The Asian Connection

John Cage spent a great deal of time philosophizing about music and why one makes art in our society. I was particularly struck by the following passage in Richard Kostelanetz‘s anthology From John Cage (Da Capo Press): “…the traditional reason for making a piece of music in India: to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences. We learned from Oriental thought that those divine influences are, in fact, the environment in which we are. A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.”

The same sentiments are felt by Krishna Das, who doesn’t consider himself a musician, although his latest album will be released this June. “I am not interested in consciously playing music; I am interested in going to God,” says Krishna Das, who has been chanting Indian kirtan for many years. He discovered the power of chant when he was walking around a lake in India in 1970. “I heard music coming out of a temple. It was staggering. I had no models in my life for this power. It was shocking to see so much joy expressed in the spiritual practice.”

For Krishna Das, music is a doorway. He views singing as a devotional practice, providing a context for repetition and a chance to leave his thoughts and cares behind. Krishna Das—who grew up as Jeff Kagel on Long Island—has been singing kirtan, devotional Hindu chants from India for many years. “For our generation, Western religion has failed to touch us, so when finding out more about ourselves, we turned to Eastern religion. That’s what kirtan is about; it deepens the channel of grace and it’s a way of coming into the moment and being present. The practice of chanting is often done in a group. The group energy helps you. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. I just sing from my heart. The fact that so many people like it is astounding,” he adds.

Jai Uttal also uses music as a means to a spiritual end. But Uttal is well-schooled in Indian classical music (a longtime student of Ali Akbar Khan) and couples it with a Western pop sensibility in his Pagan Love Orchestra. Uttal – who is equally at home strumming an ancient Indian folk dotar, playing a blues riff on electric guitar, or singing a Hindu devotional song – found inspiration in the yearning of devotional music and the Bauls of Bengal. “The Bauls are wildmen; they have no rules, no dogma, no temples. They embrace their desires in their humanness, and their songs are so passionate!” The word “Baul” literally means “afflicted with the spirit of the wind” and is derived from the Sanskrit “batul,” meaning mad, in the sense of divinely touched.

Uttal was drawn to both the music and the lifestyle of the Bauls of Bengal, iconoclasts and rebels living outside society. “I wandered with them and sang with them on trains,” says Uttal. “They traded songs with me. They sang English words without knowing what the words meant. Uttal learned to sing in Bengali, and this filters into his original tunes. But more important than any specific musical material, he was touched by the emotional reaching of the Bauls, which was manifest in their straining for high notes, a practice Uttal sometimes adapts to his own work. Uttal grew up in New York City listening to cantors sing in synagogues while studying Western classical music on the piano and old-time Appalachian tunes on the banjo. “All the music I’ve loved in my life is spiritual; it’s an inner journey,” says Uttal citing Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, John Coltrane, Oliver Messiaen, Ali Akbar Khan, and the Bauls of Bengal.

The same passion is heard as Steve Gorn recounts an all-night concert in which he plays Lalit, a sunrise raga at 5:00 a.m. on his bansuri, bamboo flute. Gorn is one of a handful of Americans who is accepted playing Indian classical music in India. His first trip there in 1969 lasted three years. “I went to a festival at the home of Allauddin Khan. He was over 100 years old and I stayed up all night at a concert and connected on a deep level. It made me want to study Indian music seriously, to go deeper,” says Gorn, who returns regularly to perform in India. He is also very conscious of being a Westerner and brings that background to his work with a variety of musicians and genres ranging from a film score for the Tibetan Book of the Dead to recently recording with Paul Simon. A sampling of other accomplished American instrumentalists of Indian music include Ken Zuckerman (sarod), Allyn Miner (sitar), George Ruckert (sarod), Warren Senders (voice), Peter Row (sitar), and Mindia (bansuri).

As an early innovator in global music drawing from varied cultures, Geoffrey Gordon has worked in many genres as a percussionist, often composing scores. Gordon, like a growing number of percussionists, infuses his work with Asian rhythms, structural devices, and instruments. Other drummers who have seriously delved into Indian music include Bob Becker (tabla), Russ Hartenberger (mridangam), (who both play with the band Nexus) Glen Velez (kanjira), Ty Burhoe (tabla), the late Collin Walcott (tabla), Jamey Haddad (mridangam), Willy Winant (percussion), and David Simons (percussion). For Glen Velez, studying Indian music was not just about drumming. It also opened up the area of vocalized rhythms and the relationship of the breath and voice, as can be heard in his recent albums where drum syllables are recited as part of his compositions.

While some Americans studied Indian instruments from both the North and South, other musicians adapted raga and tala material to Western instruments. The quasi-raga guitar playing style of Sandy Bull inspired Skip La Plante to create his own guitar improvisations laced with an Indian aesthetic. David Simons incorporates tabla technique and rhythmic structural devices into drumming on Indonesian and other drums. And conversely, some Americans are drawn to Asian instruments, preferring to play Western structured compositions.

“I am always clear that even though I may use instruments from another part of the world, it is a NEW music of my own invention, and different from traditional. I am in awe of performers who are able to approach traditional practitioners from another ethnic group. But as a composer, I have no intention to be an imitator of another tradition,” says Raphael Mostel, who has been influenced by not only Indian, but Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Russian, Turkish, and Australian music.

In fact many Americans who have delved into music from other parts of the world cannot limit their interest and influences to one culture. And the impact of experiencing the culture was mentioned by many people I spoke with.” Being in the place where a type of music is born is always a profound and honored experience. One can observe and bathe in the culture and the people that have made the music emerge,” says Lisa Karrer.

I too, have a rush of memories when I play or listen to Indian music. I will always remember my bansuri teacher from Benares who would not speak directly to me because I am a woman, or another Indian teacher who would not let me write down or record anything, “Listen,” he told me, “and remember.” And years later, even if I cannot fully remember, I find playing music—as Cage suggested—does quiet my mind.

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