Melding Indian and Western music at Sacramento City College
For 5,000 years, the classical music of India has been an aural tradition, its methods and techniques passed down in a direct lineage, called gharana, from teacher to student, who traditionally were blood relatives. Students learn solely by listening and imitating the sounds and techniques of their teacher.
So it is in the Indian Classical Fusion Improvisation course at Sacramento City College. Nearly 20 students, instruments in hand, gathered on Wednesday, August 23, for the first of a semester’s worth of classes that will examine Indian music and its relevance to Western musicians. Instructor Matthew Grasso, a guitarist with the Nada Brahma Music Ensemble and a disciple of Indian classical music, teaches through lecture and through playing, emphasizing both the intimacy of the student-teacher relationship and the necessity of listening skills for musicians.
Grasso, a slim man with a shock of jet-black hair, has been a guitarist since age 12. After studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he set out to enrich his musical vocabulary at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, where he studied under the Indian maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Khan, a virtuoso on the sarode, a traditional stringed instrument, is credited with bringing Indian music to the Western public’s attention with a 1955 concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was the first televised performance of Indian music, and it played a large role in the popularization of Indian culture in the ’60s. Khan opened his music college in San Rafael in 1967 and still teaches there today.
Musical fusion is tricky stuff. Bringing together Indian music and Western forms can have dubious results, the flower-power era being a perfect example. The sound of a sitar in a rock song quickly became a hackneyed touchstone, one that often evokes visions of hippy-drippy ridiculousness. Sadly, the sitar, a revered solo instrument, is still being used as a cheap reference in pop music, and tabla, the traditional drums of India, are popping up in contemporary recordings, courtesy of producers like Timbaland, with mixed results. The fundamental problem of fusion is finding ways to meld the traditions as seamlessly as possible, and to do so one has to understand how they both work.
Indian classical music is based on two principles, raga and tala. “Raga,” explained Grasso, “means ‘that which colors the mind.’” It is both a scale and a melody, and there are literally thousands of them, the sound of each one being associated with an emotional state or setting. Tala is a rhythmic cycle, equally complicated and often difficult for Western musicians to master. Unlike Western music, there are no chords or chordal harmonies, though the ringing tones of the raga do form simple ones, and there are no “changes” as we know in the West. Nor is there counterpoint, where melodic lines play against one another to create harmony and motion. There is just melody, rhythm and the expertise of the musicians.
“The best Western musicians are barely kindergarteners next to Indian musicians,” Grasso explained with a wry smile. “For me, coming from the conservatory, learning the Indian tala was a humbling experience.”
Asked what basic concepts he hoped his students would take away from the course, Grasso answered, “To be able to find the common denominators that connect the two traditions and to develop a deeper rhythmic vocabulary which they can apply to their playing in Western styles.”
The students themselves, most in their 20s, overwhelmingly expressed similar reasons for taking the course, wanting primarily to add to their improvisatory skills.
With an hour of time left in the first class, the students began tuning up. Grasso’s assistant, tabla player and drummer Alex Jenkins, set a rhythmic pattern, while Grasso improvised on a raga. In turn, the intrepid students began playing along, on guitars, bass and violin, with others singing, repeating the tune until they had it memorized. And so, another link in the gharana is formed.