A love letter to the santoor

This weekend I got to see a local Indian classical concert - a few ragas by a santoor player, accompanied by tabla drums. It turns out the santoor player had actually studied with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, a famous musician and scholar. I actually have an album with P. Sharma playing with the ridiculous drummer Zakir Hussein, so it was doubly amazing to get to see the same instruments and songs played live.

Here’s a video of Sharma and Hussein playing together.

I love my album but I’ve never actually seen a santoor played in person. It’s a classical instrument widely known in South Asia but, as far as I know, not widely played. It’s a bit like a zither or steel guitar: it has strings stretched horizontally across a frame that sits in your lap. However, instead of plucking or bowing the strings, you hit them with small hammers.

Great players can take advantage of the way the hammers bounce to play these super fast, piano-like runs. Also like the piano, the sound is both melodic and percussive, but it can create atmospheric drones and color as well.

One other cool thing: I didn’t realize how ‘participatory’ this style of music can be. On my album I hear lots of little vocalizations and ‘comments’ which I’d assumed to be the musicians kind of keeping time (the way some jazz pianists do). But it turns out that’s the audience egging them on. As the playing got faster and more energetic, everybody in the front rows started swaying and tapping their feet, and pretty frequently somebody would shout some equivalent of "Go!" just after a fast run on the drums or whatever. A neat call-and-response dynamic where the musicians feed off the audience’s energy.