The Saga of Rock and Raga

George Harrison, President Gerald Ford and Ravi Shankar in 1974 (Image: David Hume Kennerly/ Public Domain)
When Rock strums the Raga, the 'east' meets the 'west' and the fusion manifests in an evolutionary musical zeitgeist.

It is strange to see pop musicians with Sitars.

It is perhaps the most famous video of the musician Pandit Ravi Shankar. Sitting before him is George Harrison of the Beatles, eagerly strumming away at a Sitar many times bigger than the guitars he was used to.

I was confused at first. It had too little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think. But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene. It’s peculiar. But out of this, a real interest is growing.

By the time the music maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar reflected on this phenomenon in 1968, the East had firmly entrenched itself in the dominant music of the west. At the time, they called it Raga rock. Bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds fused Indian instruments into their work. Sitars and harmoniums added to the canvas of psychedelic rock. Norwegian Wood, most well known, is a classic Beatles number with a Sitar thrown in for good measure. But other songs, such as “Within You Without You” (from Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band) are significantly based on Indian classical composition.

A Lady Playing the Tanpura, 1735 (Image: Fletcher Fund, Public Domain)

The Beatles historic journey to India inspired a generation more of hippie backpackers – who also decided they wanted to ‘find themselves’ in this ancient country. In an article published in the Journal of Musicology titled “Indian Resonances in the British Invasion“, Jonathan Bellman discusses how this influence came to be. The rise of psychedelic rock in the United States was at first called the “British invasion” – for it was dominated by British groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals. But this British invasion came with significant Indian influences.

George Harrison led the Beatles to ‘discover’ India. Ironically, his fascination grew from a scene the band was shooting at Twickenham Film Studios, for the movie “Help!”, set in a fictional Indian restaurant called Rajahamsa. Soon, Harrison was led to Ravi Shankar, from whom he took many lessons in the Sitar. To be fair, the Beatles weren’t the first to use a sitar in Western rock. Folk guitarist Sandy Bull’s 1963 “Fantasia” could be considered the first adaptation – but Harrison was the most famous musician to give Indian classical music its own due. In not just adapting Indian instruments to Western form but adapting the mode of the raga as well; albeit without its signature style.

It didn’t take long for the British invasion to become an Indian one. Harihar Rao was Ravi Shankar’s longest-running protege, and in 1966, he collaborated with the Folkswingers to release “Raga Rock” – a collection of Indian-style covers of popular rock songs. There are too many bands to mention who adapted this style, and there are a plethora of examples of the genre.

One thing about Raga rock is that it’s not necessarily about Ragas or rock. It was an early form of a genre that later became known as ‘World Music’ – where elements of Eastern music were fused with those of the West. Such a definition is necessarily broad – and the words ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ only goes so far to ascribe meaning.

In the same decade, The Tokens released “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“, which bore influences from African folk songs and percussion effects. The song was later featured in the 1995 animated film, the Lion King. In the U.S., an American-Indianist movement was also present in art music, incorporating native American musical influences. World Music, in its early days, was a term for the growing merger of jazz and classical music. It later came to incorporate the idea that any non-Western musical form could be adapted to the classic rock or pop format. In the 1980s, it grew more diverse – utilizing non-English recordings such as Tuvan throat singers, Zimbabwean guitar and Pakistani Qawwali (to name a few) and bringing greater variety into the mainstream. As fusion grew in its vocabulary, distinct genres such as ‘Vedic metal‘ appeared that were more easily typecast than those of raga rock and world music.

How important was that fateful meeting between Harrison and Ravi Shankar? The former’s sitar now auctions for $62,500. And while Ravi Shankar owed a great deal of his international fame to his Beatles connection, he regretted that the ensuing culture was so drug-addled. Did rock import the raga only to trip on its psychedelic hues?

Ultimately, music is an ongoing evolution of merging influences. Indian classical music has now taken to fusion with as much enthusiasm as the West first took to the sitar. Raga rock was a moment of the zeitgeist, and it led to a greater global collaboration of cultures. Scales and ragas alike would never be the same.


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