Yes, we're the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, but from April 1 to 12, Cleveland becomes the biggest hub outside the Eastern Hemisphere for a far different kind of tune — classical Indian music.
In 1978, Ramnad V. Raghavan, a percussionist from a legendary line of traditional Carnatic musicians who taught at Oberlin College and Cleveland State University, co-founded the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival as a celebration of Carnatic music. Unlike the controlled structure of Western classical music, the Carnatic style hinges on spontaneity akin to jazz.
"We go by the mood of that evening," says widely revered musician Sudha Ragunathan, who performs April 11. "Even when we sit onstage with accompanying artists, they don't even know what they're going to present sometimes."
Held at Cleveland State University's Waetjen Auditorium, the festival brings sounds, colors and tastes of Chennai, India, to Northeast Ohio with dancing, south Indian food and performances by notable artists such as Ragunathan.
Ragunathan's stage presence as well as her ability to sing in multiple octaves has led to a career decorated with awards and fans who deeply connect with her music. One fan even used her popular song "Brahmamokate" to soothe her difficult child.
"The woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and a choked voice and said, 'You are like God to me. You have become such a companion and controlling figure to me,' " Ragunathan recalls.
Those moments are why Ragunathan and other Carnatic artists like performing at Thyagaraja — to share music that communicates across cultures.
The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival is full of instruments native to classical Indian music. Here are a few examples.
Often called a bansuri, it comes from a rare bamboo found in Indian forests that can go up to three octaves.
Hear it: Dr. N. Ramani from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April 8
Originally made from lizard skin stretched over a wooden frame, this south Indian drum is played with one hand.
Hear it: Sudha Ragunathan at 6:45 p.m., April 11
This clay pot has metal alloys that deliver sharp tones when the neck and base are struck by a hand in fast rhythmic patterns.
Hear it: Dr. Sowmya at 7:30 p.m., April 3
This fretless lute plays similar to a lap steel guitar, with the right hand plucking strings while the left moves a block to change pitch.
Hear it: N. Ravikiran at 7 p.m., April 9