Event Review: Shweta Jhaveri at Yoshi's

Shweta Jhaveri
Shweta Jhaveri, a classically trained Gujarati vocalist, performed at Yoshi's last night.  Her work has been described "to the raga for voice as Ravi Shankar is to the raga for sitar."  I was excited to witness the meeting of classical Hindustani vocals with a world music ensemble of western musicians.  Jhaveri is best known for her work in the traditional vocal form of Khayal, but she also performs Tappa, Thumri, Tarana, Dhrupad, Dhamar, and Bhajans.  She also indulges in an ongoing flirtation with the idea of world music.  Jhaveri burst onto the international scene at the age of 19, and ever since has been working to bridge the classical Indian tradition with the world music genre.

Jhaveri's singing voice is ethereal.  When I listen to her recordings at home, I'm compelled to close my eyes and become engulfed in her melodies.  I was perhaps expecting something similar when I arrived at Yoshi's in Oakland.  Instead, I had the distinct impression that I'd inadvertently stumbled into a practice session in someone's basement or a small group meditation session in their living room.  I watched as Jhaveri tried to teach her ensemble to work with her in the midst of the performance.  The musicians were doing an admirable job translating classical forms onto western instruments, but to my ears the drum set, guitar, and violin just didn't seem subtle enough to match Jhaveri's voice.  

But perhaps it was the setting.  I'm used to seeing highly dynamic and rather loud jazz musicians on Yoshi's stage, their performances overwhelmingly fueled by testosterone.  Jhaveri's work was too much of a mental switch for me.  When she slipped into her singing she was truly captivating.  But otherwise she seemed a bit ill at ease.  There were glimmers of humor in her discussions of challenging ragas.  The best part of the show was certainly the standing ovation at the end and an encore, to which Jhaveri replied, "But we didn't have anything more prepared!"   She finished off the night with a truly exquisite devotion to Saraswati.

I admit I'm biased toward Jhaveri's classical work.  I have listened, outside of this performance, to some of her world music and I find it a bit cloying for my taste.  Classical music demands a transcendent clarity; world music demands a certain edge and a talent for self-representation.  Perhaps if Jhaveri used her band solely as a backdrop to highlight her amazing talent, her music would be more convincing.  But she'd have to be ready to seize center stage and charismatically woo the audience from the first song.  That, however, is a rock star approach.  I believe Jhaveri needs to go beyond just blending Hindustani vocals into a world music label; she also needs to bring a rock star mentality to her classical trained voice.  Is it too much to ask?  Perhaps.  But I'd love to see her try.