1965 saw a turning point in the Beatles’ music. ‘Norwegian Wood’ from Rubber Soul (1965) featured George Harrison on the sitar, a traditional Indian stringed instrument. What was happening beneath this instrumentation, however, was a subtler, yet very sharp, turn away from western pop music. Listen to how the melody in ‘Norwegian Wood’ comes in little blocks: the line “I once had a girl, or should I say: ‘she once had me’?” comes in three choppy little melodic phrases, descending and reascending a nine note scale that is neither discernibly major nor minor. Now listen to an earlier Beatles song, like “She Loves You.” The main melody is a descent of a minor chord, and 90% of the lyrics are the word “yeah.” Not to say that the simplicity of early Beatles music wasn’t still highly enjoyable – people loved this energetic new style of what was essentially 12-bar Blues so much that fans had to be physically restrained at live shows – but the influence of Indian instruments and melodies on the Beatles made their mid-sixties albums as interesting as LSD made their late-sixties albums.
Since the Beatles (and particularly George Harrison) helped introduce Europe and America to Indian Classical Music in the 1960s, artists such as Ravi Shankar (রবীন্দ্র শঙ্কর চৌধুরী), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (نصرت فتح علی خان), Ali Akbar Khan (আলী আকবর খাঁ), and V.G. Jog have risen to popularity, and garnered acclaim from western music critics. Popular interest in what has become known as Indian Classical Music, but actually features music from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, has also had a tangible effect on the academy. By the 1970s, Ethnomusicology departments were springing up in universities throughout Europe and the US. But this was all happening at a time when Indian and Pakistani immigration into the UK, particularly in the North, was soaring, and immigrants suffered a great deal of racial abuse. The film East is East portrays with tragic brilliance the way that Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi culture was being derided and marginalised by vast swathes of British society.
We should bear this fraught history of Anglo-Pakistani/Anglo Indian/Anglo-Bangladeshi culture in mind as we become listeners of ‘Indian Classical Music’, because we need to make sure that our consumption of it doesn’t move from international music fandom into cultural appropriation. It is worth checking out all of the names mentioned above on YouTube, and the UK and US artists whom they have influenced. But, it is also important to differentiate between where Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi melodies and instruments have been incorporated and where they have been appropriated.
Ravi Shankar – ‘Live at Monterey Pop.’ In 1965, David Crosby of the Byrds introduced George Harrison to an Indian sitar player who had developed a small cult following amongst the transatlantic pop scene. By 1966, Harrison had travelled to India to formally request to become a student of Shankar’s. By 1967, Shankar had become such a mainstream phenomenon that he was invited to play at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. The pop music demographic was becoming obsessed with virtuosos, ambient and ethereal soundscapes, emotional depth and searing intensity: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin – their fans saw that in many ways Ravi Shankar did many of the same things. He was a virtuoso, he could play incredibly fast and complex melodies; he could create strange harmonies and dissonances that departed from the easy binaries of major and minor keys; his lengthy, intense ragas appealed to fans of Hendrix’s long, trippy guitar solos.
The Beatles – ‘Norwegian Wood.’ As already mentioned, “Norwegian Wood” was a volta in the Beatles’ back-catalogue. George Harrison’s musical epiphany, which came in the form of a flight case full of Ravi Shankar vinyls, had a seismic effect on pop music, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ali Akbar Khan – ‘Rag Zila Kafi’ (Lovers’ Melody). Although he came to prominence later than Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan is now believed to be the greatest sarod player of all time. The sarod is an Indian stringed instrument, smaller than the sitar, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s weapon of choice. The ‘Rag Zila Kafi’ is a good place to start for the burgeoning Indian Classical Music fan. The word ‘rag’ refers to the set of notes that will be used to play the melodies in the song. It is similar to our western conception of key, although there are hundreds, if not thousands of rags, and only 24 major/minor keys in western music theory. So the ‘Zila Kafi’ is a rag, and a rag traditionally connoting erotic love. The song features a blend of memorised melodies, and long passages of improvisation. Interestingly Miles Davis’s subgenre of Cool Jazz features a similar combination of freedom to improvise and set passages.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – ‘Sahib Teri Bandi’ and ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai.’ The music of Ali Akbar Khan anticipated a fascinating crossover between Indian and western music. Two long musical traditions that had only just been exposed to each other seemed to have something fundamental in common. Qawwali Music, a form of devotional music from Pakistan and the Punjab, became popular amongst American musicians in the 1980s and ‘90s in much the same way that Ravi Shankar had done a few decades before.
Performing live at Sin-é in 1993, Jeff Buckley mentioned the name Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – he called Nusrat “my Elvis… I know everything about him… I know what his childhood nickname was.” He then went on to play a cover of the song ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai.’ Listen to the original track by Khan, then to Buckley’s version. See how the long, ambling melodic lines lend themselves so perfectly to Buckley’s bluesy slide guitar. Buckley’s music also sought to make the voice more than just a vehicle for lyrics – he saw the voice as an instrument in its own right. This aspect of Buckley’s style also lends itself perfectly to interpreting Qawwali music, because whilst Indian Classical Music tends to focus on instrumentals (the sitar and sarod, for example) Qawwali music is often vocal. Even for an extraordinary singing talent like Jeff Buckley, Nusrat’s vocal lines push him to the limit.
Derek Trucks – is another interpreter of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music. In 2006, the Derek Trucks Band released Songlines, a World Music record that features a cover of Nusrat’s ‘Sahib Teri Bandi.’ Whilst Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of Nusrat attempts to faithfully imitate his idol, Derek Trucks alters ‘Sahib Teri Bandi’ considerably. Nusrat’s slow, meditative song becomes up-tempo, slide guitar replaces voice as the lead instrument, and some sections of Trucks’ improvisation stray stylistically into blues slide guitar. So where Buckley imitates, Trucks incorporates. Ultimately, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has the dominant influence in this performance, but he sits alongside Trucks’s other heroes – Elmore James, Etta James, Chaka Khan, B.B. King, etc. – all of whom can be heard in this song. A song that is panoramic in its vision of musical styles: drawing on many, falling perfectly into the category of none, reaching for some beautiful blend of all.