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Ashwin Batish Morning Meditation Ragas on Sitar CD Cover Picture

The Aural Alchemy of Ashwin Batish

By Ginny Fathome
Transcribed by Cristina Fernandes

The year 1988 was an interesting one for electric sitarist, Ashwin Batish, it was a year that marked a successful North American tour and the release of his EP Sitar Power. Like his predecessors, such as Beatles and a handful of '60s psychedelic bands, Ashwin combined classical Eastern sitar music with pop music, and the result was an interesting and upbeat concoction that could best be described as 'Sitar based elctro pop'.

TFM: Where did you get the idea to mix classical Eastern music with synthesized pop?

AB: I 've had this classical background, which I've been playing since I was about 14 or so, since I started studying the sitar and I've been living in the Western world since 1964, and I've been basically in a Western university and school, and I have received a great deal of influence in meeting different musicians from the West, and so it was natural for me to try and bring the two cultures together and building upon trying to bring my own music towards the West in as new a way as possible, and I guess that was one of the reasons I felt I should create this music called Sitar Power.

TFM: The sixties seemed to open the door for sitar music to be meshed with pop music and since that time another band by the name of Monsoon has used classical Indian music and mixed it with a dance beat. Do you see a resurgence of this type of music at all?

AB: Well, I think it's time for some of the Eastern music to start being vented into the Western avenues. The idea, I think, is people out there, like everybody else, they're always interested in new combinations, and I believe that the band you mentioned, Monsoon, is from England, and they are also in the same vein, where they are trying to fuse the Eastern and the Western. I think that kids from other countries, coming into America, we have made the West our home, we're not in India anymore, and so we believe that just like we are spending more time with folks from the West, our music and everything has to kind of mingle in with the cultures over here, and I really feel kind of proud of that.

TFM: So have you found that the music you've tuned yourself into is becoming successful? How are audiences reacting to the performances?

AB: We've had a tremendous response. Everywhere I've played we have people coming in, and they're saying "Wow, we wished something like this had happened maybe 20 years ago when a lot of the Eastern music first got its opportunity" and, to me it's kind of a real treat to bring my music to Western audiences in a non-Eastern context, because there are a great deal of things that I do with my traditional stuff and we have Americans- who have always had a very receptive response to the traditional classical stuff. But you know, the thing has always been the colleges, the young kids that are out there and don't really know what the '60s were all about for instance, and to them the sitar is just like a brand new instrument, a brand new sound and by introducing it in this manner where they can dance to it, and they can kind of relate to it in their own context, I think it's basically bringing it forward into their lives and kind of introducing them to what the rest of music can be all about, and I hope that they pick up on this classical tradition if they get down into what I'm doing right now.

TFM: Are the tunes on Sitar Power your songs, or are you taking classical ragas and molding them into your own sound?

AB: Well, basically what I do is I dig into my own classical background as much as possible because I seriously believe with all the different scales that we have - we call them ragas of course - they provide such a vast variety in adding to the musical form because, as you might know in the West, we have the major mode, the minor mode, some blues modes, and some jazz modes which, although they are ten or fifteen in number, they still don't provide everything that is capable of being provided by all the possibilities musically, whereas, through the Indian scale system, we have over 3000 popular ragas which can be utilized in creating new melodies, and that to me is really the stronghold where I'm coming from because I can dig into these old traditional scales which have not been heard by the Western audiences, and create new melodies on it and bring them into the modern day stream. I'm hoping that musicians from the West will pick up on that and they will start creating new compositions in those ragas. As a matter of fact, we are currently producing a book, (Ragopedia - Exotic scales of North India) on Indian music which will teach Western musicians this whole concept of Indian music so that they can apply it effectively to their own musical compositions.

TFM: There is a little criticism I've heard from people that perhaps you are exploiting Indian classical music by playing it in the way you do. How do you react to this kind of charge?

AB: It's a difficult thing to answer because everyone has their own opinions, and when you're hitting across a vast array, when you're heading towards a certain goal and trying to promote and project a new musical form you come across, folks who are already ingrained in a certain pattern of thinking (may get offended), and to them, they are backing the traditions which they enjoy. So that's fine, because I'm also from that tradition. But I go one step further in this case because I believe Indian music, or anything culturally, cannot grow unless you bring new streams into the gross factor. And by doing what I'm doing, I'm not destroying what was created before because that is never possible, you can never destroy, you can only create and by creating new forms you are bringing this music, the Indian music, the Western music, to a newer audience where folks will start appreciating it and they will start enjoying for music's sake and for creation's sake. That's why all the people that are on the cutting edge of this thing, that are trying new kinds of fusions, new kinds of mixtures, do what they do. People will always mention that charge, and you know I don't disagree with them, and I don't necessarily agree with them either because I think they are always set in a certain form and they have a certain image they are trying to stay with, whereas me as a musician, I can keep it in many different images at the same time, you see? So I will say that if they are feeling like that, it's fine, but they should listen to this also.

TFM: You mention Western audiences a lot. Has your music reached anywhere in India and in the youth culture there, and what do you think of it if it has?

No, it hasn't reached India, actually. We are just right now projecting it through the U.S. and Canada. Those are the only two countries we have been able to project it in. But I did get an opportunity to play live on the national television channel which is broadcast to all the Indian audiences in the U.S., and it was very, very receptive. We got over a hundred calls the same day the program was broadcast. I don't know what will happen in India although I think they will be quite receptive to it over there. Indian people, enjoy newness. I think they'll enjoy the whole aspect of finding their culture and their music being introduced in this manner.

India is a very cosmopolitan place. A lot of people are probably not familiar with the Indian culture in terms of the variety that exists in India. You name it, we have it over there; the radio stations, the television stations, the concert halls, the movies, the people. All kinds of cultural things are happening. French is being spoken and studied in the universities; English is like a primary language. So people sitting outside of India still think India is what it was a 1000 or 2,000 years ago, but it's not like that. It's a very very hip place to be in right now.

Ginny Fanthome is the co-host of the children's half hour on CKCU-FM, Canada.
©1989 Trans FM. Printed by permission.
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