When I first found myself wanting to play Indian classical music I was, like many young lovers, scared of commitment. It was bad enough when I was a rock and country musician who wanted to play jazz in coffee houses, where most of the jobs paid little or nothing. I was living on the East Coast, and didn’t know of anyone else who would even listen to Indian music, let alone pay for it. Even the so-called alternative radio stations never considered Indian music to be a viable alternative, even if they played Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman.
Sometimes I fantasized about starting my own radio program that played nothing but Indian music, but I never had the time or the faith to pursue the idea
Until now, that is. Thanks to Pandora Internet radio (www.pandora.com), I have created “narrowcast” stations in less than a minute by typing into my cellphone. These stations have names like Ali Akbar Khan Radio, Carnatic Violin Radio, or Indian Slide Guitar radio. By hooking my cellphone into my car stereo system, I can listen to each kind of music wherever I go and whenever I want, with a sound quality that surpasses FM. Pandora’s “music genome” automatically selects songs that are similar to these artists and genres, and creates a playlist as artfully as the most knowledgeable radio host. This process is computerized in a certain sense, but it is not a souped-up version of the airlines message machine that hears the difference between the words “departure” and “arrival.” The actual listening is done by a team of 25 highly skilled musicians, who have listened to over 900,000 songs and rated them for possession of 450 different attributes. The computer assembles their ratings into a multi-dimensional similarity space, so that selecting one song will automatically connect you to a similar one. If a song comes up that I don’t like, I can click on the “thumbs down” button. This will not only bypass that song, but also reshape the station so that it will no longer select that kind of song for that radio station in the future. Listener’s choices are also statistically analyzed to reshape the selections offered on similar radio stations created by other listeners. “We rely both on our experts and on the wisdom of crowds,” says Pandora founder Tim Westergren. “The genome is really a hypothesis generator, and we use customer feedback to confirm or deny its hypotheses.”
Pandora is available only in the United States because of copyright issues (all Pandora musicians receive royalties each time their music is played), so it is understandable that the music genome initially focused on western music. Eventually the music genome expanded to include respectable selections of different kinds of world music: African, South American, Chinese etc. The selection of Indian music, however, is especially outstanding. This is almost entirely the work of Sameer Gupta: Pandora music analyst, jazz drummer, and tabla player. Gupta was brought in as a jazz analyst, but he has strong family ties to India.
Although he was born in the United States, his family visited India every year when he was growing up, and he continues to study in Calcutta with his tabla guru Anindo Chatterjee. He wanted a broad range of Indian music in the genome, including all kinds of folk, classical, and popular music. Similar requests were coming in from employee’s friends, and from customer support emails. So Westergren decided to fund Gupta’s next trip to India, and gave him a generous budget for buying CDs in both Calcutta and Delhi.
“I didn’t want to make just the obvious choices,” says Gupta, “I wanted people who selected Ravi Shankar to discover other sitar players like Nikhil Bannerjee and Shahid Parvez. I also wanted help finding artists that I hadn’t heard yet.” His first expedition was to Melody Music in Calcutta, near the Rama Krishna Mission at Gol Park. Gupta tried to explain what he wanted to the store owner, but Gupta speaks no Bengali and the store owner’s Hindi was uncertain at best. On his fourth visit, Gupta realized that the owner must have learned his Hindi primarily from Bollywood films, and adjusted his accent accordingly. Once the owner understood Sameer’s mission, he gave the project his personal touch, selecting the classic songs from every era, and making sure the CDs contained no overlapping tracks. In Delhi, which was Gupta’s family home town, his Hindi served him well, and a music store near Connaught place treated him like a long lost native son. “They were so excited about what we were doing, they welcomed me into their home and gave me the full Indian hospitality treatment; chai, biscuits, namkeen. I was glad I skipped the big chains; I really appreciated that personal touch.”
On his return, Gupta developed a set of attributes for placing Indian music in the music genome, such as which taals were used, and which swaras were in the melodic scale. He even developed a method for measuring which notes in a given scale were used most frequently, which enabled him to identify ragas that had similar vadi and samvadi. He then had to teach these attributes to a team of five other music analysts. “I was the only one who knew any of the Indian musical terms, so I had to do things like refer to komalre as a flatted second. I showed them pictures of all the instruments, and went through chart after chart of ragas. It was a lot of work, but I’ve managed to create some hard core Indian music fans.”
Gupta acknowledges that he learned as much as he taught during this process. “When I was a kid, I had no interest in the Bollywood music my parents were listening to. I started out liking heavy metal, then graduated to jazz, then Hindustani classical. But doing this project, I really learned to appreciate the golden era of Bollywood, when the playback singers also did ghazals and other semi-classical music, and before more pop elements were brought in during the 70s and 80s. My father usually doesn’t pay much attention when I do my music analysis on the computer in the living room. But I when I was analyzing this music, he would sit next to me on the sofa, and say ‘come on, let’s do the next one.’ It was a great bonding experience for both of us.”
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.