The Times Sitar A-Changin’

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West Meets East – Indian Music and its Influence on the West 

El Records/Cherry Red Records

By the mid to late 50s, popular music – including jazz – had already become so bored with itself that it had packed its bags, a couple of packets of Vesta and headed East. Not TOO far East, mind – just far enough to doff its cap to Mr Singh at the corner shop and to nod its head at the newly-opened Indian restaurant. There’s the well-told (and documented) tale of an enthusiastic Woodstock crowd wildly applauding Ravi Shankar as he finished tuning his sitar, pre-performance – the inference being that the audience was a bunch of whacked-out ignorami who didn’t understand the intricacies or genius musicianship of Indian music…but hang on a minute. Maybe they weren’t that far off the mark. West Meets East, a new four-disc box set, looks to re-examine these early recordings which borrowed from the Eastern tradition and see if it really was the sitar and tabla masters who were leading these experimental Westerners to exciting new pastures or if, in fact, they were taking them for a ride.

The set opens with “Sindhi Bhairavi (Morning Raga)”, a typically exotic and alien piece which to my ears has no discernible beginning middle nor end. To prove an early point, perhaps, John Coltrane follows, with even one of his most famous works, “My Favorite Things”, meandering for eons, trilling, doubling back and indulging in extraordinary sax onanism under the parasol of ‘spiritual enlightenment’. Eastern music was either encouraging frontier-breaking time signatures, clashes with tonal and modal traditions and free-form experimentation OR it was opening the floodgates to appalling self-satisfaction and indulgence.

Ostensibly, of course, the music of Shankar and the likes of Ali Akbar Khan was classical – it was not deliberately obtuse or difficult any more than a Western mass or fugue. This in itself was appealing in some ways, giving Western jazz and pop trespassers a feeling of chest-pounding worthiness and gravitas because they got it, maan. Not least because they were high as kites. As you work through the set, it’s a relief to find the interpretations of Eastern music are not utterly rooted in shoehorned sitars and brow-furrowed noodling. Eric Dolphy Quintet’sLeft Alone” has a groaning bass which is 100% colonial major mopping sweat from his armpits in the blousy heat, whilst the twittering flute zips around like biplane mosquitos. This is much more like it – a far more believable Western view interpreted through music. No shallow, embarrassing attempts to understand religion and spirituality, more a sincere nod to the musicians’ perspective of an alien land and culture, on the whole a surely more worthy and relevant experiment.

Talking of alien, one of the most appropriate appearances on this set is by Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

“India is a vibrant thought in sound”, he says in the sleeve notes to 1957’s “Supersonic Jazz”, pretentious coming from most lips, oddly sane from his. Indeed, his own entry (“India”, no messing about here) it’s dinner time gongs and rajas, Ra, happy with his own Gods and mysticism in Outer Space. Admittedly, I’m no fan of Miles Davis but his “Milestones” feels no more Indian than a great deal of his work, a thin sheet cast over whatever he’d intended to writer anyway: no joy; no adventure; no soul. In another realm is Joe Harriot Quintet’sModal”, an organic, breathing collection of musical sighs and gasps, in awe of its surroundings, like an answerphone message sent from the sun. The intention is to no doubt impress on us how musicians’ interpretations of Eastern music took many forms and yet were equally valid. I disagree – I think it’s fascinating as a document of how individuals could exploit and crassly regurgitate what they’ve heard, without actually bothering to really take in what they have experienced.

All of which leads us to disc three, which I would suggest to you is what any right-minded individual has been waiting for. We’ve largely moved on from straight-ahead jazz and into the arms of the real mavericks – musicians and arrangers who are happy to hide in the wings and let the music take over. On one track, Yusef Lateef appears to be playing a donkey’s hind legs with a cello bow; Indian film director, Satyajit Ray’s own musical forays, which feel like Twilight Zone denouements; exotica Gods, Martin Denny and Les Baxter, perfectly capturing tropical lagoons and wafting fans without needing to mug for the camera; classical composers like Ravel and Debussy, again capturing wide vistas with a balance of subtlety and gravitas. This is the stuff – it may feel like chintz but it’s believable.

Not included in this set, you’ll be staggered to learn, is anything by The Beatles; anything where a vocalist gravely intones they’ve met a shaman; Lord Sitar; The Byrds nor a hatful (a big hatful) of acts from the sixties who ‘borrowed’ from the East in the same way the British ‘borrowed’ India for 100 years. Don’t be fooled into thinking the archly serious is more enriching than the glittery brush strokes. The real winners in this set are the ones who have some fun, not who stare at themselves in the mirror.

Daz Lawrence

Buy West Meets East – Indian Music and its Influence on the West here

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