Ravi Shankar, Dave Brubeck, and The Politics Of Westernizing Music

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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.


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