Fusion as a genre has received widespread recognition in the past decade. However, Indian classical ideas were incorporated into Western music since well before the 70’s. Here are the pioneering bands and artists that paved the way for some of the best collaborations between the East and West.
Bands like The Byrds pioneered raga rock as a genre and era. Their single “Eight Miles High” was noted for its influence from Indian classical music and concepts, but it was “Why” that really established the sub-genre. David Crosby was attracted to Indian ragas and the drone-like qualities of the traditional indian music and this turned into inspiration after his introduction to Ravi Shankar’s music. With these releases, Indian influenced modal-improvisation became common usage in rock music and The Byrds were at the forefront of these psychedelic and raga rock movements.
Another English rock band that dabbled in Indian music was The Kinks. Their single “See My Friends” incorporated a sitar like tone and musicality with ragas played on an electric guitar. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Ray Davies said that he was impressed by India’s music while the band was touring in December 1964.They were very happy that they managed to capture the sound of a sitar using a western instrument. In an interview with Rolling Stone he said, “I got the idea from being in India. I always liked the chanting. When I wrote the song, I had the sea near Bombay in mind.”
The first appearance of a sitar in rock music was in that of the British band The Yardbirds. They utilized a sitar sound on their track Heart Full Of Soul, by emulating it on a guitar. Although they tried to use Indian musicians to play it on the original instruments and retain it’s pure sound, they never managed to make it past the recording stage. The single however, turned out to an instant hit upon release with audiences appreciating the innovation in sound. In the book “The Yardbirds” by John Platt, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, Jim said “the riff on the demo suggested a guitar, and that Georgio actually hired an Indian sitar player and tabla player.”
Considering how epic their widespread fame is, it’s not surprising that Indian classical music reached its epitome of fame in the west due to The Beatles. George Harrison, on meeting sitar maestro Sri Ravi Shankar in 1965, studied under him in India and composed “Norwegian Wood”, triggering widespread popularity of the instrument in what Sri Ravi Shankar described as ‘The Great Sitar Explosion’ of 1966-67. Apart from the music, The Beatles also incorporated Indian meditation into their way of life and Harrison also joined The Hare Krishna movement and embraced Hinduism.
John McLaughlin had studied under Sri Chinmoy, and was profoundly influenced by Indian music and culture. His style of fusion incorporated vastly intricate and impactful indian classical concepts along with blues and jazz to create some of the most influential fusion music of the era. Coupled with Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass, Jan hammer on synth and keys and Jerry Goodman on violin, this super group was established. Exploring a vast array of textures and ideas, the band created some of the most inspiring jazz-fusion music that is revered today.