Raga 'n' Roll

Blending Cultures
Ashwin Batish - The King of Sitar Boogie

Indian ragas meets American boogie in the music of this California-based sitar player
by David Oancia

Born in Bombay 1951, Ashwin Batish took up the sitar at the age of 12. Nobody then could have imagined what he would do with the Northern Indian instrument. By adding a driving electronic backbeat and synth-bass lines, he has created a good-humoured world-fusion beast.

Batish comes from a distinguished family of Indian musicians. His father, Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who's had hits in India since the '30s. After the family moved to England in the '60s, Shiv Dayal had close links to the Beatles, and can be heard playing on the Help! soundtrack. Furthermore, George Harrison went on to study with him on the dilrubha (a similar instrument to the sitar but bowed instead of plucked).

During this time Ashwin was being taught sitar by his father on one hand, and loving the pop songs of the Beatles and Cliff Richard on the other. This created the spark that readily ignited when the family settled in the world's largest cultural melting pot, California.

There, the younger Batish started playing acoustic world-fusion music in San-Fran-Bay- area clubs. He enjoyed these outings, but it was his first visit to an American music store that really changed his outlook. "I expected to see pianos, violins, and guitars, but instead practically everything was electronic. Playing with all the synthesizers and discovering all the neat sounds had a real impact on me. The next day I went back and bought them. It's never been the same since."

His latest album, Sitar Power, launched him into infamy. Batish took spirited sitar lines that borrowed equally from Indian ragas and Californian surf-guitar riffs, and set them to rock based electro-drums, bass, and guitars. Then he fused everything with his offbeat, quirky sense of humour (Bombay Boogie and New Delhi Vice are just a couple of song titles), "My feeling was that I can bring new scales and textures to Western pop music. I can give new blood to the stream and make it lots of fun to listen to."

Even though Batish is being touted as the person most capable of bringing Indian music into the 21st centure, he is in no way willing to leave his familiar tradition behind. When he plays Montreal he will perform two sets; one in classical music and one of New-World ethno-beat. In that way, people can compare the instrumentation and feeling of the centuries-old form and his updated Raga'n'Roll.

Ashwin Batish at Foufouness Electrique, Oct 16.

1989 Montreal Mirror. Printed by permission

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