Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
Ravi Shankar passed away this week at the age of 92. I can't admit to being a massive fan; by the time his music reached my ears, his sitar having been reinterpreted for decades through the lens of rock and roll, Shankar did not sound as revolutionary to me as it must have to George Harrison in the mid 1960s. It is not uncommon to view Ravi Shankar as the introducer of Indian music to the Western world. But there is a tension in much of the music most obviously derived from Shankar's, a sometimes lazy attempt to be exotic. Insincere is too strong a word for it; opportunistic might be a better fit.
Dave Brubeck, who passed away one week ago a day shy of 92, represented a musical clash from a political sense. He was part of the cool jazz movement that was (and still is) criticized for whitening a black form of music. I am certain some feel a similar way about a song like "Norwegian Wood," as if it is the suburban sprawl of Shankar's ragas. Both tensions deal with white folks drawing influence from the music of another culture. In oversimplified, moderately unfair, gray-area-free terms, Brubeck and Shankar represent opposite ends of this dynamic.
Conscious or not, any cross-cultural musical venture has potential for disrespect. This is why so many people acted offended rather than simply put off by Vampire Weekend's fetish for afropop. I don't view Brubeck's music as disrespectful; I feel the "white" elements he interjected into jazz were his way of being honest. I also don't think The Beatles' "Love You To" or The Stones' "Paint It Black" are insensitive to Ravi Shankar's music, but I can see how somebody might.
In an essay titled "Postscript To A Brief Study Of Balinese And African Music," composer Steve Reich wrote about the challenge of tastefulness when adopting ideas from non-Western music: "The least interesting form of influence, to my mind, is that of imitating the sound of some non-Western music." He is specifically speaking to the sitar-in-rock-band phenomenon (this was 1973), but he is also encouraging deeper interpretations. A few years after this essay, Reich applied the polyrhythmic layers of African music to his own trancelike composition techniques and made one of the greatest albums of ever. I cannot blame any 1960s rock dude for freaking out upon hearing Ravi Shankar for the first time. This was the first era with access to recordings of "world music," and the timbre and intonation of the sitar was probably mindblowing. I can't even imagine how insane a Balinese gamelan sounded with no precedent.
Sitars still creep into music, but usually as a throwback to the psychedelic era of rock rather than a tribute to Shankar. Today, music from every corner of the world has been recorded, shrink-wrapped, sold, and stolen. Musicians still lose their minds over new sounds, but it is increasingly less geographic and more genre-based.
Really, most traditional non-Western musics are isolated, extreme examples of genre. Today, the music within a genres is a reflection of a culture, even if it those involved have no physical or geographic connection. The modern equivalents of the sitar-in-rock-band phenomenon are any disrespectful genre-hopping. The country band who inserts a rap into its song without really understanding rap music; the ska band with the ironic metal riff; the technical hardcore band that inserts an ill-executed jazz section between its breakdowns. This is often a detriment of the excitable yet indecisive. You know, like your great musician friend who can't get a band off the ground because he wants to change sounds every time he downloads a new record.
The tension I speak of, those that I always found synonymous in both Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar, are the result of musical irresponsibility. The respect issue is not just between musics and cultures, but between musicians and their audience. Too often, lazy interpretation of influence goes along with an attitude that the listeners won't figure out the ingenuineness. So next time you hear that sitar in the rock song, that blues melody in the pop tune, that electronic beat in the folk song, consider why these specific elements are congealing in the melting pot. It may be due to a profound adoration of another culture's music. It may be intentionally parodic. It might just sound cool, and honestly, that might be the only reason anybody has ever needed.