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Sitarist Ashwin Batish: Tradition in music is relative, 'a process'

Ashwin Batish performed at Aquinas College's Kretchmer Recital Hall as part of the "Global Grooves Concert Series" sponsered by WYCE FM. This show was also sponsered by Aquinas College. Batish also did a lecture and demonstration titled "East meets West: Sitar and Tabla"

by Rich Berry

The phone has been ringing for more than an hour, but that's to be expected. It's like that every Tuesday at 10 a.m. The phone also rings like crazy every Thursday and Saturday, for that matter.

On those days each week an infomercial featuring the Indian sitar music of Ashwin Batish airs on the International Cable Channel. Orders for Batish's albums, his sitar training videos, and his catalog featuring an assortment of Indian musical instruments are coming in fast and furious.

Callers aren't connected with a faceless operator who is standing by to take their orders. Instead they get Ashwin Batish himself - the world's most prominent sitar player since Ravi Shankar - who is manning the phones himself in the Santa Cruz office he shares with his family.

"The TV show increases our educational work," explains Batish, in a phone interview from his office in Santa Cruz. "A lot of people are interested in playing the sitar. My dad and I started the Batish Institute of Music and Fine Arts to teach people how to play Indian instruments like the sitar and to teach them about Indian music and culture."

Batish, who will be conducting a music lecture and demonstration at Aquinas College Monday, and then presenting as a WYCE-sponsered concert on campus Tuesday, has successfully bridged the gap between the sedate world of Indian classical music and modern funk and dance music. Batish's first album "Sitar Power" came out in 1987 and was played often on public-radio music programs as well as in techno dance clubs nationwide.

His 1994 follow-up album "Sitar Power II," picks up where the first one left off, with Batish mixing Indian music with healthy doses of guitars, drums, and synthesizers.

The result is an album packed with energetic dance beats, hiphop, and even a little bluegrass here and there.

Batish is determined to bring Indian music - specifically sitar music - to a wider Western audience.

"My music is fun and I have fun with it," Batish says.

"I like to record music that is upbeat and that people can identify with. I get to do something fantastic with my music and share it when I play in front of people. My goal is to teach everyone what this music is all about."

Strict purists (listeners) of Indian sitar music have not always been amused with what they perceive as Batish's irreverence concerning the sitar, and the stoic music of India. Batish freely mixes traditional Indian raga melodies with high-tech dance beat, in song titles like "Bombay Boogie" and "Sitar Mania." While classical music tends to start off slowly and softly before finally building up to a rousing climax, Batish's sitar gets listeners to tap their feet and get up and dance from the start.

"I am a music traditionalist myself," he explains, but I have built on (tradition) and have expanded my horizons. I am not locked into a traitional bcakground."

"As you get more involved in tradition, you learn that tradition is just 'time.' What you create today, in 100 years becomes tradition. Tradition is an ongoing process."

People who critisize my music are narrow-minded. I feel like tradition is the base that you start from and individuality is what you build up to."

This article apppeared in "The Grand Rapids Press," music section, Sunday April 21. Ashwin was intervied when on tour in Grand Rapids.It is re-printed here by permission.

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