Raaga Phylogenetics: Darwinian perspectives & Maqam

In the course of studying what Raaga is, an inter-cultural perspective is very useful.  Although this exercise might be unsettling for the very patriotic ‘creationists’ that populate Indian classical music, the Darwinian idea of exploring Raaga thus could be as empowering as the realization that we all came from apes! As I understand, the Raaga philosophy did not evolve in isolation as a very indigenous concept. Infact, it mirrors the many common ideas prevalent in other Asian modal systems and the middle-eastern musics. It is interesting to see how these ideas have been transposed in different cultures as well. We can perhaps understand the Raaga concept in a new light, if we understood how it is closely allied to similar modal concepts. This ‘phylogenetic’ analysis could perhaps be useful in finding commonalities and striking musical conversations.

Let us start with the Maqam idea in Arabic art music. A maqam is much like a Raaga, rooted in a scale but accurately describes habitual phrases (Raaga moorchana), phrases that capture its identity (Raaga sancharas), important notes (like vadi,samavadi), rules on phrasing (ex. cannot use the Ri in ascending phrases etc.). A Maqam also describes higher-order Raaga-development rules like in an alapanai/taanam section. One cannot simply run amuck with all notes in the scale randomly in a mangled mess of phrases, however intellectually attractive that might sound to the bohemian-inspired musician! Much like the Raaga, a Maqam is the basis for melodic semiotics of composition and improvisation. A maqam also defines the organization of thought around how to concatenate the phrases, motifs into organized melody lines and into larger structures like a song. Doesnt that sound familiar?

Whats more? There is striking similarity between the underlying theory as well. Maqam recognizes and works on 24-tone system of half-sharps, half flats of notes. So all that ‘apaswara’ you ‘think’ you are hear in middle-eastern music is what our ‘22-sruti concept‘ would sound in reality! But culturally, as stiff-lipped bozos we call those sounds ‘apasruti’, while our respected musicologists repeatedly howl about these mythical beasts in performance. Anyway, we no longer have 22 srutis in performance as tones or pitches, we do access them as fleeting-pitches in gamakas. I dont want to get into the hallucinatory world of proving that we still sing 22 srutis as tones anymore here. You can tell, I am sufficiently traumatized by people telling me we use 22 tones! Ok, two makams can share the same scale and yet have different tonal centers and ‘melodic nuclei’, much like the huseni and bhairavi distinction. Maqam scales are constructed by juxtaposition of two tetrachords (ajnas), trichords and pentachords do exist, I heard. All maqams repeat at the octave. Interestingly, just like the Melakartha, there are grouped into 72-heptatonic perfect scales!

An interesting deviation is that Maqam performance uses modulation. There are rules about how to move from one maqam to another by key transposition. Carnatic ideas of grahabheda is comparable but is relatively underexplored in the development of a musical piece. For example, there is no composition, that I know of that uses grahabheda extensively.  Nor is there a Grahabheda/Ragabheda requirement in performance today.

Now listen, to an alaap-like elaboration of a maqam on the oud by a dear friend and fabulous oud player from Iran, Negar Booban!

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