Friday, February 5, 2010

Sitar: The Influence

Sitar has been on the psychedelic music scene since "Norwegian Wood," after a false start with the The Yardbirds title "Hearts Full of Soul," whose sitar version never really took off until many years later.

However, it was George Harrison, and a chance encounter with the sitar at a London music shop called India Craft, which really made the sitar a classic fad of the hippie ages. It was only someone with the musical caliber of Harrison, who could see a new instrument, say bingo! And learn to play it.

This story, probably, has a dramatic element that is not absolutely true. The sitar was a well-known instrument among jazz musicians like Coltrane and Davis, and a number of British musicians actively used the instrument. Peter Sellers used the sitar in the comic piece Goodness Gracious Me with Sophia Loren, which was an instant hit and must have been heard by the Beatles, who were Sellers's fans.

The sitar is an instrument that has a strange cultural history. It began with musical instruments of two divergent cultures; the Indian veena and the Iranian setar. It is said that in the 13th century, the famous Muslim musician Amir Khusro first created the sitar out of the veena's harmonic chords and the typical gourd. The veena is an ancient Indian string instrument, dating back to almost 5000 years.

The setar of Iran is also an instrument hoary with age, and their combination, the sitar, rightly deserved to become the mainstay of the Indian classical music that is a happy amalgamation of Islamic and Indian cultures. Here it ruled the courts of kings and emperors of India, where the sitar, along with the tabla, became the central instruments of classical Indian music of the Indo-Islamic schools.

It is interesting, therefore, that this same sitar has become so popular in the western world through the counter cultural movement that is hippie-ism, with its rock and roll and its Beatles and incessant Bingo playing at carnivals. It appears that this single instrument has the depth to bring together the musical aspirations of three different worlds and ages.

Any article on the sitar and its influence on psychedelic music needs to talk about Pandit Ravi Shankar. His first western collaboration had begun with Jazz, but after George Harrison came to learn Sitar from him during 2 idyllic weeks in Kashmir, Ravi Shankar became actively involved with the Beatles, and other musicians of that genre. He continued to collaborate on various musical projects with them and others, and almost single handedly made sitar a popular and exotic, musical instrument in the western musical scene.

Another well known sitar exponent was the Rolling Stones, especially in the song Paint It Black. Brian Jones, who had taught himself to play the sitar after an encounter with George Harrison, played the sitar in this Mick Jagger composition. This song has been used in scores of great movies and video games. It is often identified with the Vietnam War, since it was used in the ending credit of the war movie Full Metal Jacket. This song has a signature sitar riff that blends very well with the drums and the guitar of mainstream rock.

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