COVER STORY: The New Faces of Fusion Music in India
They’re young, restless and unafraid of mixing the traditional with the modern. Meet fusion music’s coolest alchemists
The story about how Pandit RaviÂ Shankar taught George Harrison to play theÂ sitar is probably one of the most cherishedÂ Beatles trivia. The year was 1965 and the FabÂ Four were filming Help! when Harrison foundÂ a sitar on the set. Fascinated by the exotic instrument,Â the band decided to incorporate itÂ into a jam session.
“We’d recorded theÂ ”˜Norwegian Wood’ backing track and it neededÂ something,” Harrison later explained in The Beatles Anthologies.Â “We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if weÂ could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitarÂ up””it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to doÂ with it.” The result was somewhat garbled but intriguing; certainlyÂ unfamiliar to many in the West and it piqued curiosity.
When Shankar heard the track, he was not impressed. “I couldn’tÂ believe it,” he later said in an interview with the BBC in April 2000.Â “It sounded so strange. Just imagine some Indian villager trying toÂ play the violin when you know what it should sound like.” In 1966,Â Harrison headed to India to meet Shankar and learn how to playÂ the instrument from the maestro himself.
Who started the fire?
The seeds of Indian fusion as we understand it today were in all likelihoodÂ sown at sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 performance atÂ the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was invited to performÂ there by American composer and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and hisÂ concert is said to have not only introduced a whole new audience toÂ Indian classical but also helped build bridges between the musicalÂ styles of the East and the West. Khan recorded the first Western LPÂ of Indian classical music the same year, followed by an appearanceÂ on broadcaster Allistair Cooke’s variety show Omnibus which becameÂ the first television performance of Indian music””all of whichÂ set the scene for the next decade.
The Sixties saw fusion music reaching a level of popularity thatÂ was truly global; it was very much linked to Shankar and the BeatlemaniaÂ that had captured the attention of the masses. It was furtherÂ fueled by the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, causing a historical exchangeÂ of music and culture and pushing Shankar’s stardom in theÂ West enough to bag a slot at Woodstock in 1969. His influence onÂ Harrison resulted in the Beatles experimenting with Indian instrumentsÂ in the music throughout the Sixties, which eventually also inspiredÂ rivals the Rolling Stones to give fusion a shot””1966’s “PaintÂ It Black” being a prime example.Â It would seem the Sixties were theÂ melting pot for Indian fusion; sitars and tabla instrumentals wereÂ splashed everywhere and Shankar went on to make albums withÂ American saxophonist Bud Shank while American jazz trumpeterÂ Miles Davis, also bitten by the fusion bug, featured prominent tablaÂ players Bihari Sharma and Badal Roy on several albums.
English guitarist and composer John McLaughlin pushed theÂ movement forward next””in India and abroad. He gained widespreadÂ recognition in the Sixties within the jazz-rock and fusionÂ space with his quintet Mahavishnu Orchestra (the original line-upÂ featured Jan Hammer on keyboards, Billy Cobham on drums, violinistÂ Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird on bass guitar) and Shakti, hisÂ band that featured tabla player Zakir Hussain among other prominentÂ Indian artists. McLaughlin went on to become an importer ofÂ sorts of Indian ragas to the jazz-loving audience in the West.
The tech-savvy Seventies
The Seventies saw technology flooding the world of music, jazzÂ giving way to the rise of synthesizers and keyboards, fuelling soundsÂ that went beyond anything that had been heard before. Disco’s popularityÂ in the West helped its progenation in India””Indian-BritishÂ producer Biddu (Appaiah) and Pakistani teenage singing sensationÂ Nazia Hassan’s “Disco Deewane” made a splash across the globe inÂ 1981. Around this time, Bollywood producers like Bappi Lahiri andÂ RD Burman were the key minds behind disco fusion flourishing inÂ India. This in turn would inspire and evolve into the electronicaÂ space when session guitarist Charanjit Singh combined IndianÂ classical with synth, performing ragas in machine rhythms. HisÂ 1982 album Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is the earliest predecessorÂ to the Goa trance movement that would soon kick off in a few yearsÂ and give rise to the early strains of acid house.
