by: Larry Momaya, MD
What purpose does music serve? If we look closely, music is usually for more than to just relax. Music evokes emotion in us, be it peace, love, happiness, sadness or even anger. We may even self-medicate with music; when we feel low, we put on something to lift our spirits. Or when we feel low, we may put on a sad music piece to identify with someone else, which in turn alleviates a little sadness within us. Musicians have known the art of emotional therapy through their voices and instruments for many centuries, especially Indian Classical musicians.
Indian Classical music has been passed down, usually from father to son, for hundreds of years. There are over a dozen common instruments that have been mastered through the centuries by the Ustads and Pundits (the Muslim masters and the Hindu masters, respectively). When we say "master" we are referring to a person who has devoted much of his or her waking life to their instrument as a devotion to gods. These people have been blessed with their traditional Gharana (ethnic school of music that begins around age four) that they must adhere to with great respect and humility, as well as a rigorous training. Often they are trained in vocal and/or percussion even prior to learning their destined instrument. It should also be noted that Indian Classical music is subdivided into the Hindustani classical from the north, and the Carnatic from the south of India. This article focuses primarily on the North Indian classical music style.
With the fame and familiarity of Ravi Shankar, most people know about the sitar, the traditional string instrument of India. But Pandit-ji is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Indian Classical music. Instruments range from the sitar to the sarod, sarangi, violin, santoor, dilruba, surbahar (all strings), to the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute), to the tabla and pakhawaj (classical drums), to the harmonium (air organ), to the voice itself. In addition to learning the instruments and how to tune them (which can take hours), the musicians then take on the task of learning the ragas and talas, roughly, "melodies" and "beats."
It's hard to describe exactly what a raga or raag is. Simply said, they might be described as melodies, the set of notes used in the octave scale that you follow to play a piece of music. These particular notes, including their appropriate flats and sharps, together color a musical piece to evoke a particular mood. And herein lies the magic. Playing a certain set of notes determines whether the piece is supposed to be played at night or in the morning. It determines whether it is a romantic piece or a devotional bhajan for the gods. It determines whether it may be played at a wedding or a funeral. And the artists have mastered this so well that often the listener, without knowing what the raag is exactly, can discover within him/herself a sense of joy, sorrow, love or hate, simply based on the power of the raag.
As a matter of fact, before I went into medical school, I became fascinated with the concept of superlearning: being able to acquire and remember large amounts of information with relative ease. I dabbled in self-hypnosis and soon discovered the phenomenon of classical music, but specifically, Indian Classical music as a means to reach higher states of consciousness. Through my readings, I found that by listening to this music, I could reach higher states of mind, similar to meditation, enabling the mind to be free of distractions and noise, and enable it to focus sharply and with clarity, when needed. Much has been written on the phenomenon, but not much is attributed to Indian Classical music as a method and as an experience.
The taal is the rhythmic structure which is also strictly adhered to and accompanies the instrument/vocalist. The beats can range from 3 to 108, but the most common beats are teental [16 bts], ektaal [12 beats] and roopak taal [7 beats]. The tabla is the traditional drum of Indian Classical music which, over the last 20 years, with the help of the late Ustad Alla Rakha and now his son, Ustad Zakir Hussain, has transformed itself from simply an accompanying rhythm to a significant solo instrument. Indeed, tabla solo performances by the great Swapan Chaudris, Anindo Chatterjees, Shubunker Banerjees mesmerize audiences with their elaborate and intricate mathematical beat counts and heart pounding effects. If rhythm could ever have a voice, it would be the tablas sung by the great tabal-jis, like the masters named above.
Often the instrumentalist and the tabla player do a little play back and forth during a piece. It should be remembered that all live performances are improvised. The players, not only sticking to their adhered-to beats and melodies, actually improvise everything they play. This is truly incredible, especially when often the two performers may have never rehearsed and are playing at quadruple speed (very commonly done in the gat part of the piece).
All of this looks great in writing, but it sounds absolutely hypnotic when listened to. And where else can you hear this type of music, but on KUCI?
KUCI hosts a program called "Bombay Beat Science" Sundays 6-8pm PST. The show features not only Indian Classical music, but also traditional bhajans, ghazals, and folk songs from India. Bollywood filmi music is also included into the "Bombay Mix" during the first hour. The second hour is the "Bombay Chill-out" with longer, classical pieces played out in their entirety.
You can also enjoy the phenomenon of Indian electronica, also labeled as "Asian Massive," "Tabla and Bass," or "Buddha Beats." This genre of music has been created by second generation Indian-Americans or English Indians who have trained in the classical music from their cultural lineage, but who have also added a little adrenaline to make a unique new style of music heard in clubs all over Europe and the states. Forefathers in this genre do not simply mix hip-hop beats to original music, but rather create a new music that symbolizes the new identity they have themselves become, one that appeals universally across cultures, and also retains its desi roots. Artists include DJ Cheb I Sabbah, Karsh Kale, Talvin Singh and the MIDIval Punditz.
Why listen to Indian music? Experience music that will transport you into another world. As a psychiatrist and lover this genre of music myself, I have witnessed the positive mental effects of Indian classical music insofar as helping promote tranquility, lower stress, and possibly even increase intelligence. At the very least, it's great music. But, beware, you may find yourself addicted to the mind-bending tabla rhythms and appreciate the fact that the music is not only an art, but actually is a Beat Science.
Larry Momaya, MD
Prior host of "A Look Inside"