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Music with Asian flare floats into Columbia Local performers to play Chinese, Indian guitars


Some of the guitar's distant cousins from half a world away will be making melodies in Columbia today.

The Indian sitar and the Chinese p'i-p'a -- descendants of the guitar's Middle Eastern ancestor -- will be featured in concert at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, part of Community Building in Howard County's opening installment for its Fall Cultural Arts Series.

The nonprofit human rights organization is offering a chance to hear instruments unusual in the West, where the sound of the sitar is probably most familiar through 1960s-era rock hits, such as the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black."

The Indian music in today's concert will be played by Howard Community College guitar instructor Bruce Casteel, 46, who has deep local roots. He is a Baltimore native, a Howard County resident since he was 9 years old and a 1967 graduate of Howard High School.

Mr. Casteel picked up a guitar at age 14 when "it was getting too expensive to keep my chemistry lab going," he said.

His first influences were the Beach Boys, followed by folk music, then rock 'n' roll and finally classical. He enrolled in the Peabody Preparatory School and later attended the Peabody Conservatory.

During his college years, Mr. Casteel started to play the sitar and purchased "Ragas for Guitar" from a Towson music store. Ragas are ancient traditional melodic patterns in Indian music.

That book and recordings by the Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar "turned me on to it," says Mr. Casteel.

He sees a clear parallel between the playing of ragas and the chants of European monks. His ragas songbook says that they are "descended from sacred chants of India. And to this day the playing of classical music is religious in nature."

One technique in sitar music should bring a smile to every washed-out guitar student: no finger-contorting chord structure.

The Eastern approach to music is based on melody, says Mr. Casteel, and the Western approach is based on harmony. The sitar "is not set up for chord playing. It's for melody," he said.

Pearl Pan will add to the day of melody, playing the p'i-p'a (pronounced PEE-pa), a four-string Chinese instrument, and the liuqin, a related instrument. She will be accompanied by Liang S. Tang and by Michael Leven, a student of Ms. Pan.

The group also will play other traditional Chinese stringed instruments, such as the erh-hu, which is played with a bow, and the cheng, which is a type of zither.

Ms. Pan, 49, was born in Shanghai, China, where she graduated from the city's conservatory. She immigrated to the United States in 1984, with no knowledge of English, and enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Maryland Baltimore County's ethnomusicology program. She earned her master's degree in 1988 and lives in Catonsville.

Ms. Pan has played at embassies and has performed in Canada and China, where she was invited in 1987 to return for a six-city tour that included a stop in Beijing.

Like many musicians in the United States, she holds down several day jobs, one at a jewelry store in Security Square Mall, another at the Baltimore County Public Library in Towson and another as a waitress on weekends.

She estimates that she works 60 hours a week, which makes the music time precious.

"I really like the p'i-p'a," she says. After the audience hears its resemblance to a voice, "they think I can sing."

Community Building in Howard County will feature a selection of Eastern music from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 10431 Twin Rivers Road, Columbia. Tickets are $5. Information: 730-3334.

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