with a loving sound that is disarming at this moment in time. The best track is “Astral Plane.” It feels intimate and warm, like an old scarf in winter. “Beam me up to space,” Shamir sings. “And I know the world will miss me so / But I’ll be working on the astral plane.” There’s a flavor of escapism here you don’t find often, one that acknowledges change and uncertainty but tacitly wraps you into its departure from Earth, knowing that each visit away is another time we must come down. –Parker Scott Mortensen

ASTÉRISME | TERROIR | Self-Released

ASTÉRISME
TERROIR

Self-Released
Street: 05.07
ASTÉRISME = HOME + Pictureplane +Crystal Castles

ASTÉRISME’s debut EP, TERROIR, defies neat categorization. While at times it feels like standard SoundCloud fare, the duo Bill Miller and Micah Johnston have drawn from the internet’s vast repository of influences to create something more than just a SoundCloud beat tape. “SLEET” is reminiscent of HOME’s ambient euphoria, “TUNDRA” carries bits of Crystal Castles in its ethereal sound, and “CAPSIZED” has a mean drone beat you can hear rattling all over the internet—but the EP doesn’t feel defined by any single sound or influence.

TERROIR begins with “SLEET,” its warmest and most thrumming song. It’s built up by what feels like the beat of a heart, an expanding and contracting “ump, whump” repetition with a single synth snare punctuating the buildup. The heart bursts, splashing into a happy bath. It’s easily the most listenable track, and I figured that it was setting the tone for the rest of the EP, but no. What immediately follows in “CAPSIZED” plays off the mellow burn of “SLEET” into something even more droning and cacophonous, more frenetic and hollow, as though the warm bath is long gone behind you. Perhaps “SUBMERGED” is meant to reinforce this feeling, leading with a disparate vocal sample, pleading, “Down, down, down / Pulling me down,” before drowning in its own beat. “TUNDRA” sounds like a straight up blizzard. The end track, “TULIPS,” riffs The Bilinda Butchers’ song of the same name but gives the song’s chillwave melody a harsh snare backbone and yanks the dreamy vocals, solidifying the bizarre range of ASTÉRISME.

Only five songs, 15 minutes long and varied in its soundscape, TERROIR flows more than it lingers. It is a product of the weird and delightfully strange corners of the internet, which foster all sorts of scenes that are simultaneously derivative and innovative. TERROIR is one of those EPs that reconciles this fact for the better. Its album art suggests a vaporwave influence (a low-texture 3D model of a snowy mountain—something out of an N64 game, perhaps) with its title printed as though from a VHS camcorder, displaying a primitive, digital square where the accent aigu on its first “e” should be. This is just what TERROIR is—a seemingly categorizable mishmash of styles founded on chill, droning beats that don’t quite amount to just a mixtape but a proper EP worth listening to, so long as you appreciate the experimental world of SoundCloud artists. –Parker Scott Mortensen

yungkong | Phases | Self-Released

yungkong
Phases

Self-Released
Street: 06.02
yungkong = Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland + APO · 

Where Phases stands out is its reliance on its source material as a foundation. It’s a three-track movement through wailing synths, watery ambience and, of all things, samples from various Donkey Kong games. In fact, the first two tracks are almost completely composed using the sounds and music from the SNES Donkey Kong Country series. Honestly, as someone who grew up on that material, Phases feels like an inventive release, embracing the strength of SNES-era music for more than just its nostalgia. On the first track, “F O R E S T,” a robotic voice flatly says as much, calling itself a vaporwave/seapunk revival. To me, vaporwave and its sub-genres often come off as gaudy and overly nostalgic, too ironic for their own good. But Phases finds the elegance within the genre. The melodies are pitched down and have a slushing quality to them, like treading slowly through knee-high water or trying to run in a dream. The second track, “ステッカ B U S T E D が壊れた,” makes a whole song from this technique, using Donkey Kong Country 2’s “Stickerbush Symphony” as a melodic backbone. It’s markedly different from “F O R E S T,” which builds off of another Donkey Kong 2 favorite, “Forest Interlude.”

