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India Music Week (N.Y.): The Loneliness of Indo-Western Fusion (Essay)

Posted by ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir) on October 1, 2013

The Loneliness of Indo-Western Fusion
by Scott Groffman, 9/2013


My first encounter with live Indian music- a performance on sets of hand drums known as tabla, is not quite what I was expecting, despite my recent research. Traditional Indian music performances, according to a book I’ve been reading, most often involve three musicians: a singer, a drone instrumentalist, and a percussionist. Tabla has more recently become a popular lead instrument, however- particularly for Western audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Indian music but drawn to the breathtaking virtuosity of expert players. I keep all this in mind as I enter a small theater in downtown Manhattan with my friend Ray Belli, an accomplished drummer and tabla player.

I immediately begin to spot incongruities with what I’ve read. Not one, but three tabla players occupy center stage: a trio of casually dressed young women accompanied by a man playing harmonium off to the side. When the music begins, I am most surprised by the earsplitting volume, but also by the concert’s through-composed works: a departure from the semi-improvisational raga system that characterizes most Indian music. Observing the accordion-like harmonium, I recall that this is another mark of Western influence. Because of its history as a British colonial import and its inability to produce the semitones that are standard to Indian instruments, the instrument’s use is still lamented by traditionalists. Ray later tells me that the Guruji, or respected teacher, who composed and taught the evening’s works has to refer to his teachings as “contemporary classical” rather than simply classical Indian music in order to calm the furor of some of his colleagues in India.

At first glance, this contentious alteration of Indian music seems a common example of a cultural import adapting to meet American tastes and expectations- no more remarkable than extra large portions of sushi. Looking deeper, however, I find that what I heard in that theater was only the tip of a musicological iceberg: the centuries-old effort to connect what may be the two most powerful and widespread musical traditions in the world. Optimistic musicians and scholars have been working to connect Western and Indian music ever since colonial British “orientalists” in the late 18th century published books of so-called Hindustani Airs; approximations of tunes they had heard in Indian courts that did little reproduce the music’s original complexity (Farrell 28). With the advent of recording technology, the last century has seen the rise of a thriving transnational exchange, in which Indian music- no longer simply a subject of colonial appropriation- has risen to global recognition, particularly in the United States and Europe. But because of its cultural and historical differences, Indian music sometimes seems fated to remain forever an exotic oddity, as alien to modern Western ears as it was to those of the original colonizers.

The effect of Western music on the culture of India has been immense by comparison, however- a lopsidedness that reflects the historical power imbalance of colonialism. “In the early days of the gramophone, Indian music, was, in a sense, re-created to fit Western ideas of marketing,” writes Gerry Farrell in his book Indian Music and the West. Given India’s economic achievements since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the nation should be able to reassert control over its own music: to honor its ancient classical traditions and put the influence of Western music into perspective. But the state of Indian music is as complex and conflicted as that of the nation itself. Though there are signs of progress towards a healthy partnership between East and West, young musicians that are caught between the two worlds and wish to honor them both confront a daunting task.

Kabir Uppal, another percussionist who, like, Ray Belli, performs both tabla and Western-style drumming, elaborates on these frustrations as I speak with him one afternoon amidst the stacks of the ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York. Born outside of New Delhi, Uppal was introduced to the ancient Hindustani tradition of tabla at an early age, but soon gravitated towards Western music when he enrolled in the Woodstock School, an international boarding school several hours north. “Travis Barker was kinda like my teacher,” he says of the drummer of Blink-182, one of the many American groups he discovered through the Woodstock School’s diverse student body. Uppal reconnected with Indian traditions, however, when he came to the states to attend Boston’s Berklee School of Music, where his skill as a tabla player was in high demand. “Being here has taught me to appreciate my own culture and my own music,” he says.

