Nareej Arya’s Kabir Cafe: Playful, Bright Travels Through Music


Music Haven opened its 30th season in Schenectady’s Central Park Sunday night with Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Cafe and their special guests, Crossroads. Traveling the world one concert at a time is Music Haven’s tagline, and Sunday night’s music brought the audience to West Africa, India, and even sounded a bit like American rock music at times. The juxtaposition of the traditional sounding Crossroads before the wildly unique fusion sound of Kabir Cafe kept the crowd dancing, singing and clapping along through the night.

Crossroads is a quartet that combines bansuri musician Jay Gandhi and kora master Yacouba Sissoko’s family musical traditions. Sissoko shared the kora he played was created by him as part of his family tradition of musicianship since the 13th century. Joined by David Ellenbogen on guitar and Ehren Hanson on tabla, the group performed four long pieces that were meditative in their joyful sounds. Sissoko explained each song, translating the idea of love being like an egg “needing protection,” and another song that celebrated being thankful for each day. Repetitive and tantric, the music washed a soothing wave over the growing audience in the park.

After a brief break with raffle ticket prizes and announcements about future concerts, Kabir Cafe came out to perform the poetry of the 15th Century mystic. As the bassist came out to tune, and the band humbly took the stage, there was no way to prepare for the incredible sounds that were about to be shared. First there was a quiet walking bass melody to a gently crescendoing cymbal, but then the group’s first real downbeat was electric and some sort of fusion between blue grass, folk and indie.

The juxtaposition of the traditional, tantric soothing sounds to the electric fiddle, guitar, bass, drums and mandolin were striking. Faces young and old spread open with big smiles and laughter, with one child overheard stating, “I didn’t know Indian music could be like this!” as her parents nodded.

Kabir’s Cafe waxed philosophical, but by all accounts was an incredibly good time. From engaging the crowd to sing along words that they perhaps didn’t know to clapping and dancing in the aisles, the band shared Kabir’s message of “dissolving boundaries” and recognizing “we are all equally beautifully stupid.”

As the night wore on, the band also played a number of Bollywood hits that “Bollywood plays us, not we play Bollywood.” The audience danced with abandon, full of contentment and joy in the cool July night air. There was a playfulness and lightness as these tunes emerged with their messages of doing well, being a bit selfish and exploring self love, as well as appreciating the moments in life.

In the end, the music was outstanding, and the messages were conveyed organically through the band members’ very presence and interactions with one another and the audience. At one point, the artists talked with the audience about Kabir’s message to make the world a better place, noting that the “problem in the world is not the bullshit but what we are doing with it..”

Kabir Cafe is doing something to shift the negativity of the world climate, or the bullshit as they might say, by dissolving boundaries through music, humor, and connection.

And they built tremendous energy around Music Haven’s opening night, whetting appetites for next Sunday’s Casaurina who will take listeners to Rio.

1 Comment
  1. Mona Golub says

    From the spiritual thoughts in their heads down to the funky curls on Neeraj Arya’s way cool shoes, you captured the essence of this dynamic show and the way that Music Haven draws diverse community together to experience the world. Thank you for being present in the moment and for so beautifully documenting the evening that kicked off our 30th anniversary season! Greg Haymes would be proud…

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