Its hard to not speculate that the Batish family connection to the Beatles film, Help! spawned Ashwin Batish's current obsession with Indo-Western fusion. In fact it was his father who was a musical performer in the film. The teenage Ashwin never even got to see one of the sessions although, George Harrison and then wife Patty, were students and friends outside the film event. Perhaps the seed did get planted back then.
The real impetus for Sitar Power, Ashwin's new album (available on cassette and LP) began a couple of years ago with some bay area concerts combining Ashwin with John Neptune, a jazz and traditional shakuhachi player, longtime student and guitar playing colleague, David Harnish, and renowned tabla player and percussionist Zakir Hussain.
"It got me thinking that there were some possibilities to bring tradtional music to a newer audience," says Batish. "You have these young people who are familiar with the sounds of the guitar, bass, trap drums and synthesizer, and now they are hearing this other music-sort of bringing in the new with the old, and they are liking it!" Although there's nothing really new about the Sitar it happens to be only 1000 years old!
"I listen to all kinds of music on FM radio particularly pop. I listen for textures," he emphasizes, to find an aural matrix for Indian music forms. "Its no longer as in the Sixties, when everyone knew what a sitar was. These young kids have no idea what it is, so through technology and these popular textures I can introduce them to the real classical music. And" he adds with characteristic enthusiasm, " have a great time doing it! Its too early to tell yet, but if I reach even one percent, move them to investigate traditional classical Indian music, I think I'll be doing pretty good!"
All the tunes on the album are based on traditional ragas, or melodic forms. "Bombay Boogie," for example, comes from a South Indian minor scale called Kirwani. "India Beat" is based upon a Northern Indian mountain folk scale called Pahadi, while "New Delhi Vice" is written in raga Bhoopali. The raga called Bageshwari (which literally means power of intellect) blossoms forth in "Sitar Magic." Whereas the Indian flavor lent to western pop tunes over the years has derived from artifices like drones and sitar-like sounds, Ashwin's tunes are distinguished by a profound knowledge garnered through years of study and performance of classical music. Blended in, of course, is a good measure of tongue-in-cheek humor and unbridled adventurousness.
How is this great new sound going so far? The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Ashwin was recently snatched up by Shanachie Records of New Jersey. They are now exclusive distributors of the Sitar Power album in U.S.A. & Canada. On the album, he plays everything: sitar, tabla, synthesizer, bass, drummulator. His only musical accomplices are his brother, Ravi, on one cut, and guitarist David Harnish. Now there is Ashwin's new band called -you guessed it "Sitar Power Group" and Ashwin is ready to tour as soon as dates are available. In the meantime, promotional work, remixing for dance singles, and new musical inpirations are keeping Ashwin constantly busy. In addition, he has been recording an extensive body of compositions written and performed by his father Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, in the Batish family recording studios in Santa Cruz.
Paul Hostetter is a recording musician himself and frequently writes feature articles for the KUSP Review, Santa Cruz, where this article first appeared. Our special thanks to Paul and to KUSP-FM - Santa Cruz's alternative voice!