John Coltrane

Eastern-Flavored Music

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The Beatles, Stephane Wrembel and Ali Akbar Khan

During the past few weeks I have listened to three albums constantly: Revolver by The Beatles, Barbes by Stephane Wrembel, and Journey by Ali Akbar Khan. There is a common thread running through all three discs and that is Indian/Eastern music. I’m a fan of different types of music from the Middle and Far East though I really can’t say my knowledge of the subject is very extensive. There are many different instruments and types of music involved and I favor the more traditional/instrumental. I have heard a lot of Asian pop music and some of it is pretty good, but I find that the instrumentation and the arrangements better and more sophisticated in traditional/classical music.

revolverLike many people, I came to “know” (I use the term “know” very loosely and in it’s most superficial sense), Indian music through bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Beatle George Harrison studied sitar with the late Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar and became one of Indian music’s most vocal proponents. Norwegian Wood, which was written by John Lennon, was the first Beatle song to use the sitar and was basically a western song that employed the sitar for musical effect (the same can be said for The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black). There is some great background at The Beatles Bible (A great site!) on the London scene at the time of recording Rubber Soul and Norwegian Wood. (As I have written on the blog before) Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds were also early pioneers of Eastern-inspired pop music. The original take of Heart Full of Soul actually had a sitar on it! The Davies brothers from The Kinks were also recording music with Eastern sensibilities (See My Friends) at the time. In the States, The Byrds 1965 hit Eight Miles High had a sitar-flavored Rickenbacker guitar sound playing John Coltrane-esque lines, which was pretty far out and groovy for pop music. As the 60s progressed “that Eastern sound” would become synonymous with being stoned and/or altered states of consciousness, much to the displeasure of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Unfortunately, the sound and influence of the music became so popular that it would invade even the most trivial and superficial places by the end of the decade.

When the Beatles’ follow-up album to Rubber Soul, Revolver, was released, it contained the Harrison composition Love You To, which was the first attempt to go “further into the style”. This tune would be a template for later Harrison songs like Within You, Without You and The Inner Light: they are all attempts to play bona-fide Indian music, albeit in a western pop music format. Musically though, I think Love You To is one of George’s best songs ever. Great arrangement and performance and he stays within the confines of the pop style. Other songs from Revolver that are very Eastern, but don’t contain any Eastern instruments, are the fantastic John Lennon compositions Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said, She Said. The former, a drone chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a cool, repetitive Ringo beat with loads of sounds and tape effects, broke a whole lot of rules for pop music and the guitar lines from the latter echo the Eastern-influenced mixolydian lines and quarter to half step bent-notes that one could also hear from Jeff Beck (Shapes of Things, Heart Full of Soul) and Jimi Hendrix (Love or Confusion, Purple Haze) during this time. As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, these Indo/Eastern influences became less of a thing in pop music, but started appearing in the jazz, fusion and progressive rock music of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Shatki and many more.

In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes. Recorded when his group was a trio (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion) the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. I have always dug this disc! Brilliant playing and my favorite of everything he has done. (To see his band live during this time was also a great experience as the clip above proves). Not only are the originals on Barbes fresh and inspiring, the band also covers Django Reinhardt‘s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie‘s Night in Tunisia and John Coltrane‘s Afro Blue. The group takes some of these tunes at breakneck tempos and the performances are a dizzying array of chops and melodic invention. Also, the ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions) are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; world music ragas perhaps?

A Raga is: in the classical music of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. A raga is based on a scale with a given set of notes, a typical order in which they appear in melodies, and characteristic musical motifs.

