The Dawn of Indian Music

The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi
Peter Lavezzoli
Continuum hardback, no price listed.

In April 1955, Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and tabla player Chatur Lal gave the first full performance of Indian classical music in the USA at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For Peter Lavezzoli, the event, which was soon issued as the first ever LP of Indian classical music as Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas, marks The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin introduced the duo, John D. Rockefeller and a variety of socialites, classical music big names and others attended, the New York Times and New Yorker applauded. The recording would inspire La Monte Young and many others, setting off waves which, as Lavezzoli documents in this substantial book, later manifested in minimalism, fusion, world music, jam bands and a catalog of other late 20th C musical forms.

Lavezzoli sets out an impressively rich history, in a series of chapters focused on individuals, with extensive Q and A interviews and a broader historical narrative woven throughout. Khan, Ravi Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha emerge as the key figures, meeting up with an impressive and exhausting percentage of the key western musical performers of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a history of hybrid forms, as “Indian classical music” mutates in a rapidly shifting global political environment in which authenticity is revered, even as film, radio, western spiritual seekers, rock and jazz musicians tear it apart and repackage it for their own purposes.

The book’s strength – its attention to detail – is also its weakness. Lavezzoli’s musical worldview is rather mainstream. The most well known names are covered exhaustively: George Harrison, John McLaughlin, The Grateful Dead, Terry Riley and John Coltrane, with Cheb i Sabbah tossed in at the end. The focus on these names means that many of the more original interpreters and students of Indian classical music are ignored, including Henry Flynt, Charlemagne Palestine and Arthur Russell (who studied with Akbar Khan). The use of raga in folk music by musicians like Davey Graham, Sandy Bull and John Fahey in the 1960s (much of it predating its use in pop and rock) is absent – as are the new folk raga sounds of Matt Valentine or Pelt. Italian born dhrupad singer and student of the Dagar Brothers Amelia Cuni, to my mind the greatest Western master of Indian classical music performing today, is not mentioned at all. Nor for that matter are influential sarangi master Ram Narayan or hippie trickster Bhagavan Das. Bizarrely, Pandit Pran Nath is tucked into a chapter on Riley, while David Crosby and Roger McGuinn get 26 pages to themselves.

There are real questions about the historical focus too. While MoMA in 1955 was no doubt a key moment in the popularization of Indian classical music, surely reports of raga must have appeared somewhere in the long history of the British colonization of India. Certainly there were scholarly accounts: French Indologist Alain Danielou is brushed aside as a purveyor of substandard street musician recordings, yet Danielou spent 20 years in India beginning in 1932, wrote prolifically about Indian music from the 1930s on, was appointed director of a college of Indian music in Benares in 1949, and his Religious Music of India recordings were issued by Folkways in 1952. His recordings of the Dagar Brothers and others are among the jewels in the history of recorded sound. Which is all to say that the story is much more remarkable than Lavezzoli suggests. Nevertheless, omissions aside, Lavezzoli’s book remains a useful introduction to a key current in 20th C musical history.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

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