At times during our conversation, Uppal seems almost ready to burst with the combined potential of his two musical backgrounds. Naturally, he has a deep appreciation for much of the music born in the cultural space between India and the West: the Indo-Jazz of Shakti, the adept Indian fusion of late Beatles records, the sprawling efforts of composer-producer Nitin Sawhney.

“So, if all these musicians have made the leap, then what’s the problem?” I ask him. “Isn’t there a whole new world of fusion for you to inhabit?”

“The thing is,” Uppal replies “these artists are not in India. In India, no one has heard of Shakti!” He reminds me that his opportunities to study in America are a result of his immense privilege. So leaving aside the topic of fusion for a moment, I ask him what music in India is like. The ensuing conversation, and the research that follows, paints a startling picture. While “Indian music” may be thriving in myriad forms across the world, the actual music of India is divided between a struggling classical tradition, and an almost completely Westernized style of pop that- according to Uppal- “is almost like brainwashing.”

The value of India’s mainstream music- produced mainly for Bollywood feature films and highly visible on Youtube and in Indian restaurants across the Western world- is up for debate. Watching the 2010 romantic comedy Pyaar Impossible, I can’t pretend I’m not sucked into such a positive feel-good spectacle, though I would understand Uppal’s complaints about it’s Backstreet Boys-esque soundtrack.

The decline, or at least radical change of Indian classical music, developed over several millennia, seems more certain. Its performance traditions, which were cultivated in intimate court settings, adapted to and survived the era of British colonialism. The onset of a Democratic, industrial, urban, and above all, globally connected Indian society is a greater challenge, however. While Western music is learned through notated scores or recordings, the complex ragas of Indian music have been transmitted orally through hundreds of generations. Education occurs in the context of guru-apprentice relationships, which can last for decades before a student’s first performance. Each raga has its own connotations regarding the time of day at which it should be played, among other factors. Audience members, who actively keep time with constantly shifting meters, are expected to display knowledge equaling that of the performers.

An Indian performing arts magazine called Sruti ran an article last year in which they detailed the situation of the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth, or SPICMACAY. “SPICMACAY seeks to expose school and college students to the richness of the Indian heritage by getting topnotch performers to interact with them through performances, talks, workshops, and seminars,” states the article. It also includes a quote from the organization’s founder: “We are fighting a losing battle, but we cannot give up.” iPerhaps one of classical music’s main conflicts with the onset of Westernization is that it is not a populist tradition. “It is impossible” Ray Belli’s guru has often told him “to play a truly spiritual concert for more than fifteen people.”

Belli grew up in New Jersey, and being indoctrinated with Western popular styles from a young age, approached the Indo-Western musical interface from the opposite side from Mr. Uppal. Though an enthusiastic and dedicated tabla student, Belli is less appreciative of what fusion he has been exposed too. During our interview, Belli is most emphatic on one point; that Indian classical music is not about beauty- it is a means of achieving spiritual transcendence. Discussing the diversity of styles within Western music, we agree that it involves a range of artistic philosophies that is perhaps as complex as the world of variation within Indian music. This difference, he conjectures, is responsible for the nonplussed attitude of some Indians, who, visiting the West, can only identify “dance music.” Given the simplification of Western styles for Indian media, this should be no surprise.

Something in the stories I heard from Belli and Uppal resonated with my own experiences. My older brother and I both write music, and though he is a classical composer and I would more accurately be called a songwriter, we are well versed in each other’s chosen styles. The classical world that my brother inhabits encompasses several centuries of European history, and a wide range of artistic ideologies. We have had many opportunities to take part in the classical tradition from a young age- in private and public schools and in numerous other cultural centers. We have also enjoyed constant exposure to my side of the coin- genres such as rock, jazz, and pop generally distinguished as “popular” music. I believe that musical progress comes through the testing of boundaries and the creation of unlikely combinations, so I am proud of my brother’s and my dual competency. I delight in our ability to draw comparisons between, say, a Stravinsky piece and a Blink-182 song. In such conversations, one can get the exhilarating feeling that infinite musical fusion is just within your grasp: that the constraints of style and tradition will crumble in the face an enlightened modern ideology. Given our unprecedented ability to experience and learn about any type of music at any time, modern musicians should be capable of combinations never before accomplished: a greater freedom of expression than ever before.