Manouche music or Gypsy Jazz has strong Indian roots because it is generally agreed that the group of people known as “Gypsies” originated on the Indian subcontinent and first migrated into Europe in the 12th century. There are various sub-categories of these Romani people: Manouche in France, and the Sinti of Central Europe. Sinti/Manouche guitar playing sounds very similar to not only Indian classical music, but some of the progressive rock and jazz of the 1970s. One huge connection is that IMPROVISATION is everything in Indian music, likewise for Manouche music or a lot of 70s rock/jazz as well. A Manouche player must have a very disciplined mind and an aural technique that includes whole tone scales, diminished and augmented arpeggios, altered scales and arpeggios and an emphasis on the “Django-favored” sixths and ninths of the harmony chords. Modern players like Stephane Wrembel have added depth to the sonic palette of the music by combining it with other influences and adding their own touches of musical imagination. There are rhythmic devices and picking patterns found in Indian music that one does not normally hear in a lot of western jazz or classical music and Stephane explores the picking and rhythmic subdivision topics in his book, Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar, which I review here. He advises picking quarter notes up through nontuplets (subdividing by 9 to the beat) with the metronome as warm-up exercises. He explains that, “musicians in India have their own efficient approach to time consisting of singing rhythms using certain syllables. A similar approach may be applied to right-hand technique which will allow for warm-up…” This is a very good way to improve your picking technique and I can say I did it religiously for about six months. In addition to giving my a bunch of listening pleasure, Getting Into… and Barbes are windows into another world and their influence definitely helped make me a better guitar player. Here are some further insights into the nature of Indian rhythm, courtesy of Ravi Shankar.

“…Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. “There are thousands of ragas,” Shankar explains, “and they are all connected with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean.”

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Ali Akbar Khan “was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod.” Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. Over the years Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar would perform many times together, including at The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and were easily two of the most prominent Indian musicians in the western world. After moving to the USA in the late 50s Khan would found a couple of schools, one in California and one in Switzerland and would spend the next 40 years touring and performing until his health failed in the late 2000s.

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I’ve been listening to Journey for the past 10 years and find it very enjoyable. As I related earlier, I’ve always liked the sound of Indian music, especially if it’s instrumental. Eastern philosophy doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize like Western thinking and Eastern music doesn’t separate Eastern Mystical concepts (that were the lyrics of western songs like The Inner Light or Within You, Without You) from the music. Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. I don’t meditate (perhaps I should?), but the sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like mid-60s George Harrison song and the other ballad-type tracks have the pacing and deliberate delivery that one can hear on some of the tracks of Barbes. There is a whole lot of crossover between these three discs is what I’m trying to say! Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by Guitars(!), Tabla, Shakers, Tanpura, Keyboards, Duggi and Dholak. All of the music was composed by Ali Akbar Khan and was recorded in 1990, giving the disc a classic, but very modern sound.

khan2I also own this disc, Traditional Music of India, which is four really long ragas. Very cool, long jams that have none of the more modern arrangements or instrumentation found on Journey, but still a very enjoyable listen. This is the kind of traditional music that one must be a master to play and would probably be impossible for most western musicians or anyone else not raised in the school. It’s amazing that no matter the musical style, or background of the artist, the performance of classic music such as this is basically approached the same way and requires the same skills. The pace and flow of these very traditional ragas remind me of some of the guitar pieces on the Bream and Williams disc I review in the right column, or a Django Reinhardt solo improvisation or Jimmy Page playing White Summer. (Incidentally…sometimes it helps to approximate an “Indian” sound/tuning by using alternate tunings, which I explore here.) Music from the Asian continent has given western listeners and players a very expanded sense of what music (and life) is and I believe any musician can only gain from listening to and experiencing music such as this. There is a nice quote on the cover of Journey that I relate to and maybe other musicians will find it interesting as well:

Music is something I learned all my life and am still learning. Earlier in my boyhood days, I learned naturally—as children learn a language, without deeper understanding of what it can really offer. I kept on learning and playing with rapt attention — with a sense of dedication — but not the deep inner feeling which finally came at the ripe age of fifty! Now when I play, my heart is filled with blissful joy that I can hardly express! I feel a sense of ultimate fulfillment that nothing else in the world can offer me anymore. Indeed, music is a very spiritual experience for me — only through music, I feel I can reach closer to God…”

— Ali Akbar Khan

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