Maybe I’m in the weeds pointing out the specific songs yungkong is playing with, but I really can’t divorce my childhood enjoyment of them from the way yunkong plumbs the soundscape. “ステッカ B U S T E D が壊れた” accentuates the original synth leads of “Stickerbush” with a slow beat, alternating through the left and right channels while the pitched-down background synths provide the classic backbone melody.

But the third track, “ J O J I ,” brings a completely original sound, no samples—a slow burn and a somber mood. “I don’t want to waste my time if I can’t be by your side,” it drones. Easily the best and most original track, it marinates and plods for a long time. At seven minutes, it can have a Lynch-like quality through its stuttered, robotic vocals and insistent deliberation. Phases has a wild but surprising variety that way—each song is tonally similar but distinct, still as mesmerizing as the material from which it’s built. –Parker Scott Mortensen

Mogwai | KIN (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack | Temporary Residence

Mogwai
KIN (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Rock Action Records (UK/EU) / Temporary Residence LTD (US)
Street: 08.31
Mogwai = Aphex Twin + Tycho – Ariel Pink

One summer, I listened to a single Mogwai song, “Auto Rock,” on repeat—almost every day, a couple times a day. It was finals week—just on the cusp of school finishing, and it was one of the only things that could calm me down while working on my thesis paper. I remember lying on a mattress in a spare bedroom after a roommate had moved out, my white, stained laptop and its glow illuminating my face while “Auto Rock” became progressively louder and more intense. I felt comfort as the track moved from quiet into overwhelming, even as I felt overwhelmed at the time. It was a satisfying loop, one that helped me work and stay focused. And as soon as I turned that paper in, I never listened to that song or Mogwai again—not for years.

Now I’m listening to KIN, Mogwai’s score to the movie of the same name. I haven’t seen the movie, but save for a track or two, I would have been surprised to learn, after the fact, that this album is meant as a soundtrack. It makes sense—that space, movements from relaxed to intense, airy to concrete, has always been Mogwai’s bread and butter. “Lo-fi, chill anime beats to study to,” but make it well-produced (I’ve been using the album that way, for what’s it’s worth.) Mogwai are the kind of band you can sit down and listen to attentively if you want to, but they’re equally apt as a  background to whatever your brain is really doing. Mogwai accentuate what you’re already feeling, and if you’re in an ambiguous mood, it might give you a noise to point to, to say, “Yeah, that’s where I’m at right now.”

KIN is a pretty straightforward album in that sense. Some tracks, like “We’re Not Done,” are easy-listening, feel-good anthems that are at best inoffensive. All the ingredients of good Mogwai are here—airy guitar, distant vocals, positive vibes—but in total it just feels merely competent. It’s good, but I can think of several Blood Orange songs I’d personally go to first, and plenty of other Mogwai songs too. “Donuts” is a good example of a song I actually come to Mogwai for: a dreamy buildup of percussion and synths that are completely unobtrusive, lulling your brain into a trance. I’d never really thought of Mogwai as trance, and maybe that’s because their percussion and guitar are always more present than the expectations of what makes something “trance” music,  On the other hand, that’s exactly what’s happening here. It’s music for the womb, still carrying the sense of comfort that “Auto Rock” brought me so many years back.

In other words, if you like Mogwai, you’ll probably get something from first hearing KIN and then seeing KIN when it releases with the album on Aug. 31. Having heard the album a lot now, I may actually go see the movie just to see how it all matches up, and I really doubt I would have otherwise.