But trying to bridge the gap between classical and popular music, as with Indian and Western music, is not as easy as it should be. Despite the claims of some dually competent composers to be making “genre-less” music, the tension between styles in most such attempts draws so much attention that I have a hard time hearing the actual musical content.

Determined to find an explanation, I tracked down Yale Evelev, a frequent visitor to India and the producer of several albums of Indian music for Western markets. I told him how shallow so much of the fusion that I had heard seemed. “Wouldn’t you think,” I demanded, “that with all these people around the world who can communicate and play both styles of music, there would be something more meaningful?”

“Why?” he countered. “There’s tons of great music in the world. There’s stuff that mixes and there’s stuff that doesn’t mix. There has to be some kind of natural connection between these things.” He may be right, though I believe a “natural connection” can develop in time.

The story of how Evelev came to release an album of Indian film music on his “world of music” label Luaka Bop might serve as a primer for a more respectful and fruitful Indo-Western exchange. Having heard a tape from an artist named Vijaya Anand that was brought home by a travelling friend, Evelev went to India to find him. Rather than tailoring the sound for American audiences, Evelev and label co-founder David Byrne sought to release the album in the states almost exactly as it was in India. The resulting product, Asia Classics 1: Dance, Raja, Dance, and a later collaborative track for a movie soundtrack entitled “Happy Suicide,” are, I believe better off for the open-minded attitude of their producers.

Asked why he started the label, Byrne stated, “My impulse was like any fan’s, not a do-gooder attitude… I wanted to turn friends on to stuff I liked,” ( The records bear all the rough edges one would expect of two musical traditions that evolved on opposite sides of the world, but this messiness is celebrated, rather than swept under the rug. I think we’ll have to wait longer for the development of a truly meaningful collaborative tradition that is free of its colonial past, but we have to start somewhere.


  • Booth, Greg. ““Burman-dada Was Total Indian” Issues of Style, Genre and Indigeneity in S.D. Burman’s Film Songs.” Conference: India and the World: The Performing Arts. Held in Amsterdam, November 2008. Print. 
  • Booth, Greg. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema.” Asian Music 36.1 (2005): 60-86. Print. 
  • David, Clarke. “Different Resistances: A Comparative View Of Indian and Western Classical Music in the Modern Era.” Contemporary Music Review 3rd ser. 32.2 (2013): 175-200. Print. 
  • Farrell, Gerry. Indian Music and the West. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print. 
  • Floyd, Leela. “Glimpses of Indian Music.” Pop, Rock and Ethnic Music in School. By Graham Vulliamy and Edward Lee. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. N. pag. Print. 
  • Lal, Ananda. “Rock & Raga: The Indo-West Music Interface.” Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years. Vol. I. Calcutta: Anamika Kala Sangam, 1995. 90-98. Print. 
  • Mutatkar, Sumati. Aspects of Indian Music. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2006. Print. 
  • Nuttall, Denise. “Tracking the Intercultural Borders, Fusions, Traditions and the Global Art of Tabla.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
  • Sarvalaghu. “SPIC MACAY: Fighting A Losing Battle.” Sruti 329 (n.d.): 37-38. EBSCO. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
  • Wade, Bonnie C. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Print.

(Source: 10/2013 – IMW – India Music Week | Essays)

Posted in India Music Week (2013) | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

India Music Week (N.Y.): Asia Over America – Syncretic Uses of Eastern Instruments in Western Pop and Rock (Essay)

Posted by ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir) on October 1, 2013

FIRST DRAFT- Final version will be posted at the beginning of India Music Week Oct 6-13, 2013 and will remain posted indefinitely.

