Is India the Root of All Music?

Back in college, I was dropped from all of my elective classes, and in a desperate attempt to fill up my schedule, I decided to take a class on ethnomusicology – the music of Africa and the Middle East. The class started out with descriptions of the music of Africa, however, the professor, an expert in Indian and Iranian music, quickly began to focus on the sounds, styles and instruments of the Middle East. I learned that the musical styles of the Arab world, North Africa, and the adjoining countries all share similar stylistic and instrumental roots with an emphasis on improvisation, handheld drums and stringed instruments. Despite my initial skepticism, I began to really get into it, listening to live performances in town and on campus. Now, I really enjoy listening to music with the distinctive and exotic sounds of the east. I decided to investigate the origins and characteristics of Indian music.

Middle Eastern music, including that of India has its’ roots in the same Vedic traditions of the Indo-Aryan culture. It has its’ origins in a region extending from South-eastern Europe in the west, the Caucasus and the “Stan” countries, regions surrounding the Black and Caspian seas in the north, and Mesopotamia in the south, extending down along the coast of Persian Gulf to the Indus river. According to recent mitochondrial genetic mapping studies, this was one of the first cradles of humanity as people migrated from their original home in sub-Saharan Africa. Needless to say, all this happened thousands of years ago. Evidence of these cultures goes back to the 15th century BC, and even the Vedas themselves along with the Yasna Zoroastrian texts date back to around 1000 BC.

In the Vedas, particularly the Samaveda, you can find the origins of the modern classical Indian music. It contains rules and melodies called ragas that correspond to the different chakras used in meditation and religious hymn chanting, similar to the western musical concept of the mode. Each raga contains a selection of the seven notes of the Indian Swara or scale around which a melody may be structured(SA RE GA MA PA DA NI SA).

It creates the framework for musical composition in Indian music, particularly improvisation with stringed instruments and the voice. The vocal solos sound very similar to the Arab maqam, using the same nasal, resonant tones and complex, ornamental syllables improvised over a droning instrumental accompaniment. The structure of the music itself is very much similar to that of the Arab world because, both share common Indo-Aryan origins. Even the instruments are similar.

Indian instruments fall into several categories: drums, bowed and plucked string instruments, flutes, and reed instruments. The drums are played largely by hand or with wooden hammers or mallets, and may be one or two sided. The stringed instruments like the ektara or the sitar, which Pandit Ravi Shankar brought to fame among western audiences, make use of a resonating body, or even sympathetic non-played strings to produce a unique resonant sound much like the Arab oud or rebab. The flutes and reed instruments have very similar shapes, particularly the algoza and the Arab ney, which look like clarinets and provide a classic Indian sound in modern Bhangra music along with the ektar and the dhol, two-headed drum.

Bhangra is a fusion of classic Indian and modern electronic sounds performed by artists like Punjabi MC and Malkit Singh. Music with Indo-Aryan origins can be found over a vast portion of the world, influencing the instrumentation, style, and performance of virtually all cultures except those in Australia and the new world. In fact, all stringed and reed woodwind instruments can be traced back to that culture. To hear what this music sounds like, you need only watch Slumdog Millionaire or make a trip to Youtube or Pandora (Samples –Track 1, Track 2, Track 3, Track 4).

I have loved the sound of music like this ever since that first class back in college and look forward to hearing more live in India.

What do you think of the fusion of east and west in today’s music? Do you think Indian artists will develop a following worldwide? Do you agree that Indian music shares its roots with a lot of other cultural music? Will the sharing of pop culture and music in today’s global society have any impact on India’s rise to power as a nation?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is India the Root of All Music?

  1. Jeff Severn says:

    In 1965, I remember hearing the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” from the Rubber Soul album. It was the first time I’d heard the strange but alluring sound of the Sitar. I think it was the first released Western pop song to feature the Sitar.
    George Harrison (who was playing the Sitar) later did take lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar and Shambhu Das.
    The Beatles spent enough time in India to write two albums worth of music during their stay.
    On a side-note, Nora Jones is Ravi Shankar’s daughter

  2. Danielle Steussy says:

    Last Sunday, I was listening to a cultural music show on NPR while working on homework. I wasn’t paying much attention to the music until a catchy song started playing and drew my mind away from my studies. It had a distinct Indian flavor but with a strong dash of western pop and jazz. I waited until the song was over and took down the name of the artist, Shankar Mahadevan, so I could immediately download it from iTunes. As it turns out, he’s an Indian artist who composes music for Bollywood movies. I was so intrigued by his style of music that incorporates western genres but still keeps it’s Indian identity. Amidst all the musical travesties being produced in the United States currently, I think Americans are already embracing this musical fusion, as was evident by Slumdog Millionaire’s “Best Original Song” and “Best Original Score” last Oscar season and the exposure of such artists like Shankar Mahadevan.

  3. I definitely agree with you that Indian music shares its root with other cultural music, but as a fan of punk rock and loud grungy nonsense, I don’t think it belongs in all music genres. The ektara and sitar seem to be the Indian version of the guitar, but it will never replace a guitar in wester music. Just like the ukelele has its place in some pop songs, it is never used in hip hop, metal, or punk rock. These Indian instruments and their artists have an amazing and beautiful sound, but that sound turns to racket if it is fused with the wrong kind of western music. Imagine if 50 cent serenaded us with the voluptuous sounds of the sitar in the background. I don’t know what you imagine, but I imagine something unpleasant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *