The Spell of Saraswati: India’s Musical Influence
21 Mar 2012

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The adventurous side of me was antsy, providing the persistent encouragement to take time away from formal academics and transfer to the University of the Universe.  I am spending three months internationally, two in India and one in Thailand.  So far, my home has been Udaipur, a romantic city nestled in the Northwest corner of a country the size of half the continental US, but with 20% the entire world’s population.   Petrified, I mentally listed what I would miss… my loving family, supportive friends, Western toilets, freedom to wear whatever I want, Boston Crème donuts and sharp cheddar cheese…

I was even tentative about the shows I wouldn’t be around to see.   Sure, every weathered and addicted concert attendee knows there are always endlessly more in the future… but there’s a noticeable tinge of jealously each time I read a friend’s facebook status, posting an excited rant about raging the night’s hottest show.

In a feeble attempt to satisfy this longing for live music, I’ve tried to be consciously open to the traditional music of the places I am visiting.  Here in India, music is as- if not more important- than in the states.  Music is much more openly expressed, whether you hear the newest Bollywood song confidently being belted out loud by friends walking down the street or blasted from speakers as a wedding parade encompasses the dusty road.

Similar to the culture, Indian music is rooted in spirituality and often tells a story with intertwining superstitious qualities.  The humming sounds at the core of each song are meditative and soothing to the listener’s ears and mind.  Characteristics of traditional Indian music include syncopated beats that are creative and perfectly random.  Specific instruments define this genre; the most uniquely sounding, and therefore most easily recognizable, is a 12-stringed Sitar.  The instrument combines the plucking and vibrating of tones to improvise up and down the pentatonic scale.  The Tabla is a small drum, almost always found in a harmonizing pair.  It is distinctly different than other drums because of its circular black patch on the playing surface, made out of a lava rock putty.  This allows the artist to slap and hit their fingers on one drum, but produce a large diversity of sounds.  Tablas have a full yet mellow noise, contrasting the drone of the Sitar.

Listening to international music also gives the foreigner a unique opportunity.  My non-fluent ears are oblivious to the meaning of the Hindi lyrics, but that offers a chance to perceive singing as more of an instrument, rather than words intended with expression or meaning.  Without knowing the exact message of the artist’s lyrics, the listener has to pay much closer attention to the minute changes in key, note, and rhythm, in order to fully experience in the music.

Other than just listening to worldly music, spending time internationally allows one to question the international perspective on Americans.   From my (minimal) experience, there is a trend to assume Americans to be pretentious and self-obsessed. It is unfortunate, to be personally grouped with such a negative connotation.

Musically, this judgment is generally true.  Travel anywhere outside the states and it is easy to find someone who knows Rihanna, Pit Bull, or Britney Spears.  But within American music, it is difficult to find popular international artists incorporated into the latest hits. It confuses me why America, a supposed “melting-pot” culture, with claims of being accepting and diverse, is so shut off to music’s worldly influences.

I’ve thought a bit about why this judgment is so quickly made, and how I can personally be more accepting of our global community.  Would it really hurt to branch outside our national boarders for a more global perspective- starting with the universal language of music?

American music already shows the benefits of this contagious and powerful practice of letting world music into the culture.  For example, Indian music influenced The Beatles in the 60s when they ran away to meditate and study at a Hindu ashram.  This experience directly steeped like tea into their next album, especially on songs like “Norwegian Wood” or “Within You or Without You”.  One of the most famous traditional Indian music legends, Ravi Shankar, studied with George Harrison and dramatically affected his solo career later in the 70s and beyond.

Nowadays, there are numerous Western bands that are extremely influenced by the sounds of the magical east.  Beats Antique, Thievery Corporation, many more festival headliners, draw inspiration directly from magical India.  Lesser-known Texas based Govinda infuses their songs directly with the source of Indian culture, creating chill, exotic, and dubby beats.  Thunderball, a hidden gem of musicians, displays an aptitude to cross genres and international boundaries.  Their song “Road to Benares” lures the listener in like a snake charmer, exhibiting a dangerously catchy Sitar melody.  It is evident that Indian music has inspired American music, whether or not it is given full credit.

And if you’re really open to plunge headfirst into the intriguing world of traditional Indian music, let go within the maze of sounds. Anoushka Shankar (Ravi’s daughter and Norah Jones’s half-sister) is a beautiful, wise, and talented Sitar player. Her live performances are especially incredible because Anoushka displays the ability to connect with fellow onstage musicians, intertwining and braiding each of their unique instruments’ sounds. Pandit Jsrah is arguably one of the most famous singers in Indian music and is known for having a very large vocal range. He performs the traditional Hindustani style of music from the Northern portion of the country. In his music he exemplifies a droning, chanting, pulsating feeling that makes it distinctive.

Let yourself flourish internationally through your speakers, allowing your mind and musical taste-buds a more global perspective on a world where our differences can define our commonalities.  Whether it’s to help study, meditate after a stressful day, or to change your favorite long -drive playlist, Indian music is a diverse and an infinite opportunity to broaden your iTunes library and mind.

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