Review: ‘Silk Road Stories’ at The Columbia Festival of the Arts

The Columbia Festival of the Arts under Executive Director, Todd Olson has created a wonderful idea for cultural immersion. They incorporated food and a musical theme night as part of their venue. The Festival in April which featured Latin culture and music also brought samples of food to many of the scheduled events. On Saturday, June 25th, as part of their Silk Road Stories, they extended that to include a 3-course meal around a theme of Indian music.

It started with appetizers from India including samosas, mangos, spicy dried bananas, and an Indian version of Chex Mix. This was served with wine and local beer brewed in Laurel, MD. By the time we all entered the multi-faceted Studio Theatre, we were in the mood for Indian music

What we were presented with was better than we could have imagined. The show opened with Chistylez Bacon, a performer of special talents. First, he explained his abilities;he is a human beat box. For those who don’t follow go-go music, rap or hip-hop, a beat box is often used for percussion and special effects. Bacon uses his mouth, lips, tongue and even teeth (not vocal chords) to duplicate sounds that are mostly done by machine or real percussion instruments. His expertise is so perfected that it would be a challenge to tell his self-made sounds from those done by computer or sound machines. He learned to do this by necessity, due to lack of money growing up. It was encouraged by his mother who was a DJ in the D.C. area. He later learned more conventional instruments, but the human beat box is his trademark.

About 5 years ago he and Nistha Raj meet. She is a classically trained Indian violinist. (The Indian violin has 5 strings and can sound at times like a viola as well.) He was interested in Hindustani music and had begun the “Washington Sound Museum” a monthly celebration of music often in collaboration with other cultural music. Thus, we now have this fusion of go-go, hip-hop, rap and Hindustani classical music. It sounds odd, but the music was wonderfully memorable.

The opening started with an introduction to Bacon’s unusual talent called “It’s the Beatbox” which explained his music through a go-go and hip-hop piece.

Nistha Raj and her percussionist, “Debu” Nayak, an internationally acclaimed tabla musician, performed next. The tabla are Indian drums, more like conga drums or timpani than snares or bass drums. The difference is each tabla drum creates many sounds. They require special techniques. Nayak has perfected these. The duo opened with traditional “North Indian Classical music-raag Kirwani in teentaal”. If you have never seen this type of music in concert, it is done with the performers sitting in a yoga position on the same level. The violinist rests the top of the neck of the violin on the foot rather than holding it at shoulder height. This helps create some of the eastern sounds which are very different from Western classical music. Both performers were dressed in clothing of their culture.

The third piece was a Tabla/Beatbox dual Introduction. Bacon and Nayak mixed their percussion instruments in a skillful blend of sound.

The first part ended with an original poignant piece by Nistha Raj called “Jayanthi.” You could feel the emotion in the piece.

Intermission was a lovely dinner of basmati rice, chicken tika masala, saag, and naan, accompanied by more local beer or wine (soft drinks, too).

After the repast, a true fusion piece, “Bhairavi Beatbox”, written by Raj, got us all back in gear for this interesting blend of sounds. It was followed by a humorous go-go piece called “The Bowl Cut” written and sung by Bacon concerning some hilarious hair cut experiences he had as a child.

Then, another brilliant piece by Raj titled, “Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai” thrilled the audience. For a little change of pace the trio did a Freestyle piece, “Gold” with Bacon rapping. This included some audience participation, and was accompanied by Raj, who wrote the music, and Nayak on the tabla.

On “Space Time” by Deepak Ram, Nayak and Raj continued to play in Hindustani style while Bacon played the djembe drum. The last piece also composed by Raj was “Shivranjani” was indeed the highlight of the evening. Raj and Nayak keeping that classical Indian sound and Bacon joining in on the spoons which he could play on almost every appendage of his body.

After a standing ovation, we reassembled in the lobby for an Indian dessert and more beer, wine and drinks, and of course, it was a chance to meet and chat with the performers.

It was all a very sensual night of sound, sight, flavors, and aromas.


Unfortunately, if you have not come for the Summer Festival of the Arts “Silk Road Stories” you will have to wait until the fall to catch the next raft of spectacular and different performers and artists. Check their website for information on future events.


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