IMW_logo-newVincent Bell
Pop Goes The Electric Sitar LP Decca DL 74938 196?
Performed on an electric guitar and modified with a sitar bridge and “drone”, i.e., sympathetic strings. Selections performed include such pop warhorses as “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” “Lara’s Theme,” “Eleanor Rigby”, “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “Quiet Village.” Includes photo of instrument, made by Danelectro Corporation in Neptune City, N.J. Purports to change the “Sitar Sound” to the “Electric Sitar Sound.” Liner notes entertainingly overblown, referring on one hand to the extreme difficulty of learning to play the sitar, though Bell “was quickly able to master it–a feat which ordinarily takes the average musician many years to learn.” Also refers to the “primitive Indian Sitar.”

The Beatles
The Beatles – Rarities LP mono Capitol SHAL 12060 1980.
While the first use of sitar in mainstream pop was George’s noodeling in “Norwegian Wood,” his “The Inner Light” on this collection (also released earlier on the flip side of the “Lady Madonna” 45 ), is the Beatles’ most sophisticated use of the Indian ‘sound’. Instruments are obviously performed by accomplished Indian studio musicians, probably from Bombay. As in “Within You Without You,” the exotic musical sensibility enhances the quasi-Indian mysticism of the lyrics.

The Weavers
The Weavers On Tour LP* Vanguard VSD 6537 1969
Includes “Ragapati”, the Weaver’s fine rendition of the Indian bhajan (Hindu devotional song) “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram”, said to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite song. The “Indian” sound is provided by Pete Seeger’s modally tuned (and played) twelve-string guitar and the group singing in unison. The group almost certainly based their version on a field recording of the song on Folkways 431, “Religious Music Of India”. The Weavers’ performance has an accelerative effect remisicent of the performance of classical Indian music, and the modal structure of the song resembles the raga Jaijaivanti.

The Devil’s Anvil
Hard Rock From The Middle East LP Columbia CS 9464 197?
Felix Pappalardi’s renditions of Middle Eastern favorites in a quasi-rock style, with lyrics in Arabic, Greek, and Turkish, as well as an English version of the standard “Misirlou.” Instruments include, in addition to guitar, accordian, and drums, the Middle Eastern instruments oud (pear-shaped lute), bouzouki (long necked lute), and dumbek(drum), and somehow, the Indian tamboura (or tanpura) a four-string drone used fairly widely in jazz and folk as well as some pop for it’s distinctive sound.

Charles “Chick” Ganimian
Come With Me To The Casbah LPm Atco 33-107 19??
A Middle-Eastern presentation of some western standards (“Over The Rainbow”, “Swingin’ The Blues”, and “My Funny Valentine”) as well as some Ganimian originals, most notably, “Daddy Lolo”, the lyrics of which conclude with the observation that “This is oriental rock and rolo.” In addition to clarinet, saxophones, guitar, bass, and drums, the instrumentation includes Ganimian’s oud (a pear-shaped lute), as well as kanoun (a plucked zither) and dumbek (hourglass drum).

The Folkswingers
Raga Rock LP World Pacific WPS 21846 196?
Ravi Shankar sitar protege Harihar Rao assembled this collection of such diversities as “Paint It Black” (the original Rolling Stones version of which also featured sitar), “Along Comes Mary’, “Eight Miles High”, “Homeward Bound”, “Grim Reaper of Love”, and of course, “Norwegian Wood.” According to the album notes by The Real Don Steele of KHJ Radio, Los Angeles, “Here it is at last, the first popular LP to really feature the sound of the sitar.” Aside from the sitar, all instrumentation is western. Rao had formed a group called the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, of which I have been unable to find any recordings. Dennis Budimir, the guitarist, had performed previously on record with Ravi Shankar, and according to the liner notes, the group had appeared with the jazz trumpeter Don Ellis

Wendy Waldman
Love Has Got Me LP Warner Brothers BS 2735 1973
One song, “Lee’s Traveling Song”, features a sitar (performed by Andrew Gold) motif consisting of a repeated rhythmic pattern on a single note with drone–simple, but effective in evoking a railroad train effect.

