The Cowboy and the Yogi

This article was written for a series commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of India Currents magazine. You may also view this article, and over a hundred other articles I’ve written on Indian Music, on the India Currents website
How India Currents taught me ideals shared by India and America.

 

When I first came to the Bay Area, I knew only one thing about India: Its music was amazing. Critics would often refer to these astonishing structures of melody and rhythm as “ethnic music”,  and of course I knew I was more likely to get hired playing at Indian restaurants than anywhere else. Nevertheless, even though I knew where this music came from geographically, I didn’t really experience it as coming from anywhere in particular. For me, it existed in a kind of abstract possibility space, like gravity, numbers, and justice: profoundly beautiful, and beyond any one location in space and time. To some degree I still believe that, but India Currents taught me to love the culture as much as the music it produced.

When I saw my first copy of India currents, concerts by Indian musicians were usually ignored by both the mainstream and underground media. This was before email or websites, which meant I had to rely on word of mouth and posters in store windows to regularly find Indian music concerts. I was delighted to find a publication that did for Indian music what the East Bay express did for alternative rock groups: provide a monthly listing that tells you who’s playing when, and a little something about who they were. In the beginning these listings were the main content of a 30-40 page black-and-white pulp newsletter. There were also, however, a few articles each month.  After I’d filled up the free spaces in my calendar, I found myself reading the articles from cover to cover, even as the size of the magazine tripled.

I discovered a broader diversity of opinion in these articles than I had ever seen in any other publication. Then, as now, most other journalism was divided along political lines. India Current’s policy seemed to be that it would give a voice to anyone in the Indian community. These voices not only spoke their minds, but talked to each other. On one page, academics argued over the colonialist connotations of the word “exotic”. On the next page, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur was defending free market libertarianism. And what other publication would have editorials defending both gay marriage and arranged marriage—written by the same editor? Not only was this variety refreshing, it effectively dissipated any stereotypes about Indians. At a time when the most widely seen Indian face in America was Apu on the Simpsons, India Currents ran articles about Indians who were doing everything from working in the Clinton Whitehouse to abstract painting to building factories.

This was the second factor that made India Currents such a great read. Any other magazine or newspaper writing about India, or pretty much anywhere else, devotes almost all of its space to bad news: corruption, riots, wars etc. If you don’t live in the country being described, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a playing field for disaster and tragedy.  India Currents believes that all Indians should feel proud whenever any Indian does something noteworthy. So every month, there are articles whose subtext is “Indians are doing lots of cool stuff.” It was in India Currents that I first read about the small business loan program of the Grameen bank in Bangladesh, over a decade before its founder won the Nobel peace prize, and about the woman  prison supervisor who developed a meditation program for the inmates . It was in India Currents  that I learned Salman Rushdie is a great writer, not just an international political football.  It was in India Currents that I learned that Indians played cricket and made more movies than any other country in the world. And most importantly for me, I learned that Indian music existed in more forms, both light and profound, both commercial and traditional, than I could ever have imagined.

I finally got up the courage to send the editor a press release about my own music, with a much greater emphasis on my teachers’ than on my own accomplishments. They liked it enough to publish it, and so I continued to send them things. Eventually they were asking me to write articles on other musicians, and when founding editor Arvind Kumar decided to pass the reins to his partner Ashok Jethanandani, I agreed to write a monthly music column. I was now, apparently, an expert on Indian music, at least in the sense of the old joke that analyzes the word into two parts: X= an unknown quantity and spurt= a drip under pressure. I was an unknown drip under pressure, with a monthly thousand-word deadline to keep the pressure up.

At first, I wrote about whatever recordings were sent to the editor’s office, and this required me to study music I had known almost nothing about: Bhangra, Qawwali, Ghazals, Bhajans, Filmi. I had to teach myself what was common knowledge to most Indians, as well as write about obscure corners of Indian music known only to ethnomusicologists. I developed a network of musical advisors: friends I met at the Indian restaurants where I played music, musicians on whom I’d written previous articles, and academics I found on the Internet. One of my best sources is an Anglo who played in the sixties with people who eventually became rock stars, and now lives in his parent’s basement listening (but not playing) every kind of Indian classical music for over eight hours a day.  I was fortunate to interview some of the greatest Indian musical artists, and/or popular performers, and to ask them questions to help improve my own playing.  When I asked Pandit Jasraj how I could make my music more emotionally expressive, he suggested that I pray. Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar independently told me that the best way to keep taal under complicated cross rhythms was to tap your foot; not an easy thing to do when you are sitting cross-legged and playing alternating patterns of seven and nine with your hands.

