Though infatuated by the music of other lands, Tim Gregory treads humbly on new cultural ground. Last year, after three months of study, he entered the sitar competition at the annual Indian music and dance competition at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Backstage, as Mr. Gregory practiced a jhala -- a complex playing technique found in the Indian melodic form called a raga -- a young Indian boy peered from around the corner. With his tabla, a small Indian hand drum, the boy joined in. Playing faster and faster, they kept a furious pace until the raga's end. Then, the boy "looked up at me and said, 'Man, that was great!' " Mr. Gregory says.
For the novice student, winning or losing was hardly a factor. But "having that little experience backstage with this little guy was just fantastic!" Mr. Gregory says.
Mr. Gregory, who is studying for a doctorate in UMBC's ethnomusicology program, will compete again in this weekend's Indian music and dance competition, now in its ninth year. Of the 190 competitors expected, he will be one of a handful of non-Indians vying against musicians from all over the country, including California, Illinois, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Canada.
The festival is sponsored by the UMBC ethnomusicology department and the Academy of Indian Music in Baltimore.
"To be involved in this competition is incredible," Mr. Gregory says. "You see young kids born and raised in America, [who are] Indian. They really live their culture. Although they may go to school to be an engineer, they still learn [how to play] and how to sing. It's such a part of their soul and such a part of their life."
A world traveler who collects music and instruments wherever he goes, Mr. Gregory, 29, first played a sitar -- a stringed instrument made from gourds and teak -- he was safeguarding for a friend.
Uncertain of how it worked or how to tune it, he brought the sitar to Hamid Hossain, a professor in UMBC's ethnomusicology program.
"The next thing you know, it just sort of took over my life," Mr. Gregory says.
He decided to enroll in the ethnomusicology program and to focus on Northern Indian classical music.
For Mr. Gregory, this traditional musical form lends itself well to his conviction that music is a unifying language that brings people together. "It's total audience participation," he says. "When people go to watch someone play a raga, they're totally involved. They're in there seeing how a person is going to develop it, and when the drumming comes in, they're also counting whatever tal (rhythmic pattern) it's being played in."
Mr. Hossain is proud of his student of just over a year. Mr. Gregory has the "talent, temperament . . . a lot of devotion" for mastering the sitar, says the instructor, who also is a co-organizer of the competition.
With a partner, Ross Holtz, Mr. Gregory is a self-appointed cultural ambassador who brings his knowledge of Third World music to Howard County schools.
Mr. Gregory, manager of the Ellicott City restaurant Tersiguel's, also has a recording studio in his Federal Hill home where he and others compose and produce music, much of it incorporating folk and classical melodies collected on his travels. Mr. Gregory and Mr. Holtz are also part of an ensemble who share their far-ranging musical interests.
But as he plays cross-cultural music, putting Irish rhythms to test on a sitar, for example, Mr. Gregory is careful not to abuse the music's core. "To take it overboard, like make an electric sitar, would be totally horrible," he says.
Indian Music and Dance Competition
Where: Fine Arts Recital Hall, UMBC campus.
L When: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $5 for both days.
Call: (410) 455-2065.