Like its name, the band Hindugrass brings together elements of traditional Hindustani music from northern India with bluegrass from Appalachia.
Founder and leader John Heitzenrater and several fellow students at California Institute of the Arts first made the odd, yet logical, convergence in 1998.
“I was trying to describe our music to some in the faculty here, and called it ‘Hindugrass,’ ” said Heitzenrater, who plays the Indian sarod, a fretless stringed instrument. “They continued to use that term for it, and we became that.”
Hindugrass, which performs Tuesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center, is a perfect example of the hybrid musical conceptualizing that goes on at CalArts, where world music, jazz, classical and more experimental modes are taught under one roof.
The versatile and respected guitarist Miroslav Tadic, who headlines the concert, and collaborator, percussionist John Bergamo, are CalArts faculty members who have taught and encouraged the young players.
Heitzenrater grew up in the South, mostly in North Carolina, and had a natural exposure to the bluegrass music of the area, even if his own musical instincts steered him elsewhere. At some point, he fell in love with Indian classical music, which led him to study with sarodist Pandit Rajeev Taranath at CalArts.
“I had been an enthusiast for years before [coming to CalArts], and picked up a couple of the basic scales in my electric guitar playing,” Heitzenrater said.
“At one point, I had the idea to use the sarod like a Dobro in the bluegrass context.” A Dobro is a guitar-like instrument used in bluegrass and country music, played with a slide.
He started out with electric guitar, but followed his curiosity and became a multi-instrumentalist, adding bassoon and sarod to his serious instrumental palette, along with passable skills on trumpet, keyboards and saxophone.
The band first came together with Bryan Landers on banjo and Tyler Grant on guitar. It later expanded to include tabla (Indian drum) player Austin Wrinkle and jaw harp, also known as a jew’s-harp, player Evan Fraser. A multicultural group was born.
“We had a general stylistic agenda,” Heitzenrater said, “but we want to keep things open. We had the general idea that we wanted to blend Eastern modalities with the Southeastern American jug band format.
“Like the Hindugrass name, it’s not really one thing or the other,” he continued.
“We never really play Hindustani music that I would be comfortable calling that. And we don’t play a form of bluegrass that other musicians would want to call bluegrass. We’ve studied a lot of jazz, as well.”
Part of the band’s charm is its sense of learning on the job.
“I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about bluegrass, and those guys don’t have a lot of knowledge about Hindustani music,” Heitzenrater said.
But together, they fill in blanks and create something that only a hybrid band name can describe.
“An Evening of Cross-Cultural Music” with Hindugrass and Miroslav Tadic, Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets: $12 general admission, $10 for Skirball members and $8 for students. (323) 655-8587.