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The best kept secret in music


"Let That Raga Drop"

"I think we’re one of the only progressive-rock bands in Charleston,” says guitarist Nikhel Sus, of Charleston-based improv quartet Raga. “The term ‘jam band’ can be a dirty term, depending on the context. Some people, like me, just say it to refer to a large scene — a scene that encompasses jazz, rock, metal, reggae, techno, electronica, bluegrass, etc. Jamming involves everyone on stage making up what they’re playing at the same time and having that fit together. That’s what a good jam band does. Essentially, the term ‘jam band’ can be good for categorizing, but bad because of stereotyping.”

Raga, one of 18 acts who shared the stage at last week’s huge Contagious Collaboration festival, describe their own ambitious musical style as “progressive reggae-rock” that “forgoes meandering jams for solid song structure and focused improvisation.” The band goes for fully realized compositions, not just songs based on the traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. Much of the groove in the band’s foundation is deeply rooted in reggae styles.

“Ransom White [Raga’s keyboardist] has an extremely original keyboard style that is rooted in dub music,” explains Sus. “I guess his focus solidified the rest of our ideas and gave us more of a purpose. My personal fascination with reggae is the way the bass and percussion fit into the scheme. The bass is almost always the lead instrument in reggae, which is cool because it is an instrument that is usually put in the background.

“There are reggae bands in Charleston, but we don’t easily fit into the category,” he adds. “Our psychedelic/progressive rock approach separates us from the reggae pack, and our reggae approach separates us from the jam band pack.”

The young members of Raga first came together as a band in 2003, jamming in different styles with a wide-open attitude just for fun. Sus says it became “kind of sloppy bar band” with a repertoire of a couple originals and mostly covers. In 2004, after a few lineup changes, Sus and his bandmates — drummer Jake Oleksak, bassist Cameron Read, and keyboardist Ransom White — focused on tightening the band’s original material and put effort into shaping a specific sound. They made their first big splash in the local scene at last year’s Contagious Collaboration and have continued to regularly gig around town since then.

“We have grown exponentially as a group,” says Sus. “The main idea that guided the band until this point was heavy improv, which we still do. Since then, however, we have learned to get past the jam band stigma of playing over the same chord progression for three hours. Our improv involves themes and movements that sound more like compositions than improvisation. We have also become more focused in our ideas of progressive reggedelic rock.”

The idea behind the band’s name involves more than one might expect. In Indian and Hindu music, a “raga” is a series of five or more notes upon which a particular melody is based. They intentionally evoke particular moods in the listener and are often performed to resonate with a season or time of day.

“My parents are from India, and I listened to Indian music in my house constantly when I was growing up,” says Sus. “I wanted to pick a band name from Indian music because I believe it reflects our approach to playing music and improvisation. It is not based on chord progressions or structure, but on the emotion the player is feeling. Likewise, ragas can induce sadness, happiness, and a myriad of other emotions.”

As full-time students at the College of Charleston, the guys won’t make concrete plans to record, release an album, and tour until at least the middle of summer when they all move into a band house on James Island.

“It will be dedicated to music, with a 16-track studio in the living room,” Sus says. “By August, we ought to have a good debut album. We plan on holding a CD release party downtown when the school year starts back up.”

For now, Raga stand determined to explore beyond the usual music boundaries and create a vibrant on-stage sound for their audience. Their current set list contains a mix of oddball covers and original pieces penned mostly by Sus and White.

“Essentially, we wanted to combine our main influences — Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Sublime — and end up with a completely different product,” says Sus. “Also, we wanted to evoke different emotions from the listener within one song.”

This varied approach is consistent with the band’s mission statement on their website (raga.zoomshare.com), which emphasizes the idea that Raga play exploratory jams that dabble in “dark” and “light” themes.

“Well, it seems like a lot of jam bands just seem to play happy music, which is OK,” says Sus. “It’s just not our bag. We have a tendency to go towards the darker stuff, because it’s more moving to us. However, we realize that you have to use it like a tool. In other words, if we’re playing a really dark song, and then a really dark jam, we should cool it off at the end with a really bouncy happy jam. It’s a way of trying not to be redundant and being emotionally dynamic.” - T. Ballard Lesserman

"The Art of Genre Skipping"

Raga has found a flavorful way to distinguish themselves. Since the jam band formula seems to be redundant, Raga's use of "genre skipping" keeps the crowd interested. Even Raga's improvisation is different than most bands. They distinctively spice up songs by melding jazz, reggae, techno, and hard rock into a potent and engaging mixture. - Rebecca Argo

"Raga: Electric"

Drummer Jake Oleksak - best known for his work over the last two years with local world-beat/reggae-funk band Raga - embarks ona two and a half month trip to Thailand on Mon. Drummerless but not defeated, the reminaing bandmates have made plans to perform as an electronic band throughout the spring. - Charleston City Paper


Still working on that hot first release.


Feeling a bit camera shy


Emerging from Charleston, South Carolina, Raga enters the music scene when there is clearly a need for something new. The group's sound is characterized by modern technological innovation and sonic experimentation, while remaining grounded by solid song structure and insightful lyricism. This heavy hitting quartet seamlessly blends rock riffs, deep reggae rhythms, and spacious electronica with faultless interplay and precise musicianship. Traces of the ethereal sounds of Pink Floyd, the neo-reggae of Sublime, and the explosive energy of Led Zeppelin are easily detected upon first listening to the band. All the while, they manage to create a completely unique style and an infectious groove that has been turning heads in the low country for the past two years.

Raga has shared the stage with many notable national acts, such as: Perpetual Groove, Green Lemon, Yo Momma's Big Fat Booty Band, Captain Soularcat, and several others. Past and upcoming gigs include both indoor and outdoor performances at venues such as: Cumberland's, The Pour House, and The NORML Green Affair Festival (Charleston SC), The House of Jam (Jacksonville, FL), The Palm Room (Wrightsville Beach, NC), The Contagious Collaboration Festival (Canadys SC), The Joint (Clemson, SC), Hell's Kitchen (Wilmington, NC), and Hannah Flannagan's (Asheville, NC).

The group traces it's origin to the chance meeting of guitarist Nikhel Sus and keyboardist Ransom White, while attending the College of Charleston. The young musicians proceeded to form several incarnations of bands in the next year. As the primary lyricists and songwriters of the group, White and Sus are constantly adding diverse and ambitious songs to the band's ever-expanding catalog. Raga finalized their lineup with the addition of drummer Jake "elusivo" Oleksak and bassist Richard Horton in 2005.

Raga's goal is to always keep the audience engaged and on their toes by delivering music that is uplifting, danceable, fresh, and vibrant. The band offers well-crafted songs that are composed with precision, while still leaving room for ample sonic exploration and mind-bending improvisation. The end result is a sound that appeals to jam fans, rockers, and electronica fanatics alike.

Raga strongly believes in the totality of the live music experience. Accordingly, they travel with a full-function intelligent lighting system and a lighting technician. They are able to integrate their system with the venue's existing technology. The group firmly believes that an excellent auditory and visual sensory experience is the key to a solid musical performance.

The band is focused on expanding their fan base throughout the southeast in early 2006 followed by a comprehensive southern tour this summer. They are also working on their debut album which has a tentative release of the summer of 2006.

Raga is: Richard Horton (Bass), Jake Oleksak (Drums, Samples), Nikhel Sus (Vocals, Guitar), and Ransom White (Vocals, Keyboards, Synthesizers, and Melodica)