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Clem Alford, StringFEST

Clem Alford – Sitar

Clem Alford – sitar

Stewart Fenwick – tabla

31st March 2021

Nehru Centre, London


Part of StringFEST in association with SAMA Arts Network

On the evening of Thursday 31st March, at the Nehru Centre, London, Jay Visvadeva presented the latest concert in the series dedicated to a Festival of Bowed, Plucked & Hammered Instruments, a recital by Clem Alford, sitar, and Stewart Fenwick, tabla. That such a recital, by British musicians dedicated to Indian Classical music, might occur in the Nehru Centre, is testimony to the organic growth and depth of this cultural intertwining, and the fact that we are now in the position to be able to benefit from musicians of different provenance, but with a shared dedication and virtuosity. Alford  travelled to India and studied under Pandit Sachindranath Saha, principal of the Midnapore Music College in West Bengal. He secured the diploma of Sangeet Sudhakar for expertise in sitar from Surer Maya Sangit Samaj of Calcutta in 1970. His first major recital was in Bombay in November 1970, an event which the Times of India inaccurately but enthusiastically applauded by citing the ‘American's astounding skill, ease in sitar’ (Alford was born in Glasgow).  Stewart Fenwick started learning tabla at Dartington College (for many people a fertile source of awareness of Indian Classical music in Britain) with Pandit Sharda Sahai and later attended group lessons with Ustad Zakir Hussain in Berkeley, San Francisco. Since 2000 he has studied with Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Delhi gharana.

Plucking and hammering are terms inadequate to describe the subtle range of sounds summoned up by the evening’s musicians. Clem Alford presented the morning Raga Basant Mukhari, a choice of Raga at first sight gesturing towards the spring. Yet, as the chilly air outside reminded us on a wintry evening in Mayfair, the change of season was far from evident. Moreover, the chosen Raga is not related to that musical harbinger of spring, Raga Basant (or Vasanta).  Alford explained that this Raga was to be found on a UNESCO-supported LP, from the 1960s, co-ordinated by the indefatigable indologst and collector of Indian Classical music, Alain Daniélou (in that recording played by Ali Akbar Khan). Such understated hommage reminded us of Clem Alford’s long career, beginning before the wave of popular enthusiasm, and sustained into his seventh decade. 

Alford began with a delicate but resolute alap. His sitar produced a mellow and rich string sound, especially on the lower notes. Progressing through compositions in jhaptal and teental, Alford was joined by Stewart Fenwick on tabla. Always attentive to his partner, Fenwick provided a varied yet understated rhythmic momentum (including moments when the tabla had to be retuned, yet without missing a beat!). It felt as though the two musicians had played together many times, with a shared sense of complete confidence sustaining their interaction. As the exposition unfolded, Fenwick increasingly demonstrated his powerful but always measured sense of rhythmic control. This was tabla playing of a very high level, eschewing prestissimo exaggeration and flamboyant fortissimo, remaining compelling and unfailingly knitted together with the sitar’s musical patterns, as each moved from foreground to background.  The recital concluded with a rendition of Raga Bhairavi; and a brief, chromatic glimpse of Raga Piloo. One’s only regret was that the concert could not have lasted another hour.  


Richard Wrigley has been listening to Indian Classical music since hearing Ustad Imrat Khan and Pandit Kumar Bose play Raga Darbari in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, in 1978.