Ashwin Batish is a classically-trained musician, steeped in the 1,500-year-old traditions and intricately structured, almost infinitely complex forms of his native India. He's also an unabashed lover of rock 'n' roll, jazz, country & western, calypso, and just about any other kind of music he comes across. When he performs tonight at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he'll give his audience a taste of everything he's into.
I love fusion." he says. "I love all this music". I try to bring the best together - it's like a meeting - hopefully the people who hear it will then go out and make the next handshake."
Batish's concert, which benefits the Santa Cruz chapter of the American Red Cross's disaster relief fund, will consist of two sets, one essentially classical; and one fusion, covering the wide range of styles he exuberantly adapts for sitar and tabla, augmented by key-boards, guitar and other instruments.
He will play tunes from his album "Sitar Power", on the cover of which he looks cheerfully like an Eastern cousin of the Blues Brothers, big shades, slouch hat - and a beautifully embroidered Indian blouse. He'll also preview new pieces from his soon-to-be released follow-up album.
Batish was born in Bombay, into a musical family headed by his father, Shiv Dayal Batish, a composer and vocal artist well known throughout India for his many film scores and recordings.
But young Ashwin, like other kids growing up in the '50s and '60s all over the world, was just as entranced by Chuck Berry, Elvis, and John, Paul, George and Ringo as by the music of his native land.
In the meantime, Batish recalls, "My father was getting a bit fed up with the Indian film music scene, and went to visit my sister who was studying medicine in England. He "wanted to stay on, but there were immigration difficulties - then, at a performance he gave in Cardiff, some British lord siting in the audience was so impressed with him that strings were pulled and the next week my father had clearance to stay. So he brought the whole family over when I was 14.
The elder Batish soon found himself one of the most sought-after masters of Indian music in London, especially in the midst of the Beatles' enthusiasm for the exotic sounds of the sitar and other ancient instruments. At about the same time as he took on pupils George and Patti Harrison, he also began his supervision of Ashwin's serious study of the sitar.
" I don't think my dad thought I would be really serious,"Batish recalls. "But gradually I started showing him that I was doing something worthwhile, and that I would keep at it. But I started out playing Beatle songs, and other English and American pop, and at first only did classical music because people expected it of me as S.D. Batish's son.
"The funny thing is," he continues, "once I really started getting into Indian classical music, I didn't listen to anything else."
In 1973, the Batish family moved to Santa Cruz, and though Ashwin had been studying business in England and continued his studies first at Cabrillo and then at San Jose State, he confesses "I took 10 years to graduate because I was always playing music, three or four hours a day."
When eventually he did complete his degree, he faced the truth, and told his parents what he really wanted to do was be a musician. "They had known it all along, "he laughs.
Batish, like any another student of the monumental body of Indian classical music, then had a lifetime's work cut out for him - indeed, as he says, quoting an old proverb, it takes three lifetimes to learn the sitar.
"Theoretically " he adds, "we have thousands of scales - an active musician will know maybe a hundred."
While persuing his studies, somewhere along the was, Batish began sitting with jazz musician friends. He vividly recalls the sessions: "when I'd take a solo, all the others, who were all playing amplified instruments, would respectfully hush up, and the audience would kind of gather round reverently to hear my notes, and always, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I wish they'd keep on dancing!"
"So I bought a $15 mic and attached it to the bridge of my sitar so I could play through speakers too - still acoustic, but now I could keep up with the volume level of the others"
Batish continues to spend a lot of time on his studies, and particularly, in collaboration with his father, on compiling the almost incomprehensibly vast repertoire of classical Indian music for publication in several large volumes.
He works on his beloved fusion music - for example, a selection, tentatively called "Cowboys and Indians,"from his new album which sounds for all the world like an old-time fiddle tune, but played on no mandolin, guitar or banjo you every heard - till you realize it's the sitar.
Batish stays true to his classical and spiritual roots in all his music "We have nine 'rasas' or emotional/philosophical modes in Indian music, which express different feeling, from sorrow to anger to resignation. My fusion music is always in the 'hasya' style - which is joyful, comic, happy." he says.
"Another Indian proverb, very loosely translated, says "There are more people like you out there,"I want to meet them. I want to make music for all the fun-loving people."