SO, I caved and looked up the plot synopsis for the movie. “Armed with a mysterious weapon, an ex-con and his adopted teenage brother go on the run from a vengeful criminal and a gang of otherworldly soldiers.” Sure, I could see it. You could probably put this album on a hundred different things without it feeling dissonant, and honestly, I’m fine calling that a strength. –Parker Scott Mortensen

TOBACCO | Ripe & Majestic | Rad Cult

TOBACCO
Ripe & Majestic

Rad Cult
Street: 08.25
TOBACCO = Jasper Byrne + APO ザ·犬 。

The amount of meat on a beat tape depends on the artist. Some are prolific, like APO ザ·犬 。, and some simply dabble in the space, but TOBACCO’s work is a full-course meal. His newest release, Ripe & Majestic, is both a beat tape and a series of instrumentals from various projects over the last ten years. It’s a more significant release than what I’m used to from beat artists. Some tracks are four minutes long, and others are a simple 30 second bop. It’s exactly as advertised—harsh guitar over calm synths one moment, a banjo on the fritz the next. 

TOBACCO has a fertile style that makes it easy to imagine these tracks propping up other works. “Ming Julio” and “Washed” both could be the foundation of two wildly different songs. “Ming Julio” is begging for someone to lay down vocal work—and that’s the tricky thing about praising music that is more or less off the cutting room floor. “Washed” is a drizzling of synths and banjos whose noise eventually just collapse into a simple, consistent beat. It’s busy. It’s arresting! These tracks do interesting things, but sometimes you can sense that the concept isn’t totally tapped out.

That could come off as a dig, but it’s not. Ripe & Majestic has its own identity as an album despite being the sort of between-jobs, incoherent release that it is, and it’s more impressive still that these have been collecting for 10 years. The vibe is feverish and sweaty overall, sometimes reminiscent of Hotline Miami’s neon malaise. Certain tracks feel distinctly video gamey in different ways. “1-900-900-900” warbles and rests in a synth hook, and I can just feel myself mashing through dialogue. “Lawn Care Service” is gamey too, but more cheerful. “Usual Stallion” has a rough edge to it, like electronic saw blades cutting through digital wood.

And then other tracks feel cut from a different cloth completely. “Moss Mouth” is a slow trance of stray electronic noise that’s barely listenable. Beck makes an appearance on “Grape Areosmith” for a slightly ethereal Grimes-like track that feels like it could live in a good Spotify playlist. Ripe & Majestic is all over the place, but it’s so meaty in its 24 tracks (most of which are at least over two minutes) that there’s always something to chew on.

I have to imagine naming individual tracks in an album like this is a creative challenge because Ripe & Majestic has some winners. You’ve got “Pube Zone,” you’ve got “Awesome Shitty Body,” you’ve got “Wig Blows Off.” To some extent, I admire the brazenness of creating something that’s genuinely good and naming it “Piss Vader,” a track that’s very emblematic of Ripe & Majestic as a whole—it’s funky and shrill, meandering and weird as shit. It’s hard to turn off.

Majestic is the kind of album you explore more than you put on. When I listened to it, I skipped around constantly, almost as though I were tuning a radio, looking for the sweet spot of what I was into at the moment. The album is offered through TOBACCO’s site as a vinyl, cassette or CD, and while I don’t like being prescriptive, I can’t imagine listening to it linearly. Put it on when you’re doing work and be loose with it. Let yourself go down the rabbit hole of whatever catches you, whether it’s “Eye Punch” or “Feels Like Nothing.” You’ll probably find a track or two that sticks oddly with you if you decide to fuck with it. Listen to the release and buy it at tobaxxo.bandcamp.com. –Parker Scott Mortensen

City at World's End | Megatropolis

City at World’s End
Megatropolis

Self-Released
Street: 07.15
City at World’s End = Ben Prunty x Perturbator

City at World’s End describes its music as a “single man sci-fi melodic techstep project made from the fractured dreams of androids, cyber-city frequencies, and pure cyberian dreamscapes.” Cyberian isn’t a word, and if the rest of those words mean nothing to you and you’re busy deciphering it, go ahead and stop. Megatropolis cures any headache you’ll create for yourself by immersing you in the throes of high-strung nightlife.

