Toward an American Raga - I
What does it mean to try to establish or sketch out or even think of a school of “American raga”? In fact why raga at all?
If you are thinking of playing in a raga style, it must be because you have heard Indian classical music and felt it resonate in your soul. That primary experience should always be kept in mind as we explore what it might mean to bring the raga approach to our own explorations.
I will not attempt to define what raga means, other than to say that it is a fractal kind of word. By that I mean that it refers to the scale of a tune, the melody and known structures of performances, and to the actual living improvised performance of the tune. It is that last term which is of vital importance for this discussion. There are many fine websites online for you to explore the traditional Indian meaning of the word raga.
One way to pursue that primary soul experience of raga would be to immerse oneself in the Indian system of music itself and attempt to become a practitioner. For those tempted to this path, be forewarned of the tremendous demands this path will make. Indian music is a tradition of several thousand years standing, and is a self-contained musical universe with no relationship at all to Western music or Western theory. Moreover, the path of the aspiring musician demands hours of practice every day, and it’s usual “arc” assumes at least 10 years of steady practice before playing one’s first raga. The greatest recent master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, was trained by his father, the legendary musical genius Allauddin Khan, and from the age of 6 onward Khansahib (as he is affectionately and reverently referred to) practiced 18 hours a day, most of the time with his father in attendance correcting his every mistake. In fact, this kind of musical training was really only made possible by the old social order of the rajas, who were wealthy enough to fund music schools within their palaces and support the musicians and their families for life. For this reason, Khansahib acknowledged that even within the Indian tradition itself, he might be the last of the traditional players.
All of which is why I decided not to attempt that path myself. In addition, I am also deeply steeped in Western music and have no desire to abandon its influences.
How to respond to the beauty of Indian classical music? As a musician, what can one do to try to open one’s own practice to something deeper and more beautiful? If not to assimilate oneself to the Indian tradition, it is to do what one can to bring as much of the approach into one’s own native practice, without becoming a “wannabe Indian”. Along the way, we might see that by not trying to recreate the Indian tradition we are also allowing the greatness and beauty that already exists in Western classical music to flow into our process too. This already begins to create the setting of an American raga, the sense of inclusiveness.
Then, what are the essential elements of Indian classical music that are translatable or transferable to our American experience? And what are the commonalties of our experience of the beauty of music?
I think one must return to the most basic response we have when thunderstruck by a piece of beautiful music. Personally, that experience has always been as though someone had cut open the top of my skull and allowed me to float up and experience a totally new landscape of feeling I had never suspected existed. Sometimes one feels just a huge expansion of one’s heart. If you have experienced anything like this, being struck with awe, delight, a new-found freedom and magnification of expression and feeling, then it would be wise to keep this living experience enshrined in your heart as you move forward: this is what we hope to achieve as we play and explore music, not the mere replication of a shadow of someone else’s expression or tradition.
Having said all that about the primary and primal experience of beauty in music, common to all music and cultures, I will then say that I have reached the conclusion that an “American raga” is not possible without the presence of a spiritual practice of some kind. Looking at the millennia-old system of Indian classical music, one sees that the music is intimately and totally integrated with Hindu and Muslim cosmology and spiritual practice. Indeed, the Indian raga and music has been called a “technology of spiritual exploration”. Even within the Indian system itself one is supposed to work with a guru. Can there be any denying that our experience of Indian music is so striking for the very reason that it consciously and directly resonates with our inmost experiences and aspirations? I think not.
To attempt to build a system of American raga without incorporating a spiritual practice would be to reduce everything to technique and mimicry, trying to make Indian-music-like sounds. This is doomed to failure (which has been proven over and over again as Western musicians make shallow attempts to incorporate Indian music into their styles). In this, my own first raga-style teacher Robbie Basho was correct in insisting “soul first, technique later.” However, I would modify his saying to the much less punchy “soul is primary; technique supports and helps give expression to soul”. I do not share Robbie’s disdain for technique, and will have a lot to say on that score later. The bottom line, though, is that without soul, without one’s own personal on-going spiritual practice, trying to bring Indian music into a Western approach becomes just a mechanical replication of scales and riffs.
You will notice that I do not try to define what your spiritual practice should be: this in itself begins to point to a more “American” approach to raga, and opens the way to complexity and richness.
Trying to import Indian music whole hog into our music is a temptation for the mind: the mind loves systems and Indian music has had several millennia to contemplate and systematize itself. Ragas are associated with particular gods and goddesses, with seasons, with times of day, and specific emotional states. I would just make a pitch for you to pay more attention to your heart than your mind in this essential matter. It is a much darker and more difficult path, but the only one that will keep your music authentic and your own light burning strongly. Mindfulness is the "sine qua non" of this approach.
Given a spiritual basis and practice, what are the other things about Indian ragas that are essential and that we can bring into our own American practice?
I’ll take up what I feel to be the central elements that can be brought over into an American raga in my next essay, but I’ll say for now that I believe them to include the following:
· -- The connection of the voice to soul, to body and to the world
· -- thus, a MELODY-DRIVEN music, melody understood as the expression of the soul
· -- A sense of ABSOLUTE SCALE: notes as “states and stages”
· -- The lessons of fretless instruments
· -- IMPROVISATION
· -- RASA: the full spectrum of emotions and their place in our spiritual journey
· -- Rhythmic complexity
· -- And, formal elements such as ALAP, “ragmala”, various sections of a raga performance