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From India, a Fresh Pop Sound

Ashwin Batish uses a sitar and traditional ragas to make cosmopolitan dance tunes.
By Amy Duncan, New York

Sitting on an Oriental carpet, with legs crossed and a sitar resting in his lap, Ashwin Batish looks like a traditional Indian musician, but with a couple of exceptions.

He is dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap, and there's an electronic device beside him that supplies accompaniment. He turns to the control box, adjusts the knobs, runs his fingers over the sitar's strings, and starts playing. The song turns out to be a toe-tapping "raga rock"- a high-energy dance number he calls "Bombay Boogie".

"I used to be a strict traditionalist," explains the Indian-born musician in an interview following a performance at a music seminar here in Manhattan.

"So the kind of stuff I'm doing now - the fusion and pop stuff - is really my own answer to breaking loose a little from my own tradition."

Thinking it over, he adds, "But every thing I do is a raga [traditional Indian melody; so I don't really get away from my tradition at all. I just give a modern-sounding hip beat to it."

Mr Batish, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., recently released a critically acclaimed debut album "Sitar Power," making him the first sitar player to be associated with pop music here since Ravi Shankar played with the Beatles in the '60s.

The difference is that Batish underpins his raga melodies with a high-tech dance beat instead of playing the kind of long, lingering phrases Shankar used with the Beatles.

Unlike strictly classical Indian music, which tends to start out slowly and softly then build to an intense climax, Batish's music percolates at a more consistent level that makes it conducive to dancing.

Batish started out as a clasical sitar player in his native India, learning to play the complex stringed instrument at the age of 12. "My musical background was very intense," he says. "I was fortunate to be born into a musical family. My father was a household word in India."

Shiv Dayal Batish wrote scores for and sang in more than 100 movies; the elder Batish has also recorded over 300 albums.

In 1973 the whole Batish family moved to the US, so that Ashwin's father could teach at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

The family also started several business, including an Indian restaurant that lasted for 15 years, and Indian boutique, a record company, and a music school.

All the Batishes are musicians who record on their own label, Batish Records. Last year, Ashwin's "Sitar Power" was accepted by Shanachie Records, a leader in "world beat" music - pop that blends elements from diverse cultures.

But in this case, "Pop"shouldn't be equated with "Simple" Batish reminds us that learning the sitar is no easy task.

"There are two things involved, One is to learn to play Indian music - and I'm still learning. Theoretically we have thousands of scales. An active musician will know maybe a hundred.

Raga is a concept that is highly evolved in terms of creative melody."

Although improvisation is part of the raga, the term "creative melody" really refers to a kind of expanded composition called dhrupad, which existed from ancient times.

"Improvization is a recent part of the music, going back only about 400 to 600 years - that's pretty recent for Indian history!" He adds with a laugh.

"Before that, it was all composed music, like Schubert, Brahms, Bach."

There are, however, purists who find fault with such musical hybrids.

"You always come across an element like that when you're doing something new," says Batish. "But they don't come up to me; they just write it in articles."

"I really wish they would talk to me first, because I could give them a little hint of what I'm doing."

Who are these purists, according to Batish?

"They are American people who have started to accept the traditional forms of India, in terms of philosophy and culture, and then they live in that particular aspect, and they don't want to come out of it. They're just stuck - it's like they're more Indian than I am!

"I don't have anything against them....A few years ago I was probaby like that myself."

Still, Batish thinks that the new world-beat movement is going to become more deeply involved with the roots of the music from which it sprang.

"World beat is not only going to incorporate the dance and pop stuff; it's gradually going to move into more traditional stuff. The big companies like Nonesuch and Folkways were supporting it in the old days. Without the tradition, you can't really understand the new stuff..... The tradition has to be there.

"My ultimate vision is to teach everybody what this music is all about, and also for it to have some commercial viability." says Batish, ....."to have the students learn the songs, and if they're good we give them a recording contract. "This world is becoming smaller, and the music of India has so much to offer as far as melody and rhythm are concerned."

Batish is currently on a performance tour in the US, and plans to continue to tour and record.

So far, his audiences encompass a wide variety of listeners, with an emphasis on fans of world-beat music. Although his own recordings are strictly instrumental, he and his family are working on an album of vocals.

In addition, they have written a book about Indian music and raga scales (Ragopedia), It will be out this spring.

Despite his involvement in Indian music, Batish hasn't been back to his native country in almost 20 years. He explains, I have never felt a need to go back.....All my family is here - my parents, my sisters, my brothers," But he adds, "In the next five to 10 years, I may go to India."

©Christian Science Monitor. Printed by permission.

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