An advertisement for Columbia jazz products that ran in the July 1st issue of Billboard reads "Where tradition meets tomorrow." A little awkward, I'll admit, and I'm not sure whether the tie in I had dreamt up between this quote and the Ashwin Batish phenomenon is a clear one but I'd be damned if I couldn't use it. The notion of 'tradition' and 'tomorrow,' I think, perfectly sums up Bombay-born American sitarist Batish who armed with Monsieur le drum machine, Yamaha DX9 synth, and further '80 gadgetry- manages to uniquely and humourously create a musical strain that works on modern aesthetic visions while simultaneously maintaining a secure grasp on both his past and that of his native homeland. Hence- 'tradition' and 'tomorrow.' I had a chance to meet Mr. Batish when he played in Vancouver for the first time at last July's Folk Music Festival.
Q: You handle your records on an independent basis. How do your find that has benefitted you or worked against you in some way?
Batish: Well, let me start with how I really envisioned going out there and doing it. Every musician's dream is to get a big company to back you. Everybody says that's the only way to go. And sure enough for the first six months, as soon as I made that single (Bombay Boogie b/w India Beat)....I made copies of that single on really good quality chrome tape with dolby....It was really kicking butt...I thought this would really do it! (laughs). They just have to put it in their systems and crank the volume! Well, six months pass by and you start getting these pigeons that you sent out coming back saying........ "sorry, this stuff is good, but try an Indian audience" and comments like that. They wanted me to try it in India. I still kept pushing it. Finally, by getting many refusals it just made me real numb to the fact I was going to do any more of it. I just thought that was it. But I borrowed a few bucks from the rest of the relatives - that's what relatives are for (laughs) - and put out 5,000 singles. Just gave them away to radio stations, to record stores, to djs...whoever wanted one. We just gave 'em away. So, it started happening. Certainly it was all over. It was starting to get airplay. People thought it was kind of crazy thing with my image and stuff. They thought this guy has got to be joking. So that made them play the record and once they played it they liked it and played it again. I think I sent out over a thousand of those response cards and got almost 600 of them back from stations with great comments on them. After I got all those cards I said "Man, this is happening,"(laughs).
Q: Is Sitar Power the only album you've released?
B: I have about ten different titles, but the rest of them are all classical. I have three albums which are classical and then a bunch of albums with my father and my sister where I am accompanying them on sitar and tabla. But the record company (Batish Records) has about ten albums and Sitar Power is the one that got picked up for distribution by Shanachie.
Q: Is there a market in India for your work?
B: I'm sure there is, but it hasn't been tapped yet. I haven't pushed it in India. I've just pushed it in the US actually and the fact that it has gone bigger in Canada than in the US....you might say I'm really excited about it in a way because I had always envisioned doing things in Canada but I just didn't know how. So when the Festival came through with these concerts, I was very happy about it.
Q: Do you perform club dates as well as folk music festivals?
B: Most of the concerts I do have been club dates, mostly in the USA of course. But the Canadian circuit is very favorable as far as festivals are concerned and so I'm getting booked in quite a few festivals. I did a World Beat Festival in Ottawa. I'm coming from the Montreal Jazz Festival. I was at the Winnepeg Folk Festival. So they're coming through, I'll be doing WOMAD in Toronto and the Earthsong Festival also, in Hamilton.
Q: What criticisms have you received from the Indian community or just your peers in general?
B: Sometimes people don't understand. They think I'm trying to fight tradition with this new concept and that has been the main spark of contention, I think. What people think is that I am really a pop musician that does not have a great deal of respect for the traditional forms. A lot of those people are very misguided in that they don't really know what I am doing. A lot of classical musicians, if they hear my music, the'll realize that I am playing very strictly in the ragas; the stuff I do doesn't compromise. I don't go out there and try to do what I call 'piddly licks' I'm out there really trying to show people what the sitar can do fully. My scales are right out of the scale structures of Indian classical music and I am a classicaly trained musician. Anybody who wants to jam with me at that level, I'd be happy to have them come out.
As far as tradition is concerned, for instance....what is tradition? It starts at a certain point in time. Five hundred years down the road THAT becomes tradition. Tradition is really a relative issue and I think people who think of themselves as traditionalists should also look inwards and question that issue of traditionalism.
I'm trying to promote it. That's the message I really try to bring out to people...that the sitar is a very versatile instrument. India is a very versatile country. India is not all meditation and sit down-and -burn incense country. India is a very cosmopolitan country. It has many aspects of music that people over here haven't even dreamed of. And so, what I'm trying to do is bring out a little bit of it, but in my own way. I'm making it high tech you might say. I'm trying to bring out a certain cultural aspect of the country over here. How can you do it unless you take the help of technology that is out there? You owe it to yourself to go the best route to promote the music. That's what Sitar Power stands for; It's today with the old coming into today.