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
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
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,
©1989 Trans FM. Printed by permission.
For additional information about Batish recordings and publications,
contact: Batish Records, 1310 Mission street, Santa Cruz, Ca 95060
Tel: (831) 423-1699 / Fax: (831) 423-5172