DURHAM — Narasimhan Raghavan grew up in India, but he never listened to classical Indian music until he moved to the United States and happened to catch the end of a concert his wife was attending.
Now he can’t get enough.
“I missed this my whole life,” Raghavan said.
So he was delighted that his son, Arjun, and Arjun’s friend Sudarshan Mohan both longtime students of Carnatic music, decided to hold an event to showcase it.
Now in its third year, the North Carolina Youth Classical Arts for Charity’s annual music festival continues Sunday in the banquet hall of a Durham restaurant. The music begins at 9 a.m. and continues until 8:30 p.m., with performers from the Triangle, Greensboro, Charlotte and nearly a dozen other states playing songs from a deep repertoire of classics from southern India.
Mohan, 19 and a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, said he and the younger Raghavan organized the event to serve three purposes: to give young performers, who spend thousands of hours learning and practicing, a chance to perform for someone besides their parents and teachers; to foster leadership skills among the students, who help run the event; and to support a charity.
This year’s festival benefits AIM for Seva, which provides educational opportunities and medical care for India’s poor.
To the untrained Western ear, Indian music may sound slightly monotonous because each song stays within a single key and requires similar instrument combinations: a violin, a keyboard, a stringed instrument called a veena, a mridangam, or two-sided drum played with a range of strokes to create different tones, and one or more vocalists.
But the music involves complex rhythms, relies heavily on improvisation, and includes lyrics in many Indian languages. Singers and instrumentalists take pride in finding the sounds in between the notes of a scale, giving the music an almost liquid sound.
Some of those who took the stage Saturday had played together before, and others had only a brief time to discuss set lists before sitting cross-legged in front of the audience and starting to play.
“You have to listen a lot,” said Arjun Raghavan, who plays the mridangam.
Mohan, who moved to the United States from India with his family at age 7, said Indian children are encouraged to learn to play or sing at an early age, the same way American kids are nudged to take up the violin, piano or guitar. Like their American-born counterparts, some take lessons only for as long as their parents require it. Others find they love the music and have a knack for it.
Many of those performing at the festival have competed in the Indian version of American Idol; one won the competition last year and another was a finalist. Two others competed on the show this year but can’t reveal where they placed because the new season hasn’t yet begun to air.
Mohan, a singer and keyboardist, said he and others on the bill at this year’s festival also perform at other Carnatic music fests around the country and in India, so the event here gives him a chance to see old friends.
Nearly 100 musicians aged 6 to 19 are paying $25 each to participate in the event. Admission is free, but audience members are encouraged to contribute to AIM for Seva.
Eventually, Mohan said, he hopes this event attracts more people who aren’t familiar with Carnatic music. It may also some day incorporate Indian dance, he said.
Even those who don’t understand the lyrics, which often are about religion or Indian culture, can appreciate the sound, Mohan said.
“That’s how music is,” he said.