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


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.

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