Ashwin Batish strikes you as a modest man, and he seems genuinely bemused with all the attention he gets for his wild forays fusing classical Indian instruments and ragas (or scales) with rock and pop grooves.
He talks about his first mid-'80s experiments mixing sitar with synthesized dance beats as if they were a lark, maybe a fun afternoon spent getting down with a drum machine and sequencer. But from the way he describes how he pays close attention to relating ancient ragas to more modern scales - and how the translation proves rather easy when you put aside the daunting task of choosing from some 3000 or so ragas and focus merely on choosing the right notes - you soon get the feeling that Batish is a man with a true musical mission.
"People listen to Sitar Power and think it's pretty interesting," Batish says of his landmark 1987 fusion album that landed him national attention, "but they don't know that there's a deep truth here. The music is not there to be thrown in a book or in a closet."
Batish has just released a followup album, "Sitar Power II," that delves even deeper into quizzical combinations of traditional Indian music and modern popular forms, bringing the sitar, tabla and classical vocal styles together with not only rock and jazz but also with samba and bluegrass.
Batish came to Santa Cruz from London when his father, Pandit S. D. Batish landed a teaching position at UCSC in the early '70s. The younger Batish had picked up the sitar while in London, learning the basics from his classical vocalist father.
"When I expressed an interest in the sitar, he said, to my surprise, 'I can teach you that'" Batish explains. "It surprised me because I always knew him as a vocalist and not a sitar player."
But the elder Batish "did" know how to play. He had taught George and Patti Harrison during the '60s and even recorded part of the soundtrack for the Beatles' movie "Help."
Ashwin's formal training continued in Santa Cruz, his father singing ragas and he picking them out on the sitar.
When Ashwin got together with a group of friends in the mid '80s for a jazz-fusion-oriented jam session, his whole idea of what to do with his music changed. He soon found himself in a guitar store looking at electronics.
"Until then I was stuck up into my classical trip," he says, "I got a contact microphone and an amp, and all hell broke loose. Then I got a digital delay, and it was awesome."
About three months later he had finished "Sitar Power," and with his tunes "Bombay Boogie" and "Casbah Shuffle" gettting airplay on college and public radio nationwide, he soon started travelling the country performing and lecturing about Indian music. He even opened a San Francisco nightclub show for notable locals Camper Van Beethoven.
With Sitar Power II finally hitting stores and a video already produced for the first single from the album, "Sitar Mania," Batish is ready to hit the airwaves and the road again.
"MTV, though, is going to be a hard nut to crack," he says with a chuckle. "It may be a little too alternative for them."
©1995 Goodtimes, Santa Cruz, California. July 20, 1995. Page 20. Printed by permission.