Whether it is the eventual evolution into Britain’s indie-tranceÂ movement in the Nineties or the punk meets-tabla blends fromÂ producers like State of Bengal (Sam Zaman), Karsh Kale and OsmaniÂ Soundz (Shohid Jolil), Indian fusion’s impressive history isÂ proof of its diversity and ability to evolve.Â The late Nineties and early Noughties were a glorious time thatÂ saw a wave of fusion artists emerge in India who experimentedÂ freely with folk and Indian classical. From Indian Ocean andÂ Trilok Gurtu to Niladri Kumar and Advaita among others, eachÂ of these artists borrowed from the past to create something newÂ and exciting, something that in a way summarized a new India.Â And it’s only natural that the new face of Indian fusion””fresh artistsÂ who are giving a new meaning to glocal””are taking things aÂ notch higher.
A lot of the time, there is a misconception around what the termÂ ”˜fusion music’ entails. “I would say that the word ”˜fusion’ has, in aÂ sense, been over-used and may not fit what it set out to describe,”Â says Pavithra Chari, vocalist of New Delhi-based fusion outfitÂ Shadow and Light. Chari and producer Anindo Bose formed theÂ duo in 2014 and blend electronica, jazz and blues with HindustaniÂ classical vocals.
Bose, who is also part of fusion/world music act Advaita, recallsÂ how Shadow and Light happened completely by chance. It startedÂ with him working on a few vocal lines originally intended forÂ a demo. That ended up becoming the duo’s first song. “It then becameÂ a studio project, primarily for collaborative songwriting,Â gradually growing into a performance outfit,” he says. On howÂ he approaches fusion, Bose explains there’s no set rule. “My arrangementÂ style isÂ always evolving, I take the melody line as myÂ main focus and then interpret it instrumentally. For me the twoÂ most important pillars of any piece with Shadow and Light areÂ the melody, and the emotions. They hold the song in place,” saysÂ the 35-year-old.
The current generation of rising fusion artists dabbles in everythingÂ from metal to jazz, folk, soul and R&B. Most cite their parentsÂ as those who introduced them to Hindustani classical whereasÂ the urge to blend it with other genres comes from the influenceÂ of Western pop-culture and an Internet-fuelled upbringing. SaysÂ Chari, “I have had varied influences in terms of genre, I trained inÂ Carnatic and Hindustani classical, listened to pop, soul, R&B; IÂ think and speak in English”¦ All of this led to fusion being somethingÂ that seemed like a very natural step to take.” The 23-year-oldÂ singer fell in love with Hindustani classical because of her mother’sÂ passion for it. “Classical training defines me and the way I think.Â The process, the riyaaz (practice) and the idea of concentrationÂ have all influenced my compositions and my personality.” ShadowÂ and Light recently released their third full-length album Sabar toÂ critical acclaim, and after playing a multi-city tour across India,Â they’re currently on the road in the U.S.
Best when East meets West
Nirali Kartik, one half of world music duo Maati Baani (also comprisingÂ producer/guitarist Kartik Shah) calls herself “an IndianÂ classical soul.” She was a young child when she began going forÂ Hindustani vocal lessons. “I found the notes and improvisationsÂ like a game. I loved the idea of making my own patterns whichÂ classical music allows you to do. It allowed me to make my musicÂ in a given frame of a raga,” says the 34-year-old. There is a complexityÂ in Indian classical music that, according to Kartik, allows artists a freedom to experiment through permutations and combinations.Â Apply these rules to Western arrangements and the possibilitiesÂ are literally endless.
To make an impact on their audience, fusion artists today, muchÂ like their predecessors, turn to reinvention. Sitarist Rishabh Seen,Â best-known for doing the unimaginable””playing metal on theÂ sitar””swears by adapting to modern times. “My sole reason ofÂ bringing sitar metal to life was to basically show people how rich,Â versatile, modern, ”˜cool’ and ”˜hip’ Indian classical instruments are,”Â says the 21-year-old. In the past couple of years, Seen has gainedÂ global recognition for his sitar renditions of songs by metal artistsÂ like Animals As Leaders and Meshuggah as well as his own workÂ with his band Mute the Saint. He might be a third-generation classicalÂ musician in his family but when it comes to experimentation,Â nothing is off limits . “I think just as humanity’s dressing, eatingÂ habits, transport, housing, way of speaking, walking are not theÂ same as 500 years ago, change is not only a constant but a must. InÂ order for things to survive over time, change has to to be broughtÂ at least in small doses so that this kind of music and these instrumentsÂ can survive the test of time and stay relevant.”
