Tag Archives: Guitar

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

“India, like America, 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,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.  

The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.” 

Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan. 

The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.” 

Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.” 

The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.  

Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:

IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music. 

TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this! 

IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition… 

TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.  

Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

The F16s – Music that Carries You On

Sheer astonishment is the sentiment that comes to mind when you hear the F16s. How can an Indian band based in Chennai sound so Rock, from the vocals to the guitaring and keys to the lyrics.

Incredibly, they won the 2013 Jack Daniel’s Annual Rock Award for Best Emerging Act. Incredibly, they were winners in the Converse Road to Rubber Tracks contest which had them recording two numbers in Brooklyn, New York.19

And incredibly, again, they are not musically trained. “None of us have any musical education whatsoever we sort of just picked up our instruments and found each other,” says Josh who does the vocals and guitars.

The band already has a seven track album called Kaleidoscope out. Their new album is in stealth mode, will have ten tracks, and is to be launched in September this year.

The F16s go by their first or nicknames; the others in the band are Vikram- the drummer, Shank on bass, Harshan on keys, and Abhinav aka Booby (“he was tubby as a child”) on the guitar. When asked how it all started, Josh says, “Chennai is a small city so everybody knows everybody, Vikram, Booby and I went to the same college and Shank and Harshan were mutual friends so we’d hang out with each other often. We decided to meet up one summer and just grab our gear and write some music.”

In 2014, Converse, the sports gear and apparel company, held a contest spanning different regions worldwide that would grant the winners studio time at the Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn. The F16s were growing tired of competitions, this seemed like a “what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen” scenario. They got shortlisted, played the finals, won the contest. Late 2014, at the Brooklyn studio, they recorded two singles: “Blackboard” and “Jacuzzi.” When asked if it was tough deciding on which tracks Josh remembers, “We honestly didn’t give that a lot of thought, apart from the occasional back and forth at practice. The two songs we decided to go with were confirmed right outside the walls of the Rubber Tracks Studio. Those two songs seemed to fit perfectly with the space, the studio, the recording process. ”

The new album promises to be dissimilar to the previous releases and talks to universal themes such as romance, morality, selfishness and contempt. Josh describes further, “With a city like Chennai, melancholia comes easy but in spurts which can be easily heard through the record. I think with this album we find our selves forcefully complexed.”

A great example of this are the lyrics to “Digital Dead,” an upcoming track:

Digital men with a digital smile,
Since I’ve been running in a
circle …    
Cause I’ve been waiting a while
Who do they want us to be?

Try again, But dont start as yet.

No sudden moves, just sudden death.

So what comes first, the lyrics or the tune? “It almost always starts with a hook that would click this little knob in our brains that would trigger something that feels like we always knew what to play. We start with a tune and then I sort of spread/spill lyrics over it, cause I want the music to carry the lyrics and not the other way around,” opines Josh.

The Brooklyn-studio-recorded songs have a passive aggressive feel, conveying a rebellion by wholly embracing the “melancholia.” “Blackboard” begins on the upbeat, superb guitaring and keys introducing us to the lyrics which say, “… jumping to the river, but the river wouldn’t carry you on….looking to the mirror but the mirror wasn’t looking at you.” The music lifts you up to counter the lyrics, which are brutally honest. “Jacuzzi” on the other hand, has suspenseful music in tune with the lyrics that start off  “As I’m walking on broken glass…”

If living in Chennai and living off of its vibe has literally driven the F16s to music, then their New York experience will prove to be one of the defining moments of their musical caliber. As Josh says, “New York is the originator, the place where innovations in musical styles begin.”

Check out the F16s on their facebook page online. Kaleidoscope is avalailable on iTunes. (Warning: Some numbers have explicit content.)

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.