Bear with me for this touchpoint: The best reference I have for Megatropolis is exactly half the soundtrack to the 2012 masterpiece FTL: Faster Than Light, which was composed by Ben Prunty. I say half because FTL dynamically ratchets up the tension through its music whenever you engage in its space battles, and Metropolis is occupied by this abstract sense of conflict. Half the time in FTL you fly through space against low-tension, relaxing space synths, and then, whenever a hostile ship approaches, new instruments emerge and existing ones gain intensity. It’s an effective way to exacerbate tension. Megatropolis isn’t built for the exact same effect, but like Prunty’s work, it chooses when to foreground restrained tonal shifts. A high-BPM track like “fiberline traveller” can feel overbearing one moment and restrained the next. “magnetro sky” reins in its underlying beats for moments of brief respite. “hoverboarding tripmines” is a synth minefield of moment-to-moment shifts in instrumentation, a kind of whiplash. It’s like taking a night drive in a city you’ve never been to.

All this is accomplished in a way that feels decidedly cyberpunk. “Cyberian” might not be a word, but it’s a more personable stand-in for the essence of cyberpunk—alienation wrought in a world increasingly reliant on technologies that stress class stratification. It’s scrappy, grungy and ethereal, offering a sense of place. And perhaps Megatropolis works because it’s produced by just one person. Words and phrases like “techstep” and “cyberian dreamscape” obfuscate Megatropolis core desperation for that of cyberpunk’s—a sense of connection in a hyper-connected world. Though it indulges a fantasy, it’s not a bright one, and Megatropolis conjures a dystopia to match. Download the album via bandcamp at cityatworldsend.bandcamp.com or listen on Spotify. –Parker Scott Mortensen

Emily Brown | Bee Eater | Song Club Records

Emily Brown
Bee Eater

Song Club Records
Street: 08.31
Emily Brown = Angus & Julia Stone x Gillian Welch – Amanda Palmer

Emily Browns voice is something I never want to turn off. Her songs are so good that I want to sing along with them, but refuse to because then I wouldn’t be hearing her sing. Each song on her newest album, Bee Eater, has its own kind of whimsy that’s made it, for me, a perfect segue into autumn—what I consider a comfort season. This is the “lazy Sunday in October” album, the “I don’t want to do anything this afternoon” album—the “big-sweater” album.

I didn’t know Emily Brown before this album, so one of the first thoughts I had listening to Bee Eater is that Brown has a wide vocal range—she’s undeniably folksy, but sometimes her voice is tinged with the familiar playfulness of Regina Spektor or dreamy, Lana Del Rey vibes. “Giving Up” even exudes Ben Folds melodrama. “Yes, I loved you / But now I’m three years older / And 18 will always play fool to 22.” A lot of names jumped at me initially, and I suppose that’s partly what makes Bee Eater a comfy autumnal album—but I kept it on repeat long enough to let Brown carve out her own voice in my head. It’s earned that space.

“That’s Not Me” starts the album and is what first made me think of Spektor—Brown is assertive in her lyrics and in her talent, musing on her own worries and strengths about who she is. “Can I be trusted? / I worry I can’t / At least I am who I say I am.” It’s a strong lead for the album. My favorite track is “Take Me Up Slowly,” which feels the most vulnerable. “I don’t think you’ll hurt me / I think you’re worthy / I think you’re kind.” It’s the eighth track on the 10-track album, so if you’re like me you’ll have long been disarmed by Brown’s earnest lyrics already, but these are still some of my favorite.

Bee Eater is like the instrumental version of itself, by which I mean to say it would be ridiculous ever to not want to hear Brown singing. Listen to this album on Spotify and buy it at emilybrown.bandcamp.com. –Parker Scott Mortensen

Sally Yoo | Tender | Self-Released

Sally Yoo
Tender

Self Released
Street 07.30
Sally Yoo = Twin Sister + Disasterpiece

Sally Yoo’s Tender is a slow, warm and melancholic album. It feels like massaging a piece of meat. Formerly known for being the bassist of local indie-rock number, Chalk, Yoo has taken a different approach to her solo-release. It’s a good one, and Tender is absolutely good enough not to need a good metaphor.

