That an Italian-American musician might master violin, accordion, piano or guitar should never come as a surprise. But the sitar? In the wrong hands, that’s the cultural equivalent of pouring curry sauce over a plate of meatballs. But Clar Monaco tackled the instrument with a diligence and intensity that has made him one of the area’s best sitar players.
As for what drew him to Indian music, Monaco, 57, says it began about 20 years ago; he started studying under Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Mumbai, India. “He was giving concerts around the U.S. but Chicago was his base for a year,” Monaco recalls. “I was very lucky to meet him; it was one of those ‘meant to be’ things, being at the right place at the right time.”
Monaco (who divides his time between Washington state and Chicago Heights, Ill.), recalls a childhood full of musical stimulation. Croatian on his mother’s side, he traces his paternal roots to Cantolupo, northeast of Naples (his grandfather) and Palermo, Sicily (his grandmother). His grandparents settled in Montana, and when Monaco visited there as a kid, “my grandfather had a little portable record player and loved to listen to Polka music. He played mouth harp and a bit of harmonica, things he probably picked up from working on the railroad. The buzzy drone of the mouth harp fascinated me. It was melodic and rhythmic at the same time, somewhat the musical quality found in sitar music.”
Monaco grew up on Italian-American favorites, from Dean Martin to accordionist Dick Contino, and as a child of the 1960s embraced The Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. When he started sitar training, he waited about five years before performing in public. He formed Sandalwood Sitar Music Ensemble with his wife Gigi Wong-Monaco (another big Beatles fan) around 1999, and by 2003 had a solid repertoire that included not only Indian classical music and Hindi film songs, “but also my original compositions with a Middle-Eastern flair, and even some Beatles cover tunes.” Monaco was in fact featured in an April 2012 issue of Newsweek dedicated to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles, in a feature on tribute bands from around the globe.
After playing venues ranging from the Old Town School of Folk Music to lavish Indian weddings, now Monaco is bearing down in the studio, completing work on a Sandalwood album due in Fall 2012. He also runs the Wonderwall Music Shoppe & Emporium with Gigi, a store that sells Indian instruments and ukuleles.
During the rare free moment, you might find Monaco creating visual art or even freelance architectural design. “For me, everything goes in cycles,” he says. “Everything has its time, runs its course and then manifests itself in some other creative way. Music. Art. Gardening. Writing. Meditating. It’s all good.”