Ever since Ravi Shankar made the Indian classical instrument ‘Sitar’ popular in the west, the craze of using the elements of Hindustani music in composition hasn’t gone down a bit. Right from internationally loved and acclaimed bands like Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Yardbirds to stalwarts of western classical music such as Julian Bream, Yehudi Menuhin and others, everyone embraced the sound-textures, beats, and melodies of the Indian instruments.
For a while, Sitar was hitting it with the rock artists, but soon, an array of other instruments were recognized and given a special place in the music that was made and listened back in those days. This led to the birth of the rubric ‘World music’, under which, today, a lot of cross genres are flourishing. Raga rock, Jazz fusion (Remember Shakti), Indo Jazz are at the forefront of World music, not to mention countless Indie bands which employ Indian classical music as the core element of their sound.
To name a few, there was the electrifying Mahvishnu Orchestra that for over two decades created music of a peculiar Indian cast featuring TrilokGurtu on percussion. The Swiss-Italian composer, Robert Miles too collaborated with Gurtu, and by his own admission, this furthered the style he was experimenting with in his previous albums in a huge way. So, there are both kinds of overlaps: one of Indian instruments tuned to play to Western beats and the other of using authentic Hindustani music as the central sound. But a close familiarity with the instrument can’t go amiss in any such fusion.
Let us look at a few songs that brought Indian instruments to the populist scene and got Indian classical the attention it truly deserves.
1. Jimi Hendrix was there when Ravi Shankar mesmerized the French audience in Monterrey in 1967 and perhaps, he did get to meet him afterwards. Although Ravi didn’t much care for Jimi’s antics later in the festival, the sound of sitar did its bit. Jimi had fallen in love already. A couple of months later, Jimi went on to record the said song with Brian James of The Rolling Stones strumming a sitar.
2. Stevie Wonder (Signed, sealed, Delivered. I’m yours)
Umm, put away those Stevie Wonder jokes for a moment and listen. When a twenty year old Stevie rolled out his first self-produced album, there was Sitar in the background that Eddie Willis of Funk Brothers was fashioning. This was back in 1970, so it won’t be wrong to say that the love affair goes a long way.
3. This is actually the first one. Before Rolling Stones got inspired to record their 1966 album ‘Paint it Black’ that heavily featured the sitar, George Harrison became the first western pop musician to play Sitar on a Rock album. Yes yes, we are talking about the incredibly famous ‘Norwegian Wood’. And by the way, it wasn’t just Sitar. Tabla and Tambura made equally prominent appearances in the album. Many years later George Harrison recounted this experience in his anthology, “I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.”
Go listen to it on loop.
4. Part of Led Zeppelin’s debut album, the song featured a tabla track played by ViramJasani, a percussionist of Indian origin, and a simulated Sitar sound played by Jimmy Page. Apparently, this was done to enhance the Indian character of the song. It was 1968. We all know what Led Zep became over the next few years: legends.
Besides the sporadic embracement of Indian instruments by uber-famous rock musicians, a lot of Indian and international Indie bands have been exploring the mixed sounds of Eastern and Western music. Instruments like sitar, tabla, flute, santoor and others get their due place in any ensemble. Also, playing Indian instruments is cool, and of course a lot more awesome if you play with a rock band. Take American Progressive Metal band Tool and Classic Rock legends Aerosmith, for instance. Both of these bands have a huge global following, and some of their songs feature Indian classical instruments.
So, a drummer and a table player, a guitarist and a sitarist belong to the same set, and together they make a league of extraordinary musicians. Period.
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