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,” (luakabop.com). 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.