The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

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“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.

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