Labeling himself as an American sitarist, David Pontbriand, who calls Portland his home, is unusual in that he’s nearly self-taught on this traditional instrument from India. He will perform at River Arts in Damariscotta on Friday evening, June 16. The highly distinctive sound produced by the sitar has graced a lot of different genres over the years, and Pontbriand is taking it on his own journey. In a recent interview from his residence, he talked about his special instrument in great depth.

Q: The only exposure I have had to the sitar has been through the Beatles, and especially George Harrison.

Pontbriand: And that’s where it got started for me. I began by playing the drums when I was 11 years old, and I went on to guitar when the Beatles came around. I was really interested in that — and George Harrison sort of pointed the way to Ravi Shankar. That was back in the late ’60s, and I really liked to listen to that music. I didn’t think of myself as becoming a sitar player at first, but by 1973 I was really thinking, “this is an instrument that I’d like to do,” and my wife brought one home one day and that was it. Unfortunately, I play left-handed, so I had to take the sitar apart and put it back together in the opposite way in order to play in left-handed. It worked out pretty well, but it took a little bit of work.

Q: Are you still using that particular instrument?

Pontbriand: No, I went on to another one. I’ve had a couple of instruments custom-made for me since then, back in the ’90s, yeah. I had to have them made in India and then imported. It’s really hard to make sitars in the United States because they are so labor-intensive. It’s too expensive to make sitars here, but there are a couple of people in the U.S. who are trying to do it, and I guess the results have been pretty good so far.

Q: How many strings are on this instrument?

Pontbriand: Most sitars have 20 strings. There are a few different variations on stringing, but most of the time it’s 20. In the last 150 years the number of strings gradually increased to the 20, sometimes 21.

Q: Does that contribute to the signature sound produced by the instrument — that and the movable frets?

Pontbriand: Yes, there’s a natural series of overtones, because the spaces are not the same between the notes. It’s a different kind of scale. And that’s one of the reasons the sitar is so rich in overtones. It uses all the notes derived from all the natural harmonics, rather than western music where we use a tempered scale so that we can change the music over many different keys. But in the Indian classical music tradition, there is a background of notes called a drone that is either one note or maybe two or maybe three, and they continue through the whole performance. The melody line is always in relationship to that background. Because of that, you can use it to create different melodies, most of which don’t exist in western music anywhere at all. That was what I liked about it — so many of those scales were very, very expressive.

Q: Now, back to the concert coming up in Damariscotta. Have you ever played there at River Arts before?

Pontbriand: Yes, I performed up there last November on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a really nice place. I love the gallery up there. I’ve been exhibiting my visual art up there. I’m also a painter, so I’ve been in some shows there. Yeah, it’s great.

Q: Will your show on the 16th be classical sitar music or will it be your own compositions?

Pontbriand: This will be my own compositions. I can do classical performances, but I’ve chosen to go on a different path in the last few years and sort of find my own voice with the instrument.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article?

Pontbriand: Well, a couple of things maybe about the sitar. It has a particular unique voice, which is designed to produce an infinitely varied melody line. The sitar has two courses of strings — one main course that you play the melody notes on and the rhythm notes on, but it has a bunch of strings underneath called the sympathetic strings and they’re tuned to the scale you’re playing. So, there’s a welling up of all kinds of echoes and overtones that come up from the strings underneath that add a richness to the melody. And it also uses a lot of ornamentation. Instead of being a straight series of five notes, there will be notes with all kinds of little inflections. So, basically, I’m following a linear line from one place to another. Sometimes I call it the ‘silver thread,’ because you play most of the melody on the first string, which is a steel string. I think of it as a silver thread that’s going to lead me somewhere. It’s like going on a journey, like going on an adventure, and that’s the way I look at music. With that I hope I can shape melodies that express certain states of mind that I’m experiencing and that I can communicate to the audience. That’s kind of my philosophy of playing.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pontbriand: I play two kinds of sitars, one is the regular sitar and the other is called a surbahar, which is a larger form of sitar. A surbahar is to a sitar as a cello is to a viola, and it’s tuned to a lower pitch, so it’s often used for very serious mood pieces. But the performance will be on a Friday night, and I’m looking forward to it because it’s a small venue where I’ll have a really close contact with the audience. I’m really looking forward to it.

Lucky Clark has spent 48 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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