Working around challenges
If independent musicians have it tough already, fusion artists haveÂ it even tougher. It’s no mean feat winning over two entirely differentÂ crowds: classical music purists that scoff at any attempt to interpretÂ and experiment on the one hand, and the hip gig-hoppingÂ crowd that isn’t too sure about a ”˜fusion’ music concert. Says Bose,Â “For me, the biggest challenge has been to preserve the authenticityÂ or essence of a certain raga/mode while experimenting with itÂ in a contemporary way. There is always a desire to present somethingÂ truly unique”¦ We take a lot of time to attain that balanceÂ and we don’t release a piece till we are completely convinced, noÂ matter how long it takes to create it.”
When you represent more than one genre, the chances of slip-upsÂ may also increase and the real fight is to ensure “there is roomÂ for mistakes,” according to Chari. “I spend a lot of time and effortÂ to ensure I know enough about the different genres I compose/perform.Â I find it necessary to feel authentic to myself, and not fakeÂ something for the sake of performance. I also rely heavily on theÂ narrative of the composition, to guide my creativity. That makesÂ the entire process effortless.”
Tanishque Jarial, the 22-year-old frontman of New Delhi-basedÂ world music ensemble Pakshee, feels the general indifferenceÂ among the youth towards fusion has a lot to do with the perceptionÂ of a modern-day band””a bunch of young people with guitars. “TheÂ younger generation is usually always receiving what is being fed toÂ them by the media and the people around them,” he says. “Also, it’sÂ very hard to compete with Bollywood music’s increasing demandÂ and aggressive marketing.”
So the key lies in the way it’s all presented to the new generation.Â Seen, Pakshee and Maati Baani have all used social mediaÂ to their advantage, racking in hundreds of thousands of views onÂ YouTube and spreading their interpretations of classical vocalsÂ and instruments to the entire world. Seen’s appeal lies in the alienÂ idea of sitar-meets-metal while Pakshee use stunning videographyÂ to complement their stellar musicianship. Maati Baani takeÂ a combination of the two, uniting unique musicians from aroundÂ the globe to create culturally diverse content. It is all, in a way,Â strangely reminiscent of the way the world first perceived the sitarÂ when George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar brought it intoÂ ”˜mainstream’ light. It changes people’s ideas of what music can be.Â Chari, however, feels that the spotlight of the Internet is a double-edgedÂ sword. “It has helped in getting the music to many peopleÂ in the world,” she agrees. “But it also stands the risk of getting lostÂ amongst millions of musicians who may value the appeal of the visualÂ content more than that of the music.”
Glocal is the flavor
While some may argue that the term ”˜fusion’ music can imply anÂ exoticisation of Indian culture, Chari and Jarial feel that it’s a labelÂ that can allow their artistry to stand out globally. “When practicedÂ by artists who have deeply studied the crafts they fuse, and who respectÂ the art forms for their uniqueness and value, fusion doesn’tÂ have to mean exocitization of Indian culture,” says Chari, adding,Â “It can be a direct representation of a globalized Indian culture, oneÂ that has deep roots in the past as well as a strong foothold and perspectiveÂ to the future.”
Jarial points out that all the members of PaksheeÂ (also comprising Carnatic vocalist Sree Rag, guitarist, SatyamÂ Sah, bassist, Akshat Pradhan, keyboardist Pranay Parti and drummerÂ Dan Thomas) have very different cultural backgrounds thatÂ defy the idea that ”˜fusion music’ means just one kind of sound. “TheÂ aim now is just to make music together that blends well using ourÂ various influences,” he says.
Amassing a dedicated audience is also a challenge. “I think theÂ most important thing is that musicians themselves drop this ideaÂ that ”˜people don’t want to listen to classical or fusion’ because thatÂ is completely ignorant and baseless,” says Seen. “As an artist, you areÂ responsible for marketing yourself a certain way.” Kartik and Chari’sÂ advice to keep the music as well-defined as the visual content ringsÂ true within Seen’s words””grab eyeballs, but have quality content toÂ present. “Trust me, if something is really, really good, people don’tÂ give a damn what it is,” he says. “If it is something that can touchÂ them, astonish them, they will listen.”