Can I sum up in a few fundamental principles what I learned after fifteen years of monthly columns? I can try. Despite widely held stereotypes, India, like America, is a country that feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization. The essential difference between the two cultures is that Americans believe in making up the rules as you go along, and India is a country with lots of rules and traditions. What the Indian stereotype ignores, however is that Indians are more than willing to break those rules when it seems necessary.

Most Indians see this as a weakness, which causes corruption and an inability to make trains run on time. I believe, however, that this is one of India’s greatest strengths. The American view of rules creates a society which is often spiritually rootless, and addicted to novelty for its own sake. The Indian view of rules creates a society which is in constant flux, but not one that is fragmented and cut off from its past. All the Indian musicians I have interviewed have said the music they play is thousands of years old, and their only goal is to preserve the tradition. However, any comparison between those musicians and their gurus always reveals extensive innovations in melodic and rhythmic material, playing technique, even in the construction of the instrument itself. Indians always speak as if obedience to tradition was their highest priority. But when push comes to shove, it is always the inner voice of intuition that wins out—an intuition that, at its best, inspires each individual to preserve the essence of the tradition as he or she changes it.

Indians may be embarrassed by, and non-Indians skeptical of, such effusive praise from an outsider. While I am talking about stereotypes, I realize that I embody a stereotype myself—the starry-eyed westerner who completely loses himself in some other culture. Gilbert and Sullivan mocked this character as “The idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, every century but this, and every country but his own.” India attracts a lot of people of this sort, and I do count myself among them. However, I try to put my own spin on this stereotype in two ways. First of all, I am more attracted these days to the similarities between my own culture and India’s–partly because I’ve discovered that the difference was not as great as I once thought, and partly because I have been changed by the culture as I have studied it. These days I would probably feel more at home in Calcutta than in Idaho or Georgia, despite the fact that the latter are politically part of my native country. Secondly, unlike many western Indophiles, I am not afraid of India changing. I know that modernization is not the same thing as westernization: That Bollywood movies are as uniquely Indian as ragas and yoga. India’s uniquely ambivalent attitude to tradition and change will insure that the India of tomorrow will be as Indian in its own way as the India of the Guptas and the Mughals. That is why I am interested in how India’s Past transforms into India’s Future.  I’m very grateful to have a ringside seat to observe these changes as a writer and reader of India Currents.

East Meets West Meets East Meets Etc.

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How English Brass Band Music Traveled to India and Back Again

by Teed Rockwell

Rahmania. The Bollywood Brass Band. Emergency Exit Arts. available at www.bollywoodbrassband.co.uk

 Fanfare Du Rajastan. Jaipur Kawa Brass Band Iris Music. available at www.amazon.com

Disco Bhangra: Wedding Bands from Rajastan. Avant (Japan) available from Down Home Music Store 10341 San Pablo Avenue El Cerrito, CA 94530 (510) 525-2129

During the British Raj, marching bands were considered one of the primary ways of imposing the “civilizing” force of European culture on the Indian populace. In the days before wireless communication, the bagpipes were the only way that thousands of troops could immediately be informed of their commander’s orders. Each bagpipe melody was a signal with a specific military meaning, such as halt, attack, retreat, etc. And military parades, with thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep to the sounds of brass bands, were an effective way of expressing the power of the British Empire. For this reason, thousands of Indian men and boys were  taught to play a variety of western band instruments: bagpipes, trumpets, clarinets, tubas, snare drums. And when homesick British soldiers wanted to hear something to remind them of England, these same musicians could be pressed into service to perform at dances and Sunday concerts in the park.  When they performed they wore uniforms that combined elements of both English and Indian military finery: brass buttons, gold braid—along with silk sashes and turbans!

