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Global Sounds: India's Influence on Music

Kristina Wemyss looks at how Indian culture, genres and artists have played a role in shaping international music.

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This new series, ‘Global Sounds’, is a place for people to share their love of music from different cultures and encourage others to broaden their musical horizons. In this installment, I will be exploring the influence of Indian music on Western culture.

For most people, I’m sure that when the words ‘Indian music’ are mentioned, Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ from The Dictator soundtrack or ‘Jai Ho’ plays in the back of their head. However, beyond these stereotypes, the relationship between Western and Indian music runs far deeper than you might think.

Music is an integral part of Indian culture; traditionally, instrumental and vocal skills are taught to younger generations by their elders and songs for different occasions are passed down through oral tradition or word of mouth. Also, music is a very personal art form in India as improvisation plays a huge part, which means that the artist is able to put their own spin on traditional pieces. In this sense, classical Indian music could be compared to jazz; it’s no wonder that greats such as John Coltrane ventured into Indian styles in order to break free from the constraints of Western chord structures and conventions.

A clear turning point in Western musical history was of course the 1960s. As musicians like the Beatles became more experimental, they turned to Indian culture for inspiration. As one of the most influential groups of Western music, they played an enormous role in bringing Indian music into the Western eye. They first incorporated instruments like sitars, following George Harrison’s mentorship by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Later, they also went on to follow structural and tonal ideas, taking inspiration from Indian talas and ragas.

Many other artists consequently followed suit and even if they did not directly use Indian instruments, they often used Western instruments in Indian ways. Most notably, the Yardbirds’ ‘Heart Full of Soul’ and the Kinks’ ‘See My Friends’ used guitars to imitate the sound of the sitar.

While Indian music helped to shape new genres of Western music in the 1960s and 70s, its influence is enduring. Now, Indian features might be less pronounced, but psychedelic rockers of the 21st century have continued this modern tradition of incorporating Asian influences into their songs. To name but a few, artists such as Tame Impala, Glass Animals and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have produced intriguing worldly amalgamations of musical styles, and displayed clear Indian influences.

India itself is a hugely diverse country in terms of different religions, languages and culture; consequently, it also has a plethora of music to offer too. Nowadays, there are far more than the three styles that we might all be familiar with: Bollywood, bhangra and classical. Just as India has influenced our music, so too have we influenced theirs. Now, Western artists are very popular with Indian youth. So much so, that they have developed their own Indian rock and Indi-pop genres. Admittedly, the songs that are borne of these new genres are noticeably different from what we are familiar with in the UK. Nonetheless, they show that Indian music is becoming ever more varied.

In terms of Bollywood, while it is important to acknowledge that this isn’t the only music that India has to offer, I also think that we shouldn’t dismiss it as a genre. In direct translation, the lyrics might seem a little ridiculous to us, with lovesick men and women constantly pining after one another, or celebrating when they inevitably get together. Bollywood has a name for being predictable, melodramatic and cringy, but actually these Western perceptions stem from our own musical snobbery.

It’s a shame if we limit the amount of music that we are able to enjoy because of our prejudices, as Bollywood can actually be quite fun! I would definitely recommend listening to some of the songs or even watching a light-hearted Bollywood classic if you really want to get a sense of the culture. For example, 3 Idiots is a great place to start for people who are not familiar with Bollywood, as it has a less traditional storyline, following three friends through university, with a great collection of songs to accompany their antics. All in all, Indian music shouldn’t be dismissed. Look beyond the stereotypes, find some songs that you enjoy and remember that your favourite genres have probably been influenced by Indian music.

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