Sitar Power

by Lavina Melwani
India Worldwide

What do you get when you mix India's ancient musical instrument - the sitar - with the cutting edge of Western technology? "Sitar Power"
In this ebullient LP. "A weird ride over reconstructed raga terrain, where Shiva dances in cowboy boots and painted lace." California-based sitarist Ashwin Batish gives listeners an explosion of tantalizing musical sounds the sweet strains of the sitar fused with rock. Caribbean, jazz and afro-cuban forms. What's made this wild, foot-tapping medley possible is Batish's Yamaha DX-9 synthesizer run through an IBM PC. Says Ashwin, "It's like having a 30- piece orchestra at your beck and call. They don't get tired and they don't ask for overtime!"

The result's got the pop music world all stirred up. Says David Broune in the Daily News, "World pop may not get more gimmicky than this, but it's also rarely this much fun. East-West merger is heard on 'New Delhi Vice' which kicks up a storm and rockabilly riffs in Casbah Shuffle.' Just as important, the song titles 'Bombay Boogie,' 'Sitharmony' (ouch) reveal Batish has a sense of humor. Ravi Shankar never took the sitar this far, and too bad."

Listen to the other rock critics; If Ravi Shankar is an evening raga, Ashwin Batish is the one to knock you out of your morning sheets." "Dance-pop Indian fusion, invention of sitar player Ashwin Batish....stops you dead in your tracks first time you hear it."

Clearly Batish's Indo-Rock has touched a chord in young music lovers in the U.S. As one reviewer summed up. "Sitar Power's current mixture places the sitar in an 80's context." For too long, the sitar has, in the minds of Westerners, been reminiscent of the 60's. Ravi Shankar and the Beatles. Curiously enough, Ashwin Batish is connected to both decades; it was his father, the renowned musician Shiv Dayal Batish, who helped with the sound track of "Help" and taught George Harrison to play the dilrubha.

Ashwin's father is almost an institution in India where classical Indian music is concerned. He has had a long and distinguished career singing on All India Radio and has cut many records on the HMV label. In the 1930's, he was already established on the Hindi film scene and had sung and composed the music for many films. He received the Tansen award for outstanding vocalist. When he migrated to the U.K. he continued to further the cause of Indian classical music on B BC TV and radio. Later, California lured the Batishs' to a new life. (As Ashwin is fond of saying musicians should be called movi-shans instead of musicians).

From Santa Cruz, Bombay to Santa Cruz, California: the Batish family has made the move, surrounded by its sitars, harmoniums and tablas which are an integral part of their lives. Ashwin has been involved with classical music from the age of 12. Yet it was his decision to merge Western and Eastern rhythms that really knocked the socks off the younger generation. Previously a sitar maestro in the classical tradition ethno-pop helped him to bridge the gap and reach a new audience; American teenagers Batish says, A whole new generation - here they were, listening to a sound that they thought was totally new, but it's been around for thousands of years, of course. And that's where the break's come. I don't have to cater to an older audience that is into Indian culture. They are already there for me.

The college and public radio stations are particularly receptive to this brand of Indian music. Listeners often get tired of pop and for variety switch to ethnic stations comprising Greek, Arabic, Persian and Indian music. He admits ethno-pop has been the biggest breakthrough for the fledgling Batish Records Company. "Sitar Power" has opened a lot of doors for him and got a lot of air - time.

Having graduated in marketing, Ashwin knew how to promote his product the American way. It cost him just 20 cents to press each single and another 30 cents mailing. Over 1500 of these 50 - cent packages were mailed out to radio stations and music fans. The response was great. Ashwin recalls, "I got calls from kids in Iowa and Ohio who had never heard of a sitar, but after hearing the single were so exited about the sounds that they called up to find out about the music. And the L.P. took off - lucky for us."

Shanachie Records of New Jersey bought the rights to the record in the U.S. and Canada, and Ashwin was also signed by live bands like Camper Van Beethoven. Sometimes he performs with a band at concerts, but just as often he shows up armed with just his sitar and a stack of synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines - a one-man rock band. Going the American way of sequels, he will be bringing out 'Sitar Power 2' in May. What does his father, the classical musician, think of ethno-pop? Ashwin grins, Oh, my dad is just crazy about it. You have to remember my father was active on the Hindi film scene way back in 1936. The old records had so many Western influences - sambas and so forth. They've gone into it and taken it apart. I think my influence started really at that early age when I heard him composing film music in India."

Ashwin feels the way to introduce the sitar to the younger audience is through ethno-pop music. His sister, Meena Sharma, is a classical singer but is now cutting a single from a 1940's Hindi number "Chaand Salone" with Hindi lyrics, which Ashwin is sure will be a hot number on the dance floor.

The Batishs operate a cassette manufacturing and duplicating facility which provides the funds for their recording ventures. Ashwin points out, "The record business usually loses money in the beginning but when it takes off, the profits really start rolling in."'Sitar Power" made it to the top 20 on 'All things considered,'a program on National Public Radio and also won the National association of Independent Record Distributors Award. The duo have taught music at Californian colleges and are planning a music institution to impart their love and knowledge of music to future generations. The senior Batish is working on an ambitious project to record the musical scales - 'thaats' North India and the 'Melas' of South India- as a comprehensive reference for students of Indian classical music. Basically, the Batishs feel they have an obligation to share this cultural wealth. As Ashwin points out, I have a God-given talent to bring Indian culture closer to Westerners. They are learning about me while I am learning about them."

1989 India World Wide. Printed by permission.
1. Sitar Power is longer being distributed by Shanachie Records. Its distribution is now being handled by Batish Records, 1310 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA. (408) 423-1699

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