Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 5. 1965.
Indian Music Revivified
Indian Music Revivified
The Ravi Shankar Trio consists of Alla Rakha (tabla), N. C. Mullick (tamboura), and the leader on sitar. A sitar is an instrument resembling a guitar, with two spherical sound-boxes and 26 strings; the tamboura is a droning four or five-stringed instrument, and the tabla are a pair of drums, akin to bongos, but with a greater range and variety of tone.
Traditional Indian instruments at first sound alien to our ears. The incessant tonic-dominant drone of the tamboura, for example, limits the harmonic interest to an almost insuperable degree. Perhaps this music is most easily understood if it is compared to American jazz, notwithstanding its harmonic monotony, the rhythmic dissimilarity between tamboura and jazz string bass, and the fluidity of the rhythms laid down by the drummer, drumming wholly with his hands.
As in jazz, the three musicians state a theme, and then improvise upon it. First the soloist on sitar with drum-tamboura background, secondly long stretches of complicated interplay between drummer and sitar, and finally restatement of the theme. Although in most jazz the chords change, the tune moves through its various keys. Indian music is constructed on the basis of one key per tune. To confuse the issue, however, their keys are not as ours.
Each tune, or theme, or key is called a "raga" and it is predictably enough, difficult to describe what a "raga" is in Western terms. As I understand it, a raga is in three stages: a (non-Western) scale; an ascending and descending development of the scale with shifting emphasis and rhythms; and finally the raga itself, a melody of rather incomprehensible sense. During the statement of this progression the musicians may improvise as much as they like, except, of course, the tamboura man, who strums repetitiously the key notes of the chord of the "key." Each passage, however, returns to the basis "sum" beat which also begins the next passage. Hence the music is comfortingly cyclic, like the blues.
The harmonic basis of the music is thus somewhat different from those used in most Western music since Mozart. It uses different modes to the major and minor modes of classical music and in no way resembles the dodecaphonic system. In this respect its only kinship is with some recent jazz, in which the mode has been used extensively as a framework for improvisation (for example, Miles Davis has been experimenting in this direction since the late fifties). A further similarity with respect to harmony is that the basic scales are not tempered diatonic scales, but often include flattened third, fifth and seventh notes, as is so common in jazz, or the Beatles. Since the Indians are not the only non-Western race whose scales are thus modified, it is conceivable that these notes are more pleasing to the untutored ear than those of the untempered scale.
Ravi Shankar's improvisations were often rhythmically and melodically similar to jazz improvisations. His virtuosity and ability to play any musical idea which entered his mind were also comparable only to a great jazzman. At times he even played what sounded like genuine bop lines. His drummer (tabla) displayed these same characteristics; in fact, Joe Morello, the jazz drummer in The Dave Brubeck Quartet, is reported to have learnt some of his techniques from Alla Rakha. In particular, the method of playing different notes on a drum by varying the effective diameter of the drumhead with the heel of his hand, and relating these notes to the improvisations of the leader.
The empathy between Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha was as close, and their seeming precognition as notable, as any I have heard in jazz—this empathy is a characteristic of both types of music. Such a close relationship between two improvising musicians could hardly lead to anything but swing, and this it did, although music appeared to really progress were the times when the drummer began to lay down a steady, unwavering beat (the relentless 4/4 of most jazz). Their music was often pulsing and exciting, but never more so than when this occurred.
The two elements of swing and improvisation are distinguishing features of both jazz and the Indian music of Ravi Shankar, and in general lead to music of an emotional, hypothalamic rather than cerebral kind of music. Although jazz seems rather more vital than Indian music (whose last important musical event was a schism between religious and secular music about 600 years ago), it sports few improvising musicians as adept or as original as Ravi Shankar. He demonstrates as vividly as did Charles Parker what a great musician can do with a dying form.—R.B.A.