Shanti LP Atlantic SD 8302 1971
A group formed by Ashish Khan, son of the eminent Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan, and featuring Ashish on the sarod (see introductory notes) and Zakir Hussain. who was later to work with John McLaughlin in the group Shakti, on tabla (see notes). The group also includes guitar, bass, and drums. Compositions include both instrumental and vocal pieces, and represent some of the most successful early fusions of Indian and western music in the pop/jazz idiom, going far beyond the exploitative novelties of most other recordings of the period.

Peter Walker
Rainy Day Raga LP Vanguard VSD 79238 1967
Walker was musical director for Dr. Timothy Leary’s “Celebrations.” Liner notes quote Leary as saying “Peter Walker plays on the ancient protein strings of the genetic code.” Withi the exception of “Norwegian Mood,” based on the Beatles song, all Walker’s improvisations are original, inspired by Indian music, and performed on an acoustic Flamenco guitar, with tabla-like accompaniment on the first song on tambourine.

The Rolling Stones
Paint it Black [song title] LP London 80031/NPS 3 1966
The Stones’ answer to the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood,” “Paint It Black” has a sitar part which largely follows the melody line of the song, though there is some improvisation. The sitarist is not identified.

The Don Ellis Orchestra
Electric Bath LP Columbia CS 9585 196?
Jazz trumpeter Don Ellis’ first studio recording not only featured the sitar (played by Ray Neapolitan) for its distintive sound, but included unusual rhythmic structures (19/4, 17/4, 7/4, 5/4, 3 1/2/4) and quarter tones. While these effects were not taken directly from the talas(rhythmic structures) and microtones of Indian music, they involve much the same sensibility. The performances are exuberant and highly energized.

Lord Sitar
Lord Sitar LP Capitol ST 2916 1968
One of the great pop sitar exploitation records, featuring unnamed performers rendering pop standards, however unlikely: “Daydream Believer”, “Black is Black”, “Eleanor Rigby”, etc. The brief liner notes by arranger/director/producer John Hawkins, explore new heights of illiteracy and hype, beginning “The introduction of the sitar into pop music by Beatle, George Harrison, is one of those phenomenons of our day and age–but one thing is certain, it is here to stay.” The sitar, the notes go on to say, “has become the very core of psychedelia.” The writer concludes with the haunting question, “WHO IS LORD SITAR?”

Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar Khan
The Master Musicians of India LP Prestige 7537 1964
While this is a purely traditional recording of classical Indian music by two masters, the liner notes by the erudite Robert Perlongo are themselves a sort of masterpiece. Beginning: “Shankar and Khan: Showdown at Yin-Yang Pass.” He notes helpfully (if incorrectly) that the name Ashish (son of Ali Akbar and founder of the group Shanti) “rhymes with ‘hashish'”. He quotes the art historian Coomaraswamy and the poet Tagore, and gives a brief discourse on Yin and Yang, which to my knowledge had never before been linked directly to Indian music. Commenting on one of the performances, he notes: “The incredible interplay between Shankar and Khan. . . .is some of the finest jazz ever committed to wax–imported or domestic, jazz-jazz or non-jazz-jazz.. . . .Also dig the groovy gat.” The notes include a useful glossary.

Bill Plummer & the Cosmic Brotherhood
B.P. & the Cosmic Brotherhood LP Impulse A 9164 196?
Bass player Bill Plummer, after contact with Ravi Shankar protege Harihar Rao (see The Folkswingers), explores the possibilities of the sitar. The ensemble consists three sitars, a sarod, tabla, and tanpura, as well as piano, vibes, guitars, bass, drums, saxophone, and flute (played by Tom Scott). The album is a true artifact in terms both of its music as well as its liner notes and photos.

(Source: 10/2013 – IMW – India Music Week | Essays)

Posted in India Music Week (2013) | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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