People Who Make NY Special

Sacred Sounds With David Ellenbogen

The seasoned radio host and guitarist is also the creative force behind the 24-hour Ragas Live Festival.

David Ellenbogen finds his zen

David Ellenbogen has been sending out the best jazz and global music sounds over the airwaves of New York City for the past two decades. As a radio host on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, Ellenbogen has interviewed artists ranging from jazz legend McCoy Tyner to Nigerian superstar King Sunny Ade, and he has recorded more than 250 hours of sublime live content that’s archived in his gold mine of a podcast, NYC Radio Live. When he’s not busy inside the studio, Ellenbogen spreads his love of Indian classical music around NYC. He currently serves as one of the artistic directors of Brooklyn Raga Massive (which The New York Times dubbed as “leaders of the ‘raga renaissance’”) and is also the creative force behind the 24-hour Ragas Live Festival.

With less than a week until the sixth annual fest at the Rubin Museum of Art, WSWD was lucky enough to snag Ellenbogen for a chat to discuss his long history studying, producing, and sharing eclectic music in NYC.

What Should We Do?! You serve the world of music in so many capacities—as a performer, producer, broadcaster, and curator. When did you first realize you wanted [to pursue] a career in this field?
David Ellenbogen: Back to the Future came out when I was 8, and Michael J. Fox was the archetype of coolness—the guy could turn anything into a skateboard! The Chuck Berry scene in that movie sold me on the guitar. In high school, I studied with guitarist Kenny Wessel, a member of Ornette Coleman’s band Prime Time, and he has remained a good friend and guide. As far as producing, I was unimpressed by the party scene in college. I wanted to create an alternate environment where people felt welcome and there was quality live music. I convinced some older students to let me use their flat; laid out close to $1,000 on a sound system, good beer, bands, and all that; flyer-ed the campus—and a few hundred people showed up. I broke even! Still today, hospitality is key for me. I want people to feel welcome and safe [at the events I work on]—to create an environment where they can have a transformative experience, but also just have fun and meet other like-minded people.

I later fell into a job at Columbia University when it was starting the Center for Jazz Studies. The idea that I could get paid to help Ron Carter move his bass at some point was too good to be true! I figured out a way to get a bunch of partners from other parts of the university to cosponsor events, and soon I was producing concerts like the annual Sun Ra Arkestra Halloween Haunt at no cost to my boss. I got the Faculty House to donate 2,000 pounds of dry ice for that! The legendary producer George Wein, who created the first American music festival, Newport Jazz, in 1954 (and later the Newport Folk and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festivals), attended one of these and hired me soon after.

WSWD: The genres that you are involved in are limitless. What do you gravitate toward when booking an artist for one of your productions, your radio show, or your own artistic collaborations?
Ellenbogen: Though it’s never spoken of, I think the communities I’m drawn to all indirectly or directly view music as sacred. A lot of these people are really rooted in a tradition, but they’re also curious to learn about sounds beyond their boundaries. I like music that’s mind-blowing. Frank Zappa once said, “Music is the only religion that delivers the goods.” Many of the artists I’ve been lucky enough to work with—such as Roman Diaz, Innov Gnawa, Awa Sangho, Dana Hanchard, and Jay Gandhi—definitely deliver those goods!

WSWD: How did your interest in raga music start?
Ellenbogen: As soon as I heard the drone of the tanpura, I felt there was something really deep and spiritual in that tradition. After a few years with George Wein, I traveled and studied music in a few countries, including four months in India with Debashish Bhattacharya, the great Hindustani slide guitarist. That was my most formal training in music. He was the guru and I was his disciple, struggling just to sit cross-legged! I learned so much, but the main message was the level of dedication that it takes to truly honor music. He told me that his father once took him to a bus stop and said, “You see those people? They work for eight hours and commute an hour each way. If you really want to respect music, you should work 10 hours a day, too.”

