Tuesday, June 5, 2012

East Meets West



As a natural sucker for mash-ups, hybrids, cross-pollination and the like, it should come as no surprise that I have been a lifelong fan of music that spans genres and mixes elements of things that have traditionally been rather isolated.  Truthfully, all of the major advances in music have come out of such melting-pot sensibilities.  Nearly all of modern music can be traced back to Congo Square in New Orleans where African slaves met European instruments and gave birth to jazz, blues, soul and all that descended from that heady mix.

In most fields, actually, great progress can be made when people think "outside the box" (forgive the over-used cliché) and mix things that haven't been mixed.  In biology, they call this power of mixology hybrid vigor (aka heterosis).  Contrary to popular belief, genetic mixing and a wide gene pool are nearly always create better, stronger and healthier progeny.  Despite certain racist notions and the value placed on purebreds, everyone knows what happens when people continue to breed in overly small gene pools.  (Inbreeding)

To bring this back to my original point, the DNA of music can be seen to flow in streams that converge, diverge, run rapidly, and stagnate.  Even the freshest and most original forms have had periods where they languished in boring, "played out" eddies and, in the absence of new ideas, became tired and derivative.  Generally, though, there is always an underground current in these times that continues to break new ground and take risks.  When these currents find cracks and emerge to the surface, their mixing with the staid, overly-complacent status quo tends to push music forward, create new genres, and reinvigorate scenes that had become rather "cookie-cutter."

One rather interesting confluence of music that has been coming on the horizon for ages, is that of combining East Indian classical music with western forms like jazz & rock.  While this had been done on some levels previously, it began to take some steam in the 60's when John Coltrane began incorporating melodies & rhythms from India into his already interstellar playing. Around that time, pop and rock musicians like Beatles began to use indian instrumentation in their music, and a minor subgenre of raga-rock came into being.




Like many exotic trends that spread too quickly and became perceived as dated & corny eventually--the Hawaiian Music craze of the early 20th century comes to mind--raga-rock faded as quickly as it came.   The Hawaiian thing exploded and became the first world music craze of the modern era, introducing the world to slack-key slide guitar, inventing the pedal steel, and thus bringing about some of the first electric guitars ever made, but became a caricature of itself that music from Hawaii is still trying to shake.


Thankfully, the Indian influence could not be contained so easily, and it soon found a new friend in fusion jazz musicians like John McLaughlin.  His rock oriented Mahavishnu Orchestra barnstormed through the world blowing minds everywhere it went.  And when it had run its course, John decided to delve even deeper into Indian music and formed Shakti... which was far closer to traditional Hindustani & Carnatic music than it was to anything western.  Basically it was classical Indian music with acoustic guitar playing some of the sitar, sarod, veena and esraj lines.








This move by John was mirrored by the basic sentiment of the late 70's and 80's where so-called "New-Age" movements basically led people back to the old stuff, and with a desire for it to be as pure and old-school as possible.  Genius traditionalists like Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar Khan were what everyone wanted to hear.  Not to belittle this, as it was a necessary schooling of the west in all things east.  Without this we wouldn't have yoga schools on every corner and tai chi in our parks.  Still, this insistence on authentic Indian stuff stymied the east-west fusion for many years.  


The exciting blends of Indian melodies & rhythms with western forms stayed buried in relatively obscure jazz-fusion circles for many years.  It is still in this cul-de-sac for the most part to this day with some notable break outs like the Asian Underground scene and various Bhaṅgṛā offshoots.  Much of this stuff, while good, has rather little Asian influence, but is rather more like modern electronic western music played by Asians, or is Bollywood style... heavily Indian sounding, but very cheesy pop.  Some of this dance music has achieved a very worthy synthesis, and samples of Indian music in electronic & hip-hop circles has become de jour due to groups like like Asian Dub Foundation.




However, the true crucible for East-West fusion has been with jazz-rock jam bands who are not just sampling Indian music, or borrowing Indian instruments for ethnic flavor, but actively transposing Vedic rhythms to western instruments, and composing new music with Hindu scales and tonal sensibilities.  Playing tabla beats on an electric bass, or using electric guitars to solo over traditional ragas is creating virtuosic music that has begun to transcend its various roots... or at least hints at the way towards entirely new styles of music.


I will wrap this up by showcasing a few of the artists who have made great strides in creating hybrid styles which retain the keen musicality of the various ingredients.  The sadly recently defunct, and perennially under-appreciated Garaj Mahal project deserves a definite nod:





As due any number of the side projects that Garaj members have conjured out of the ethers.  Anything that Kai Eckhardt has done (from his stints as bass wizard for McLaughlin on through all of his projects) is generally drool worthy stuff.  Here we have Garaj guitarist Fareed Haque with his seriously Indian influenced Flat Earth Ensemble:





Watch this video through, and if you love it like I do... the other 3 parts of this suite should be easy enough to find on YouTube.  The tabla player here (Subrata Bhattacharya) is simply godlike when he is allowed to solo.  Chops like this can only come from an entire lifetime of doing nothing else.


Here we have Shawn Lane (if only he could have stayed with us longer) simply shredding with a heavy influence of Indian styles.  Not surprising as a member of Jonas Hellborg's group.  (Jonas is another bass master and former compadré to John McLaughlin who played in one of the Mahavishnu iterations.)  Here in 1996 the Indian influence was there, but crept out in parts of albums like Time Is the Enemy & Abstract Logic while still remaining more in the background to the rock fusion for the most part on their other masterpieces of the time like Temporal Analogues Of Paradise.





Here are Lane and Hellborg 7 years later in 2003 (with several heavily Indian leaning albums under their belt).  They are performing here with noted Indian percussionists the Vinayakram Brothers. This is another fully realized synthesis, and a joy to behold.




I will end this exposition with a little something featuring one Zakir Hussain who not only also played with McLaughlin (seeing a trend here?), but was an integral part of a very large swath of the East-West discography since early on in the day. Collaborations with everyone from Babatunde Olatunji to the Grateful Dead... and this awesome little tidbit with the great banjo player Béla Fleck.







Needless to say there are plenty of other examples that I am skipping over.  I am sure you don't have time or patience to go into any more depth than I have already.  In fact, if you are still reading this, I applaud your perseverance...  If you watched all of the videos above through, then you may be clinically OCD.  Heheehe.


I could go on like this for days, though, and I will be happy to post more links and videos if anyone asks.  I hope y'all enjoy this stuff half as much as I do...


J


Note: 


If you are lucky enough to be under the direct sun later during the Venus Transit
do yourself a favor and use some binoculars or a telescope to project it onto a wall.  It may not seem like much to watch this little shadow traipse in front of the sun for 5 or 6 hours, but it will be your last opportunity to do so for 105 years. I saw the last one, and it was really transformative to tune into this natural alignment with Earth's near twin sister. 


Venus Transit and the "Tear Drop Effect"





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