Saturday, April 4, 2015


When I was in college, part of the canon of coursework for music majors was to take an ethnomusicology course. We didn’t get through the entire book, but we did discuss Indian music at length.  I think it was one of my first eye-opening looks at non-Western music. It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that this music wasn’t “weird” or “out of tune,” but that the world of music extends far beyond the concepts and practices of Western music (which is basically the theories and practices of only a handful of Western European countries).  

Ravi Shankar with his sitar.
Indian classical music is made of notes (swara) and microtones (shruti, or notes that are less than a half-step) as well as ornamentations (alankar). It also utilizes a type of improvisation built into a set of rules (ragas) and a set of rhythmic patterns in the percussion (tala). (I remember one of my assignments was to write a basic raga.) There are two main forms of Indian classical music. The music from the southern region is known as Carnatic music. This style tends to be more melodic and often utilizes variations of the main melodic line; however, the compositions themselves tend to be more fixed and avoid much improvisation. Music from the rest of India (the north, central, and eastern regions) is referred to as Hindustani music. Hindustani music is derived out of Hindu traditions and one characteristic of this style is the use of singing. It’s this type of music that is known for its improvisation and other features most associated with Indian music.

India has many traditions stemmed from its folk music. Tagore Songs are songs that were written by Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Bengali poet, artist, composer, and musician. Ganasangeet is a type of folk song that is steeped in social commentary; much of what is known was written during the British occupation. 

Dance is very important and highly tied to various folk musical styles and Indian culture.  Lavani, stemmed from the word for love, is a type of dance and style of music. This quick-tempo dance is mostly performed by women, using their saris as a prop. Dandiya (also called Raas) is a type of Gujarati dance where the dancers use sticks during the performance. You’ll see a lot of dance in Indian films – most Indian films are in the form of a musical. I’ve noticed that the dance in some of the most modern movies pulls styles that borrow from a variety of cultures: American hip-hop dance, Zumba and other Latin dances as well as their own traditional dance styles.

Just as there are style differences between Carnatic (southern Indian) music and Hindustani (northern Indian) music, there are also some differences in instrumentation and what instruments are used as well. Common instruments used in Carnatic music include the violin, the harmonium (a type of portable pipe organ), the venu (bamboo flute), the veena (a plucked string instrument, like a bowl-shaped lute), the gottuvadhyam (a 20- or 21-stringed fretless lute), and several types of percussion instruments. Hindustani music includes several of these but also the sitar (and several other similar instruments), the santoor (a 72-string hammered dulcimer in the shape of a trapezoid), the sarangi (a short-necked bowed string instrument, looks a little like an electric violin), a few different types of flutes, several types of drums and percussion instruments, and the shehnai (a wooden double-reed oboe with a metal bell on the bottom). 

Likewise, film music is a very important section of Indian music scene. Classical musicians, like the famous Ravi Shankar and others, found plenty of work in the film industry. I’ve noticed that many of the songs that make it into a film often rely heavily on orchestral strings and a complete battery of Indian percussion instruments; however, they also modernize their songs with synthesizers and often borrow from well-known international musical styles, like hip-hop and rock. Film composers (like A.R. Rahman) and film musicians also compete to get top films.

American and European musicians have had a crush on Indian music for a long time. There are numerous rock bands during the 1960s and 1970s who borrowed samples and used Indian traditional instruments in their own songs. George Harrison of the Beatles played the sitar in a couple of their songs, like “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and “Within You Without You.” (Harrison’s sitar teacher was none other than Ravi Shankar.) The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones could not escape its influences as well. A plethora of hip-hop artists have used samples of Indian classical music including Timbaland, Truth Hurts, The Black Eyed Peas, and Jay-Z. 

Most of the pop singers have ties to film music. Some of the top names have made it to a moderate international recognition: Asha Bhosle, Bally Sagoo, Sukhwinder Singh, Lucky Ali, and many others. 

India has also produced a number of rock bands. I listened to a band called Indus Creek, which I really kind of liked their indie rock style. The band Kryptos is definitely a metal band with riffs that sound a lot like Megadeth. Motherjane is another metal band that incorporates Indian classical drumming into their music with melody lines that sound like 1970s US classic rock. As much of a mishmash fusion of styles this seems to be, it kind of works. Avial is a hard rock band that definitely makes use of the drone note influence from their classical instrumentation. I kind of like them. I never think of rock bands when I think of Indian music, but it has left me pleasantly surprised. I liked much of what I heard. 

And of course, there is a growing hip-hop movement, although some of what was labeled as “rap” is not necessarily be “rap,” but that’s ok, I guess.  Baba Sehgal is considered the first Indian rapper; however, when I listened to the album Abb Main Vengaboy, there was far more singing than rapping. I also listened to Rishi Rich’s The Lost Beats.  While it may not be correctly classified as rap by any means, it’s certainly a good album to showcase his mixing skills. I liked it. And maybe there is rapping somewhere on the album; I don’t know (I just skipped around here and there), but I could definitely see someone rapping on top of many of these songs. Raghav’s Storyteller album is a really good R&B album; I liked what I heard and want to listen to it more in depth later on. FINALLY, I came across an actual rapper: Bohemia. This Pakistani-American is best known for rapping in Punjabi. Another actual rapper I came across is IshQ Bector. Although he’s Canadian, he has sung on a number of film soundtracks and has acted in a number of televisions shows.

Up next: the food

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