Today the British military presence in India is only a memory,  but surprising manifestations of the old marching bands’ influence can still be found. Sonoma State musicologist and khyal singer Laxmi Tewari  once showed me a picture of an Indian man in a loincloth sitting on the ground next to a tabla player, playing a bagpipe made with beautifully embroidered Indian cloth. I asked Tewari “Is there a bagpipe gharana in India?” “Actually, that man’s grandfather played bagpipe in a British marching band”, said Tewari. “When the British left, they let him keep the bagpipe, and it was passed down through the family since then. The original cloth was a Scottish tartan, but it wore out years ago. He plays Indian folk tunes on it, mostly.”

But by far the biggest impact has been the persistent popularity of what are often called “Band Parties”. Traditionally public celebrations were accompanied by the music of folk drums and Indian wind instruments—the shennai in the north and the nagaswaram in the south. But now almost every important occasion in India is accompanied by a large aggregate of brass and reed players, who march through the streets letting everyone know by sheer volume and enthusiasm that something important is going on. These bands are considered an indispensable part of most Indian weddings. They also  play on holidays like  Diwali and Ganapati (the annual ten day festival honoring Ganesh).

Since the departure of the Raj, British spit and polish has been replaced by the Indian entrepreneurial spirit. In any large Indian city there will be up to 100 brass bands competing for business. They tend to be in a particular area of the city and each has its own shop, which is basically a small room opening onto the street that displays pictures of the band and uniform choices. The band itself however, is an extremely amorphous unit, whose membership and size fluctuates depending on who is available and how much the customer is willing and/or able to pay. The person who manages the band is the most accomplished player, and owns the uniforms, which have the same Anglo-Indian military style as the old army bands . The manager usually plays improvised lines on clarinet or saxophone, and is often a fairly accomplished musician. But the rest of the players are picked up for each individual job, and often have to be supplied instruments by the manager. In fact, in the larger jobs many of the “musicians” can’t play at all, but only carry instruments to give a sense that a really big band is playing.

The Album “Disco Bhangra”  features recordings of several such “band parties”, with varying levels of technical competence. This music has clearly taken on a life of its own since the British left. “God save the Queen” is no longer on the set list. The primary repertoire is Indian film songs, including one with the English Lyrics “I am a disco dancer”. Each band usually accompanies a singer amplified by a squawky, echoing, battery powered P.A. system carried on a hand drawn cart, usually decorated with Christmas tree lights powered by the same battery. And although there is some expressive playing by an occasional lead clarinetist, it’s obvious that most of the other musicians are making educated (and not so educated) guesses as to what parts they are supposed to play next. The result is more listenable than you might think from this description, but it is definitely not music for the compulsive perfectionist.

The Jaipur Kawa Brass Band is in a different class altogether, featuring performers who have played together for years. Admittedly their arranged unison lines are not always perfect. But their rhythm section has powerful and tight interactions between bass drums and cymbals, and the horns and reeds have a wild expressive vibrato reminiscent of the gamak used by khyal singers. It isn’t classical music, but it has an authentic intensity that could have arisen nowhere but India. Understandably, this music has started to appeal to lovers of western brass band music, and the Jaipur Kawa band is now one of many such groups that has been well received in England and Europe.

Another such group was the Shyam Brass Band, who collaborated with an English band that was then called Crocodile Styles. These Brits were so enthusiastic about this new style of music that they renamed themselves the Bollywood Brass Band, and begin learning the Shyam Band’s arrangements of Indian film songs. At one of their concerts, a well-to-do Indian gentleman asked them if they played weddings. That first wedding performance led to more and more offers, and soon they had all the paraphernalia of an Indian Wedding band—including an Indian dhol drummer, and those nifty Anglo-Indian band uniforms with turbans and sashes.

And so band party music has come full circle. Once played by Indians hired by English in India who wanted to be reminded of England , it is now played by English hired by Indians in England who want to be reminded of India. And these English (who have last names like Cohen, Jago, and d’Amonville) are certainly going to take this “traditional music” in new directions. The band’s first (self-titled) album was a faithful reproduction of their wedding party performances. With their second album “Rahmania”, they collaborate with a percussion ensemble called Sambhangra, which combines Indian and Latin percussions, to create arrangements of the songs of film composer A.R. Rahman. They are also using the recording studio to create techno remixes of their own songs. Will their customers object to this innovation? Not Likely. How can you capture Rahman’s unique Bollywood sound without drum machines and synthesizers?