Sitar Power
Ashwin Batish Fuses Rock and Indian Music

by Dave Gingold (Music Reviewer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The grinning sunglassed man on the record jacket aiming a Sitar at you is Ashwin Batish. it's not a challenge, though, it's an invitation. He means to win you over to his instrument.

"Great New Sound" exclaims the sleeve of his first single, a disc which presents its listeners with "Sitar Power," a fusion of rock and Indian music. Behind such good-natured hucksterism is a musician bent on rescuing the sitar from its current state. It seems theres more to the Sitar and Indian music than a musical fad of the '60s, linked now in our minds with hippie be-ins and madcap chase scenes from Beatle movies.

Enter Ashwin Batish, excitedly. "The single is a business card for me, to try to get people aware of what I'm doing" he explained. Its a two sided demo record on Batish Records containing "Bombay Boogie" and "India Beat." They are songs in which Batish combines his sitar playing with synthesizer voices, on top of a rhythmic base of traditional Indian tabla drums and drum machine. "Soon we, my brother Ravi & I, plan on standing outside universities and record stores especially the ones selling our music and give away free copies of the single so peoples will get to hear what I'm doing" says Batish exubrantly waving a demo copy in front of him. Hopefully it will also help sales of the newly released album title "Sitar Power."

Batish is as excited about the technology he is employing as he is about the fusion of Indian music and Western pop that he is producing. He pulls the visitor into his "electronic junk shop," where stands his most prized acquisitions . A complete 8 track recording setup along with synthesizers and a 32 channel sequencer run by an IBM personal computer.

The electronic tools are a breakthrough for Batish as he writes music in an Indian notation system that is radically different from its Western counterpart. Since Indian music is purely melodic, there is no concept of harmony in it, therefore, no way to notate it. Now, utilizing a special music writing computer program, he can simply play a part on his synthesizer keyboard, and it will appear fully notated on the VDT screen. A score can be printed out if desired. Batish's enthusiasm carries over into his immediate family. Ashwin's father Shiv Dayal Batish, an accomplished multi- instrumentalist and former UCSC music professor, used to shy away from synthesizers as they all had keys a good deal bigger than those on his keyboard, the harmonium. Ashwin pointed out a small Casio digital synthesizer that he found for his father. "These keys are perfect," he beamed. Stretching his arms to include a room crowded with electronic equipment and recording gear, Batish declared, "This is the future." Born in Bombay, Ashwin took up sitar at the age of 12 shortly before his family moved to England. "If you practice well on it, it can do any melodic juggling act you want it to," he said. He demonstrates how with a metal plectrum worn over his right index finger and an elongated pinky nail, he can play a melodic line while strumming a rhythmic drone.

His explanation of the instrument continues as he shows the "wild slides" done with the left hand, and the extreme string bends, allowing him to play five notes in one position. He uses his left hand to hammer and pluck the strings as well, displaying an incredible wealth of melodic embellishments. "Get really good on the fret-board and the music just flows" he confided. "Its hard to tune well," he said of the 18 stringed instrument, while adjusting a tuning machine head carved into a bird. New world of sounds have opened up to Batish with special addition of electronic effects pedals to his sitar. "I step on it and I have the sound of two sitars." he said of the chorus. "It also helps to cut through when playing with a band.

Batish was taught sitar by his father who moved the family to England in 1964, where he went to work for ITV and BBC networks. "Pop tunes got me into it," he said trotting a bit of "Hey Jude" as he spoke of being influenced by the Beatles.

The Batish family has an even more direct relationship to the Beatles. In the mid-'60s, while "Help!" was being filmed, Ashwin's father was approached to help record the soundtrack. "Thats him playing, while Ringo is running around with that ring," Ashwin explained. George Harrison and his wife went on to study the Dilrubha with Shiv Dayal Batish. The Dilrubha has a similar fretboard as the sitar, but it is bowed rather than plucked.

"The whole concept of Indian music is a bit trying on the Western ear," Batish said. "People shy away from strongly melodic music. They want to hear a nice harmony." His own explorations into classical music followed a rather unexpected route.

In Ashwin Batish's view, Indian and Western music have both flourished without ever comming together.

"I think there has been too much compromise," he said, in reference to Indian influences in pop music. "I want to say `stop making twanging noises!' the two sides have never connected - people haven't opened up."

His biggest reason for making records is "to get people interested in the sitar again, put it in the mainstream." Despite the growing technology of electronic music, and the way in which he has embraced it, Batish is confident that "the salvaging fact in the future will be acoustic instruments."

He puts on a cut, "New Delhi Vice," from the album, a very danceable disco grove with sitar sailing through it. "It's fun, I really enjoy it." He has plans to put out a 12" dance re-mix of the song and distribute it to deejays.


©1988 Santa Cruz Sentinel. Printed by permission.
For additional information about Batish recordings and publications, contat: Batish Records, 1310 Mission street, Santa Cruz, Ca 95060 Tel: (408) 423-1699.

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