Don't bother sitting down. You'll just have to get right back up on your feet anyway. Ashwin Batish, the man who is bringing a new meaning to the term "fusion" and new respect to the instruments of India, recalls one show where he appeared in the slot between two rock bands. "There were about 500 people there ready to boogie, and here comes this guy with a sitar," he says with a chuckle. "It was a big herd of people and they were dancing, but as soon as they saw me come in with my sitar, they just plopped down on the floor. I'm thinking, 'Wait, wait, I boogie, too.' And once they heard hit, they got up and started dancing again. The second time they see me, they'll know."
The first time you see Ashwin Batish you'll realize that Indian music is not just Ravi Shankar sitting cross-legged before the stoned-out Sixties crowd and playing endless progressions as theme music for hallucinations. "Back then the rock bands got into it, and that showed the drug-crazed thing," Batish notes. "I didn't like that. I think culture created that, because that's not what Indian musicians do." Ironically, it was Batish's father - famed for his work on movie soundtracks in India and England - who helped bring Eastern instrumentation to rock and roll by teaching a chap named George Harrison how to play sitar and dilruba after being recruited to contribute to the Help! soundtrack.
The Batish family moved from London to Santa Cruz, California, in 1973. He walks and talks and acts just like a regular American, but Ashwin Batish retains strong cultural ties to his native land. While he hopes to one day take his rock-infused sound back to India, his current mission is bringing his raga-infused rock to North American audiences. "We need to break loose from the stereotype,"he explains. "The burning incense, meditating, sitting with your eyes closed. Each state of India has a different style of music, but India has gotten itself into a rut where all the songs sound kind of poopsie. What happened to raga in India? The classical musicians are keeping it up, but the pop guys are going crazy trying to keep up with their audiences. The young Indians would rather listen to Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson; and sitarists are saying they'd rather play guitar, I say these [Indian] instruments are not to be left in the closet."
Perhaps the reason good sitarists are as hard to come by as a T-bone in Bombay is the difficulty - both physical and mental - of playing the bulky, twenty-string, twenty-fret instrument traditionally made of gourds and teak. Batish says he began learning sitar when he was twelve or thirteen, "which is when I could hold it. Before that it kept falling out of my hands, I broke a lot of gourdes that way." he adds, however, that the instrument is not as difficult to learn as the music it is used to play. He explains in great detail the complexity of the ornamentation and trills and scales of Eastern compositions.
But that's musicians'stuff, and for all his virtuosity and years of study, Batish first and foremost is fun. His first album, 1986's Sitar Power, reveals the lightheartedness in its song titles; "New Delhi Vice," "Sitharmony," and "Bombay Boogie" for example. But inside is the real revelation. Batish uses drum machines and programming (sequenced on his IBM for live shows) to lend a dance-music beat and thumping fills to his sitar lead lines. Throw in some tabla, twelve-string guitar, bass, tambourine, and the guitar accompaniment of his former student David Harnish and you have the fusion of American rock and Indian raga. And you have a fun, danceable sound unlike any you've heard. It also happens to be richly substantive and musically complex.
How can anyone create substantive music using extrinsic technology? It doesnt'bother me to use drum machines," he answers, "because if they weren't there, I wouldn't be out there [before the public].
Tradition is set along the way - some day drum machines might be the tradition. Sure, live musicians can't be beat. But this I do to keep up with what's happening today."
Tomorrow is another story, Batish has been performing on the West Coast for a year with an eight-piece band consisting of friends and students from the music school his family runs. "I'd like to take them on the road in August or September of next year," he says. "But sometimes the money is a problem. They have to pay their mortgages. with the solo tour I can be out there without worrying about tons of money, I can do it economically. Besides, I've been doing solo gigs all my life and I enjoy the contact with the audience." When this tour ends, Batish will complete his next album for an expected March release. "it's in a similar vein," he says. "But I've brought calypso, jazz, and Afro-Caribbean into the fusion. Until l started delving into it, I didn't know the possibilities."
South Floridians will have a chance to preview this fusion of fusions when Batish appears Friday at Club Nu. "I'll be playing some of the new songs plus part of album one," he promises. "I've sequenced the songs so they don't stretch over six or seven minutes. They can dance, I can play and get enough of my material out there. Club gigs are very intense and compact."
Batish's recorded material fits the intense description, but the multiplicity of shifting tempos and the perfect blend of the sitar lines with the wall of strings and drums gives it a depth that won't let you down. Beyond that, his songs seem instantly familiar even though the sound is new and completely unfamiliar. the reason is that the scales of Eastern music are often quite similar to the ones used in much of the popular music of this country. "Take New Delhi Vice," he offers. "The five notes, the black keys on the piano, form the base of a pentatonic scale. That scale in India is very easy to orchestrate because it is not a major or minor scale. All raga scales have a certain relationship with Western music." With a slight adjustment in a traditional Indian scale, you get a rock and roll melody.Then people accept it more readily," he says. "It is close to rock so it sounds like something you've heard before. But if it were something you hadn't heard - well, it's like if I start speaking in Hindi [which he does at this point]. See? You don't understand, it doesn't sound familiar."
This tour will give many a chance to understand and to become familiar with an enchanting and rewarding musical style. But promoting his sound isn't the only reason Batish decided to hit the road. "I've been sitting inside playing for fifteen years," he says with a laugh. "I'm sick of that! It's about time I got out. I played in my own restaurant for a time, but we closed it a couple of years ago and started a record company. Then I was fortunate enough to lock into Shanachie [the label that is distributing Sitar Power]. The album started to take off and someone told me it was number one in Iowa. I said, 'Iowa!'Then I got calls from over the nation - New York, Michigan, Wyoming; all those places I used to see in cowboy movies," With such widespread interest, a tour was natural, and Batish's music is a natural for a tour. "Before this I concentrated on the clasical, which was a closed circuit. People would just say, 'he reminds me of Ravi Shankar.' Now I can break loose from that."
Shanachie released this album as part of its "World Beat/Ethno-pop" series. This so-called World Beat movement is looking like the musical trend of the Nineties. "It's like new age was," Batish says. "It's hard to categorize so the name gives the record stores and radio a place to put them. But then there's a lumping effect. Even if they get lumped in a category like rock or jazz, some people hate being put in one category. I think good musicians will stand apart anyway. If I get lumped in with World Beat, it gives people something to relate to. Later, they will call me....I don't know what to call my music." There are plenty of adjectives to fit Batish's music - all of them positive.
ASHWIN BATISH performs at 10:30 p.m. Friday at Club Nu, 245 22 St.,
Miami Beach; 6772-0068. Admission costs $10.