Hindustani-Western Fusion has been a popular genre over the last few decades. Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar rose to international fame by composing music that blends traditional Indian instruments like the Tabla and Sitar with modern Jazz and Blues genres. While fusion music might sound recent, it’s roots can be traced back to the late 50s and 60s when musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan, and Ravi Shankar did their first international performances.
The 1950s and 60s was an age where Rock & Roll was on the rise and the music industry was at its competitive peak. Musicians were keenly experimenting new sounds and effects to make themselves stand out and become the next big sensation. Ravi Shankar’s performances abroad caught the eye of a young English musician, George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the Beatles. He was intrigued by the sitar and ended up acquiring one for himself. He went on to play an iconic piece using the Sitar, on the song “Norwegian Wood” which could perhaps be seen as the first-time Indian sounds were fused into Western Pop music. The song was critically acclaimed, and people described the sound of a Sitar as “psychedelic”.
While the Beatles were experimenting with Indian sounds, Ravi Shankar’s fame continued to rise around the Western world. He toured with the renowned Tabla player Alla Rakha, father of Zakir Hussain. Together, they’ve opened at various Rock and Pop festivals, most notably, Monterey Pop in the United States, in the presence of some iconic bands such as Simon & Garfunkel, Otis Reading, and Jimi Hendrix. Along this journey, he soon inevitably crossed paths with George Harrison.
His meeting with George Harrison would start off an iconic history of collaboration which spanned for many decades. During this time, the Beatles released a lot more material that contained a variety of Indian instruments. Songs such as Within You Without You, Across The Universe and Love you To were examples of the Beatles expressing their love for counterculture. Apple Records, a recording company owned by the Beatles, has hosted various Hare Rama Hare Krishna troupes in its recording facilities. The band even made frequent trips to India where they tried their hand at learning about spiritualism. While most of band members lost interest in this area of music and fell back to their roots over the years, George Harrison remained true to it.
Upon leaving the Beatles, he continued to write music with Indian influences. Most notably, My Sweet Lord, which went on to become one of the most played songs of all time in the 70s. With the aid of Ravi Shankar, he arranged various festivals such as the Concert for Bangladesh which was focused at raising money following the war-related genocide in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan). He would continue to collaborate with Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar well into the late 90s. Following Harrison’s death in 2001, Ravi Shankar composed a concert in his honor “Concert for George” where his daughter Anoushka Shankar led an Indian orchestra and played compositions of her father’s old music. Concert for George marked the end of a unique relationship between an Indian musician and a Western Pop icon. While collaborations of this nature are frequent these days, we’ll probably never witness one where both people are so genuinely invested in a single cause – World Peace.
Fusion music has come a long way since the 60s, but it wouldn’t exist if not for the efforts of Indian orchestras in the 60s who were brave enough to play for an audience who had never heard their music before, while enduring accusations from their home country about performing to an audience that was known to use drugs to enjoy and enhance the effects of music. However, these early musicians opened a gateway that allow modern Indian artists to showcase their talents around the world and even win western awards such as the Grammys and Oscars.
Picture Credits : thestar.com