Queens’ Ultimate Band
The Charanams perform during the WQXR Battle of the Boroughs at The Greene Space in Manhattan in June. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Black
By Tammy Scileppi

For music lovers who enjoy Carnatic music, and for those who never heard of it, the refreshingly exotic sounds of Charanams’ ragas (musical modes) and rhythms is a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed. Performing an unusual blend of South Indian classical and jazz style, this spirited cross-genre group competed in March at the annual WQXR and WNYC Battle of the Boroughs for the coveted title, Best Band in Queens — and won.

In June, they went on to win the Ultimate Battle, in which bands from all five boroughs competed.

These events took place at The Greene Space at WNYC in Manhattan, where rival bands from throughout the city battled as the audience cheered them on. Nine bands represented Queens County.

“When we were in the contest, we thought it was an excellent opportunity for our band to perform at a wonderful mainstream venue, and share a platform with other genres. Our fans, supporters, and the audience, both at The Greene Space and online, were great,” said band leader and vocalist Nivedita ShivRaj. “It’s their ongoing support, and our band’s team spirit and hard work that made us win.”

For their winning prize, The Greene Space provided Charanams with an opportunity to play the opening act at the prestigious SummerStage Concert in Central Park on July 27 (the headliner for the day featured Wanda Jackson & Imelda May).

“Charanams’ music is vibrant and universal; it appeals to music lovers of all ages and ethnicity,” said ShivRaj, who writes all the songs and plays the veena — a South Indian multi-stringed instrument. Daughter and vocalist Sam ShivRaj agreed: “We also have a good fan base that appreciates and supports our music.”

According to Sam and her mother, the band came together over a span of a year or so, but all six members have been playing together for almost two. “It wasn’t a sudden, arbitrary decision to combine Carnatic music with jazz. It just so happened that we met jazz guitarist and Astoria resident Jason Goldstein and jazz saxophonist Marcus Cummins from London. So, it was natural for us to experiment with the sound and incorporate jazz elements, while putting together our individual music traits to create a blend of two great styles.”

The other talented musicians are Tripp Dudley, who plays a box-shaped percussion instrument called a cajon and frame drums, and Bayside resident Advait Shah, whose instrument of choice is a pair of hand drums called a tabla.

“Each member is a professional in their chosen field, with a great passion for music,” said Nivedita ShivRaj. “They bring to the band their creativity, knowledge and expertise, that adds beauty to the music.”

The mother and daughter musicians have been living in Flushing for the past 10 years. Mom also teaches Carnatic vocal and veena in the area at a learning center, as well as in Manhattan. She gives classes on the internet, all over the United States, Canada and Australia.

Charanams premiered their production Mystic Earth during the Con Edison Composers’ Residency Concert at Flushing Town Hall in 2009. “I started composing pieces based on Indian ragas when I was resident composer there,” said the band leader. “I wanted the music to be appealing to all — universal — not language or region specific, so the songs don’t have any lyrics.

“I’ve been working on cross-genre music, teaming up with Western classical and gospel musicians and rock bands — combining Carnatic music with other styles.”

Queens Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Museum of Art are among the other venues where the band has performed.

Looking ahead, Charanams is working on recording and releasing an album and going on tour. They hope to perform at more venues in New York City and the tristate area, so as to increase their fan base.

“I find it basically impossible to be unhappy or to feel any negative emotion around these guys and ladies,” said band member Dudley. “Nivi’s like our Indian surrogate mother; it’s definitely a family vibe.” The former Queens resident has played with artists such as Beth Nielsen Chapman (song-writer for Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and Elton John), and has his own African and Indian fusion project called Kaleidhaphonic.

Sam ShivRaj has performed in several venues in the tristate area and is a TV show host.

Indira Etwaroo, executive producer of The Greene Space, said, “A group like Charanams speaks to the cultural richness and diversity of the New York City cultural landscape… to the power of music to bring people together and translate across various social borders. The hybrid nature of Charanams’ sound blends classic and contemporary, tradition and innovation, driving percussion with rich melodic melodies. I have always been struck by the uniqueness of the blended timbres of this group.”


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