“Try Again” is a soothingly monotonous song that brings a cool kind of melancholy. The methodical beat is pinned by Yoo’s quiet voice. She becomes loud as the music layers in the chorus, but it’s still laid back and chill. The whole thing crescendos toward the end as the layers build and play loudly—it’s the kind of unassuming song that lulls you, but is over before you’ve even taken time to really consider it. I found myself humming it later.

“Rejoice” is much the same. Simple synths melt onto you and make a comforting cocoon for three minutes or so. Yoo is talented at tying the music together with her voice, the factor that ultimately gives it that mesmerizing feeling. Each of these tracks is incredibly chill in one way other another. If it weren’t the title of the album, tender would absolutely be the word I would reach for first in describing it.

The track “Tender” is absolutely the standout, even as it shares the same qualities as the other tracks. It’s patient, plodding, soothing and comforting, which is all achieved by that melt between melody and voice. If I had to pick a song to show off why this album is worthwhile and Yoo is worth paying attention to, it’d be this one. It certainly feels the most vulnerable against the other two tracks. “You’re making this so much harder than I ever expected / Maybe we should spend some time away / We knew this was coming, baby / Should be no surprise / I had poison deep inside me / smiling in disguise.” The singer stays earnest but culpable. It feels like stretching after a workout, caring for a sore, nursing an overextension.

The album art is a crystal that shares visual similarities to a a piece of meat, which is not a way I’m used to thinking about meat. Raw and tender, it’s the part before it becomes the thing that’s fried or baked or just cooked and eaten. It’s really nice to hear something with that kind of sound and for it to sound so natural, not chewed up or wholly yet prepared. It just is where it’s at. Give Tender  a listen  on Yoo’s Bandcamp page: sallyyoo.bandcamp.com. –Parker Scott Mortensen

Céline Downen

“Can you be an artist and a mother?” SLC multimedia artist Céline Downen asks me this question as a sort of setup, knowing that yes, of course you can—you must. Art subsists on the life of the artist. The brighter, tougher question buried underneath is “What art is made possible by virtue of being a mother?” The Quotidian Details, Downen’s exhibition opening at Finch Lane on June 14, offers us so many answers—each one provokes even more questions about our relationship to home, personal space and daily work.

Core to Downen’s process is observation. As a mother to two children, Downen finds that her workspace and home seep into each other. All around, she discovers leftovers of her family’s days, particularly her children. For instance, both had a habit of leaving stray strawberry stems and leaves around the house after snacking. Rather than throw them away, Downen collected the leaves and created a series of 16 cyanotypes titled “Strawberry Seasons,” making elegant art out of waste. “I challenge myself to use these materials around me,” Downen says. “I’m embracing what my life is rather than trying to put on a façade of being something else, whatever that would be.”

“I’m just fascinated by these birds.”

This idea of authenticity, of collecting everyday materials and looking around herself and her community have all been strong themes in her work for years. She brings up nesting, tells me about her interest in birds and how they build. “They’re very particular about nests and their homes,” Downen says. “Some will gather natural materials from around their space. Magpies, they don’t really care what’s in their nest. Sometimes you’ll see construction tape and string, big wads of plastic.” Downen became particularly fascinated with the bowerbird, which are more particular. Male bowers build tree-like structures primarily using wood. One variation they’ll often construct is a thick piece of wood with sticks around it. Bowers will then collect particular objects and decorate their nest. Downen plans on emulating this with at least one of her pieces. “I’m just fascinated by these birds,” she says.

Knowing this, Quotidian Details clicks into place. Downen has saved hundreds of eggshells from breakfasts she’s cooked for her family. Dryer lint from 146 loads of laundry are pressed and cut into hexagonal shapes. It’s a form of nesting that also documents the passage of time, slows its slip through aging fingers. Another piece, “Trip Chain,” tracks the amount of times Downen has had to stop and go at stoplights in her daily errands to pick up her children from school. This is visualized through stitches on cloth that depict the route she takes, with different stitches showing when she hit a red, yellow or green light. Her kids help with this, taking notes for her as she drives.