WSWD: How did you decide to put together a 24-hour fest at your radio studio?
Ellenbogen: I’ve been on WKCR since I was a kid in 1997. I grew up listening to 89.9 FM and took a summer literature class at Columbia just to get on the radio and get into that record library. When I returned from Calcutta, I wanted to learn more about Indian music; I just wanted to lay eyes on those magical instruments. For years on the radio, I had an open door to any musicians who played raga. A supercool Turkish student at the time, Ahmet Ali Arslan, was excited by what I was doing and came up with the idea of the 24-hour festival. It’s a natural idea because raga is time specific; there are ragas to match the feeling of the sunrise or midnight. Brooklyn Raga Massive had just formed, so I reached out to them and a few other organizations, like HarmoNYom and Chhandayan, to make it happen.

david ellenbogen
Behind the scenes with David Ellenbogen at WKCR

WSWD: For the first four years of this festival, it took place just in your studio. This is your second year doing the fest live—what are you most excited about this time?
Ellenbogen: I can’t imagine anything more special, fun, or unique than an overnight experience in the Rubin; it specializes in Himalayan art, so it’s an inspiring setting for this. Sameer Gupta and Arun Ramamurthy from Brooklyn Raga Massive have curated an amazing lineup of artists. I’m particularly excited about the 9 p.m. set with Ganavya Doraiswamy; I get choked up every time I hear her. A unique thing about this festival is that we treat raga as a living tradition. There are many fascinating groups and artists who are inspired by the form and also bring other parts of themselves and their experiences to the music. It’s fresh music, being created right now in New York City.

WSWD: What do you hope audiences take away from it? What can they expect with the 50-plus musicians you’ve lined up?
Ellenbogen: Something very transformative happens in an immersive experience like this. Raga is a subtle science, and the music doesn’t just harmonize with the various instruments; it harmonizes with the time of day. It’s also special that we will be broadcasting it live on WKCR-FM. People all around the world will be listening; it will be a global community of people concentrating on the subtleties of a single note. This shared experience is medicine we can all use a dose of.

WSWD: Hopefully you’ll get some rest post–Ragas Live! After that, what’s next for you?
Ellenbogen: Well, I’ll have to get all 24 hours of Ragas Live uploaded to NYC Radio Live—that podcast is my life’s work. In a hundred years, I hope someone comes across this archive and thinks, Oh! People from all around the world were coming together and making amazing music.

I think that people who love to dance should have some more organic and globally minded offerings, so the next big project is Trance NYC. I’m scheming with Hatim Belyamani (aka H.A.T.) to create a series that will feature traditional global trance music artists such as Innov Gnawa or La Troupe Makandal working together with electronic acts to create collaborative sets.

Olga Morkova and I recently started World Music Education, in which we reach out to all these world-class musicians I’ve been talking about. The idea is to expose children to musicians from all around the planet. The trope that listening to Mozart makes your children smarter may be true, but then it would follow that Afro-Cuban rhythms and Arabic Maqam would be equally mind expanding. We’ve been doing weekly classes and it’s been a lot of fun.

I am superpsyched for the Outside (In)dia Series, which is being produced by the India Center Foundation, Lincoln Center, and Brooklyn Raga Massive. This series takes a really expansive view on what raga can be in NYC today. I’ll be playing on the next show with Román Díaz, and I’ve been studying Afro-Cuban music with singer Melvis Santa to begin to understand that amazing tradition.

Brooklyn Raga Massive has a bunch of amazing projects that I am playing on or helping produce. We just released our album of Terry Riley’s piece, In C, and are headed to Hawaii to perform it in November. We have a weekly jam session, which is a great open series where any musician can take part. That inclusive session is at the heart of the whole movement.

I’ve got my Acoustic Mandala Project, which makes music for yoga and meditation, so there are some retreats on the books for that, as well. Dana Hanchard is my favorite musician, and we’ve got some dates with her group Karavan Kosmiko, and I’m starting to produce some music events for Airbnb. It’s still under wraps, but you’ll hear about them soon!

WSWD: If WSWD planned a day for you in NYC, what would it include?
Ellenbogen: I’d start with lunch at this Trinidadian spot in East Flatbush called Rama’s Roti Shop. Then I’d head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a concert among the pyramids in the Temple of Dendur. This would be followed by a stroll through Inwood Hill Park, which is one of the best-kept secrets in NYC—there’s some old-growth forest and natural springs in uptown Manhattan! I’d end the night with a midnight rumba session at Zinc Bar.

David Ellenbogen’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Music venue?
Barbès in Brooklyn.

Desert island record?
Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland.

NYC-themed song?
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” by Bob Dylan.

Late-night snack spot?
Kabab King in Jackson Heights.

Soup dumplings?
Grand Sichuan in Chelsea.

Yoga studio?
Bread and Yoga in Inwood.

Dancing spot?
Kevin Nathaniel’s Afro Roots at Goddard Riverside.

Care to spend a day walking in David Ellenbogen’s shoes? Let us know.