Before exploring the sounds and sights of its music, it is worth noting that India is a vast and complex nation. Geographically, it stretches from the Himalayas to the tropical Indian Ocean. Culturally, the country has a long and colourful history of different influences from both home and abroad. ‘Indian music’ is seemingly plural, not singular in its meaning.
Obviously this post will do little but scratch the surface of the variety and history of Indian music, but that is the beauty of this culture. There will always be something else to learn or explore.
Approaching Indian music from the perspective of Western culture is frustrating because, although we know it sounds distinctly different, we do not really understand why.
The same is true of language (another great cultural divider). If we hear someone speaking in German or Spanish it is likely we will recognise the language by the accent and intonation, but unlikely that we will make any sense of what is actually being said.
If music were a language, its accent would be the instrumentation and intonation would be the movement of the melody. We encounter Indian music mainly in a secondhand fashion, for example through its influence on Western artists or its use in film soundtracks. Listening to a lengthy “raga” is challenging because the sounds are totally different from our own musical system.
Rabindranath Tagore, an eminent figure in pre-independence Indian culture, compared European and Indian music to day and night respectively.
‘The night world is our Indian music: one pure deep and tender “raga”… At the very root, nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of the One and Infinite.’
The Indian classical music brought to many Western ears by the sitar player Ravi Shankar is in fact only one of many musical traditions from across the subcontinent. As well as this Hindustani variety, the Carnatic music of the south and the music of what is now Pakistan have a distinct sound and history. One example is the Qawwali style propelled to international fame by the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the man Jeff Buckley referred to as ‘my Elvis’.
While Western music is characterised by its use of harmonic and melodic movement, Indian music is based more on the sounds found inside one mode (i.e. the melody of a raga moves in relation to one chord rather than over the top of many).
With the explosion of recorded pop music in the West, Indian music began to both influence and be influenced by this new style. George Harrison added a simple sitar line to ‘Norwegian Wood‘, fitting perfectly with the raga-esque verse rooted firmly in the tonic chord. This Eastern inluence can also be heard in the hypnotic drone of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and less obviously in the melody of Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’, as Howard Goodall points out a few minutes into this clip.
This process worked both ways and Indian music began to absorb elements of Western pop music. The music and film phenomenon of Elvis Presley gave rise to the culture of Bollywood icons then later, hip-hop beats, sampling and remixing led to modern Bhangra.
Modern Indian music combines traditional instruments, such as the centuries old dhol drum in Bhangra, with modern and Western influences. Bollywood musicals have grown out of old Hindi folk songs, mixed with traditional dance music and various foreign elements.
It is this fusion of disparate cultural ingredients that gives Indian music its rich heritage and sound. In many ways this is what makes the whole of Indian culture so special, namely the mix of European, Hindu, Islamic and Sikh influences over the centuries. The music of the subcontinent has become one of the most recognisable and valuable parts of world music, from the meditative ragas to the urban bustle of Bhangra.
While it might have been George Harrison’s only contribution to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Within You… is also the peak of his Indian influenced songwriting. The philosophical lyrics unfold over a hypnotic and slowly evolving melody with the instrumentation and use of rhythmic cycles lifted from Indian classical music learnt from Ravi Shankar, among others.
Although from a Western perspective this Bollywood song from 1976 might seem a little dated, this would be to ignore the beautiful melody alternating between a heartfult vocal and an energetic instrumental backing.
This song, sung by Sukhwinder Singh, is a track from the 1998 film Dil Se composed by “the Mozart of Madras”, A.R. Rahman. Its instantly recognisable hook, as well as spectacular coreography, helped this become a classic Bollywood tune. More recently, Rahman gained worldwide attention for his Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.
The music of Bhangra stars such as Panjabi MC, Sukhshinder Shinda and Jazzy B is some of the more easily accessible Indian music. This could partly be because much of it actually comes out of the UK, but by combining Punjabi traditions its blending with hip-hop and rock India now has a modern musical style to export around the world.
Although Ravi Shankar may be the most famous example, he is just one of many masters of the sitar. Nikhil Banerjee is still well known across the world for his talent, as demonstrated by this footage from the BBC.
The playlist features the music used in the article plus some more Bhangra and Asian Underground tracks. There are a few extra classical pieces too, inluding Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan and some Carnatic music. Some credit is due to this site for the Rabindranath Tagore quote and some other facts. Check it out for a more detailed version of the music theory. Enjoy the music!
As you might have noticed, the blog has a nice new header. From now on I will be rotating the header picture to feature an interesting photograph, as well as a related song to listen to.
The first picture, found here, is a beautiful shots of Hong Kong skyscrapers lit up in front of Victoria Harbour.
Warp is one of the great British independent labels, alongside names such as Factory and Beggars Banquet, rising up from its humble beginnings in a Sheffield record shop to producing both successful and groundbreaking music.
Warp has released some of the most important records in the history of electronic music, from Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works: Volume II’ to Boards of Canada’s breakthrough ‘Music has the Right to Children’. As well as electronica and dance, Warp has recently signed several “indie” bands and even released films (including two BAFTA winning works; ‘This is England’ and a surreal short film by satirist Chris Morris.
It is the curse of independent record labels that, no matter how great their contribution to our music and culture, a small survey of people on the street will probably draw mostly blank expressions. For 20 years Warp have been putting out some of the best music around whilst commercially remaining in the shadows of the more powerful major labels.
So, in 20 years Warp has given us an astonishing collection of groundbreaking music, not to mention a website from which to download the tracks legally and DRM-free. After two decades of promoting some of the best in alternative and creative music and film, Warp is very much deserving of praise this year.
A beautiful extract from Richard D. James’ ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’, released in 1994. James is, like several others on Warp, among the most talented pioneers of electronica. Combining his knowledge of electronics with a curiously dark creative side, Aphex Twin is a powerful musical force.
Although Warp have a habit of signing “different” artists, Boards of Canada go beyond merely being different. As this song demonstrates, BoC somehow blend psychedelic dance beats with strangely nostalgic melodies to produce a truly individual sound.
3. LFO – LFO
Warp’s first release to chart in the top 20. A classic techno tune from the height of the UK rave culture that the label was an instrumental part of.
20 years on and things sound a little different. Surprisingly, this American indie band are signed to Warp. Although it’s a long way from Aphex Twin’s ambient techno, Grizzly Bear are still an intensely creative band making beautiful music in more traditional ways. Guitars and vocal harmonies haven’t sounded this fresh for a long time.