Strawberry Season 1–4
Photos: Céline Downen

“Everybody benefits when you give yourself space.”

Looking at Downen’s pieces I find myself thinking about the concept of domestic labor—the work we expect of mothers and wives that is so integral and yet so backgrounded. Downen subtly brings forward evidence of this labor and presents it in a way that disarms and delights. Small tasks add up over time, and seeing them this way creates an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Downen’s motherhood is consistent and strong—to take care of her children, it must be, but Downen as an artist is also expressive, clever and resourceful. In repurposing her own work, she places an importance on these traits, and it creates a kind of gift for her children that they will probably not realize the value of until much later. Sometimes they’ll help their mother create;”quests,” they call them: gathering wood, tracking stoplights, finding materials—but their most important role is simply to be children. One of Downen’s most beautiful pieces is a pair of to-scale cyanotypes of her children, made by having them lie down on a cloth during the cyanotype process. The result is a sheet with their imperfect silhouettes imprinted on top, a piece of their youth preserved by their mother as an object.

And yet, though she proves so much is possible in being both an artist and mother, Downen also feels anxious at times, worried to rest rather than continue her work. She’ll feel guilty—how does her work potentially distract her from the life it draws from? “The last couple of days, I’ve spent just working with lint,” Downen says. “Sometimes the kids are asking me questions, and I want to just say, ‘This is my time.’” It’s easy to forget how important “me” time is when others rely on you, she tells me. “Kids need to learn it though, too. Everybody benefits when you give yourself space.”

“Talking about daily work is cathartic, like having a long, overdue conversation.”

Inevitably, Downen and I talk about her mother and their relationship, what inspired her and what frustrated her, what she could and couldn’t appreciate as a child. We talk about our own schedules and what it means to ask for time and space for yourself. I think on the ways I have nested over the years since leaving home, taking trash and treasures with me. Inevitably, I think of my own mother and the hundreds, probably thousands of eggs she has cooked for me, the loads of laundry she did for me. I think of my friends, whose mothers could not or would not do the same. Quotidian Details explicitly invites these thoughts, even offering viewers the chance to hang their own musings on life’s mundane and daily tasks above an old, wooden school desk Downen has repurposed. This collaboration is important to Downen, and I can see why—talking about daily work is cathartic, like having a long, overdue conversation. 

Visit Finch Lane on 1340 E. 100 South in Salt Lake City, June 14 – Aug. 2, to see Quotidian Details.


More on SLUGMag.com:

Heavy Lifting: Works by Molly Morin
Seeing Yellow: Anne Fudyma

Photo courtesy of Sonali Loomba.

Gratitude filled the house again and again, continuously through the night. Kaladharaa Dance School was generously performing for free at Regent’s Black Box Theatre. Though I arrived late during the invocation dance, I knew the aarambh had been performed. According to the handout, which I was very thankful for, aarambh means start or beginning. The artistic directors at Kaladharaa, Nidhika and Sonali Loomba, had, with their mentors’ blessing, constructed the show as such to mark a moment in their journey into learning Kathak more deeply. As artist and composer Debanjan Bhattacharjee brings drums out and begins testing their sound, I gloss over the rest of the pamphlet. It is made for outsiders—people like me—who know nothing of Kathak. This is where the generosity begins.

Kathak is one of the ten original forms of Indian classical dance. It’s a form of storytelling where dancers, along with music, create narratives out of vivid eye and facial expressions combined with restrained, graceful upper-body movement. “Could I get a little more volume?” Bhattacharjee asks the house. Sonali eventually comes out on stage and begins dancing, jolting the slow energy of the sound check into all its potential energy. Sonali’s dress conceals just how animated the lower half of her body is, though you can hear it: Each step has a timber to it. He sings and stops playing for a moment to emphasize his words, which I can’t understand. They are performing “Jugalbandhi,” a piece of rhythmic dialogue between the percussionist and the dancer. Sonali waits for Bhattacharjee to stop drumming, then responds with fast and furious dance. They look at each other affirmingly. It’s a call and response. He sings, or speaks, so quickly, nearly as fast as he drums, and she returns the same, all the while keeping her upper body cool and composed.

“[Sonali Loomba] makes eye contact with the audience in a way that feels very deliberate and knowing.”

Photo courtesy of Sonali Loomba.
Photo courtesy of Sonali Loomba.

At this point, Elizabeth Unni comes onstage. She introduces us to the performers we’ve seen and will see. On tabla are Bhattacharjee and Tarun Gudipaty, both of whom drum like wild. Tabla are usually pairs of differently sized drums. To my eye, the drumming mixes extremely fast movement of both the palms and fingers, particularly the middle fingers. These instruments, with a history of folklore, are a perfect fit for Kathak. Playing sitar is Varanasi Abhishek Mukherjee. This is a more familiar instrument, though I couldn’t recall having seen one in person before, and I was surprised at its size and the delicacy with which it must be tuned.

Dancing were Sonali and Nidhika Loomba. These two sisters, have both earned acclaim for themselves and their school internationally. In both D.C. and Utah they perform Kathak. Were they performing in the time of Kathak’s popularity, we would call them Kathakars, nomadic bards from northern India.    

The next composition is called “Teen Taal.” It runs through sixteen beats of rhythmic harmony through dance, and Sonali demonstrates a very pure Kathak style. She pounds her feet, shaking the bells attached to her ankles, which makes her an instrument as much as she is a dancer. The upper half of her body stays lithe and in communion with the music. She makes eye contact with the audience in a way that feels very deliberate and knowing. The small theatre lets you feel her feet vibrate the ground with each movement. Her outfit is an orange sheer overlaying a white dress. Each section of the dance flows into the next naturally, and the rhythm feels different each time, progressing in tempo, slow to fast, eventually climaxing.

“Perhaps it’s partly because Kathak feels foreign to me to begin with, but between her expressions and the way smoke is billowing out behind her, the whole thing feels ethereal.”

My favorite performance was “Thumri,” which was the most narrative piece shown that night, or at least the one I was able to follow most coherently. Nidhika laid out the story beats of the song before performing it, showing the facial expressions and arm movements we should expect to recognize to make sense of the story: Radha, who is in love with Krishna, is enjoying his company. Suddenly she sees birds flocking home and realizes the sun is setting, and that she must soon leave. How will she convince Krishna? Even without having these beats explained to me, I was able to follow the emotional movements because of how expressive Nidhika can be. In mere moments her gaze will shift, her smile will flicker, and you feel it. So much of the dance is in her face. Perhaps it’s partly because Kathak feels foreign to me to begin with, but between her expressions and the way smoke is billowing out behind her, the whole thing feels ethereal, tapping into the gracious energy that was set at the beginning of the night.

For the last piece, Sonali and Nadhika dance together, the first time in 13 years they’ve shared a stage alone. It’s entrancing. They stay so in sync, and so purposeful in their gaze and arm movements. It’s a treat.

“There is a rich history of classical Indian dance that deserves attention in Utah.”

The evening ends in much the way it began—with gratitude. Each performer is given a shawl and a note of thanks. There is big emphasis on making sure each person is thanked and appreciated, particularly those who made the night possible, as well as the audience for their interest. Though the event was clearly designed to welcome newcomers to the form of Kathak, many friends and family attended as well. The message was clear: Kaladharaa Dance School wants more people to know they exist, let them know what Kathak is and that there is a rich history of classical Indian dance that deserves attention in Utah. If you’re interested in Kathak recreationally, they encourage you to look into it. For what it’s worth, I left feeling lucky, like I’d seen the beginning of a group’s long-deserved recognition.

To learn more about Kathak and the Kaladharaa Dance School specifically, visit their website. I recommend searching for some Kathak videos on Youtube, but start by seeking out Nidhika and Sonali specifically for a sense of just how graceful this art can be.


More on SLUGMag.com:

Review: Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke – Hence with Special Guest U-zhaan
Utah Arts Festival 2015