Among the many thought-provoking quotes in Peter Lavezzoli’s new book is this one from tabla player Tanmoy Bose. “If you talk to any music lover in the West, they know more about [Indian music] than Indians … they have a thirst for it, and they are very critical in the West for that reason.” At first, I was tempted to reply that these Western fans are so enthusiastic because they (we) are such a small minority. In India, interest in Indian classical music runs the gamut from devotion to mild interest. There is, for example, a sense of national pride that makes Indians feel they ought to like classical music even if they don’t. In the West, you are either a devoted fan or completely ignorant on the subject, and it often seems to us that all the devoted fans are gathered in the Bay Area. However, Lavezzoli paints a significantly different picture, arguing quite convincingly that Indian music has deeply influenced both American and European music for over half a century. Peter Lavezzoli’s first book, The King of All, Sir Duke, took a controversial approach to biography. He devoted relatively little space to Duke Ellington, the book’s ostensible subject matter, and instead wrote about Ellington’s influence on other prominent musicians (including Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, and George Clinton). His newest book, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi, follows a similar format, but it is not a story of one musician’s impact on other musicians. It is the story of the influences of one entire musical culture on another, and the tracing of those influences from connection to connection is the perfect format. Lavezzoli’s goal is to document every aspect of that impact with interviews and historical summaries. The result is a long and engrossing read, full of remarkable anecdotes and thoughtful discussions with some of the most important creative people in many different Indian and Western musical domains. About a fifth of this book will probably produce a sense of déjà vu for regular readers of this magazine. There are detailed interviews with many local artists, including Cheb i Sabbah, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Terry Riley, George Ruckert, and Mickey Hart. If you know little or nothing about these people and their music, you get all the introduction you need. But no matter how much you may think you know, Lavezzoli has new information for you. Those of us who live in the Bay Area know that there are lots of Americans and Europeans who have carefully studied Indian music. But Lavezzoli shows us who was first, where they did it, and how things developed from there. The book is subtitled “Bhairavi” because the first significant musical contact between Indian and Western classical music was a recording of that raga in 1955 by Ali Akbar Khan. Bhairavi is also a morning raga traditionally played to close a concert that has gone on past midnight, so Lavezzoli also uses the word as an allusion to the “dawn” of Indian music. This recording was the first 33 rpm long-playing record of Indian classical music. Prior to this, the only recordings of Indian music were 78 rpm records, which had poor sound quality and lasted five minutes or less. This was also the first performance of Indian classical music in the West, except for an unrecorded concert at Columbia University by Inayat Khan. (It is a tribute to Lavezzoli’s thoroughness that what little is known about that Columbia concert is in this book.) The Bhairavi recording included a verbal introduction by Yehudi Menuhin, who had discovered Indian music while touring India. Menuhin’s endorsement helped to convince his colleagues that this music was a serious disciplined art form, not an exotic ethnic curiosity. Lavezzoli has some interesting parallels between the harsh pedagogic methods used by both Indian gurus and Western conservatories, which justified labeling both traditions as “classical.” There were, however, parallel influences occurring in rock and jazz, spearheaded by George Harrison and John Coltrane respectively, who were both great admirers of Ravi Shankar. Rock and jazz musicians were attracted not only by the complex use of rhythms and microtones, but also by the freedom to improvise, and by altered states of spiritual consciousness. These musicians usually associated altered states with drugs, creating a controversy that endures to this day. For most Westerners during the 1960s, Ravi Shankar’s sitar was the soundtrack for drug experiences. This was a serious misunderstanding: Shankar did compose scores for psychedelic movies like Chappaqua, but he also insisted that his audiences not use drugs. Lavezzoli asks almost all of his interviewees about drugs, and discovers a spectrum of opinions that reveal another great contribution of Indian music to the West. Western music had fragmented into two conflicting elements: the emotional drug-tinged intensity of improvised jazz and rock, and the tightly controlled intellectual discipline of European classical music. Because Indian music had never separated emotion and thought, it could show Westerners how to reunite them. It challenged rock musicians to acquire discipline, enabled jazz musicians to see their improvisation as a spiritual practice, and reminded European classical musicians that music is not just marks on paper, but is played by a musician, and heard with the ears. Sometimes Western musicians tried to capture the mood of Indian music with little awareness of technical details. Other times, they took Indian techniques and reworked them to create very different moods. But Lavezzoli shows us that all forms of Western music now have a healthier relationship to each other, and to the rest of the world because of the Indian influence. Perhaps in the new millennium, there may even be Westerners who will be great virtuosos of Indian music. Will this music then still be Indian, and will its players still be Westerners?
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.