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 â€œStanâ€ 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?