South Indian singer Aruna Sairam joins an international cast at the Ojai Music Festival

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

If you’re looking for new and inventive sounds, Ojai is the place to be this weekend. The Ojai Music Festival, now in its 70th year, has long been regarded as one of the most daring celebrations of contemporary classical music, featuring everything from avant-garde percussion ensembles to rock-classical mashups to experimental music and more, showcasing the talents of composers and musicians from across the globe. This year’s festival maintains that standard.

Multitalented Music Director Peter Sellars is a professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, and he’s harnessed his breadth of experience to bring in a spectacular lineup of international talent. From New Zealand comes the avant-garde pop singer and composer Leila Adu; composer Kaija Saariaho hails from Finland; the Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi will be making her debut; and a new work by Cuban composer/conductor Tania León will be performed by Youth Orchestra LA and International Contemporary Ensemble. Two other works will also premiere at this year’s festival. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a commissioned piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, will be performed with text by poet Claudia Rankine. Opera soprano Julia Bullock is the featured performer in Josephine Baker: A Portrait, with arrangements and new music by Tyshawn Sorey.

One of the most highly anticipated performances is that of master vocalist Aruna Sairam, who will introduce Ojai audiences to Carnatic music, a South Indian classical music tradition that stretches back centuries. “Indian music is more towards melody than harmony,” Sairam explains. “There is no concept of harmonizing or using chords. A certain song or musical piece follows a certain melodic structure. The other main pillar of the music is the rhythm. It’s a very intricate, complex and advanced style of percussive accompaniment.”

Carnatic music emphasizes the vocals; most compositions are intended to be sung. Accompanying the singer are instruments integral to South Indian classical music. One of these is the tambura, a long-necked stringed instrument that produces a drone “that provides the pitch to which the melody conforms,” Sairam says. “The voice and the tambura are like twins.” Sairam’s ensemble will include a tambura player, a violinist and two percussionists. One will play the mridangam. Sometimes called “the King of Percussion,” the mridangam keeps timing in check for all the performers and is the basis of the tala, or rhythm system, possibly the most complex percussive rhythm system of any form of classical music. A clay pot called a ghatam will also be used. “It gives a nice, metallic sound,” says Sairam. 

Sairam’s performance — a twilight concert at Libbey Bowl on Saturday evening — will include both classical and original compositions and touch upon Indian folk music as well. “We tend to get off to a milder start, to meet the audience at their mood,” she explains. “Slowly we run into deeper water. When that’s done, I go into music out of folk traditions. Once you have the flavor of folk music, you feel very light and buoyant.”

Ojai has jazz pianist Vijay Iyer to thank for bringing India’s renowned music ambassador to the valley. Tapped as music director for the 2017 festival, Iyer brought Sairam, whom he has known for years, to the attention of artistic director Thomas W. Morris, who very quickly proffered an invitation. Sairam eagerly obliged. “You don’t have to pay someone to eat chocolate,” she says with a laugh.

This will be Sairam’s first performance with the festival, and her first time in Ojai as well. “I’m very happy to come to Ventura County,” she says. “I’ve heard so much about the Ojai Music Festival. I was proud to be invited.” According to Sairam, Morris was very insistent that she play the music of her culture as it was intended, without changing the arrangements or catering to an unfamiliar audience. Carnatic music is a very different kind of sound, but Ojai is up to the challenge. “It says so much about the curiosity and openness . . . of the festival’s audience,” Sairam says. 

The Ojai Music Festival starts on Thursday, June 9. Aruna Sairam performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, at Libbey Bowl and at a free street party concert in Santa Paula on Sunday, June 12, at 6 p.m. For the full festival lineup, visit