The coming together of varied musical styles, cultures and traditions of the world gave us what we know as ‘fusion music’ today. The genuine interest of some of the artists to move out of their respective comfort zones to understand or pick up the styles of the artists belonging to cultures and systems other than their own, and mix their unique sounds with those of other musicians led to ‘fusion music’.
The genre started to gain popularity in the late 1960s when Hindustani classical musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ananda Shankar and others started collaborating with musicians from the West, paving the way for Western and Indian musicians to collaborate and make new music. Pt. Shankar’s pathbreaking collaborations with the famous American violinist, Yehudi Menuhin and the celebrated George Harrison, from The Beatles, opened up an absolutely new era. It is striking how Pt. Shankar or Ustad Ali Akbar Khan collaborated with the non-Indian musicians while staying firmly rooted in the tradition of Indian classical music.
One has to also acknowledge the fact that the birth of Indo-western fusion music is not an isolated incident. In the 1960s, during the height of Cold War and the polarisation of the world, marketing ‘soft-powers’ became one of the prime tools of influence for both the United States and the USSR. While communist Russia treated literature and science as their quintessential ‘soft-powers’ to spread their culture, the US started to market and promote their art-industry – primarily the Hollywood and their popular music. The 1960s saw the rise of jazz music in India. Park Street in Calcutta, soon became the ‘jazz street’ of the country, where jazz could be found seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in pubs like The Trincas, Blue Fox, Moulin Rouge etc. Rock bands started to form in Calcutta, New Delhi, Bombay, Madras etc. During the same time, the understanding and the acceptability of Indian music, especially Hindustani Classical music, grew rapidly among musicians in the United States of America and Pandit Ravi Shankar became one of the most popular influencers and was featured in most of the major music festivals in the late 60s and the early 70s – from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California to the 1969 Woodstock Festival to the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York.
But one project that made a real difference in the history of Indo-western fusion music was the collaboration of Carnatic classical percussionists Ramnad Raghavan and T. H. Vinayakaram, Carnatic and jazz violinist L. Shankar, Hindustani classical tabla player Zakir Hussain and British jazz guitarist John Mclaughlin, who got together to form the experimental fusion project called, “Shakti”. Not only was it a fusion of Euro-American and Indian music, it was also a fusion of the Hindustani and Carnatic Classical music. The release of their collaborative debut album, Shakti with John Mclaughlin in 1976, propelled Indo-western fusion music as one of the popular genres of music in the world, both in terms of performers and audience. Projects and bands like Shakti, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Quintessence brought a revolution in Indo-western fusion music.
By the 1990s, Indian fusion music was no longer confined to the independent or underground music circles. It soon became a part of the Bollywood backed commercial and popular music industry of the country and artists like A.R. Rahman and Colonial Cousins really taking the genre to a whole new level of expertise.
The current scenario of fusion music in India boasts a number of artists who are experimenting with sounds and genres, often crossing over to genres other than their own. A host of new venues – pubs, cafes, music festivals hosting live acts have come up to support this new generation of musicians who have begun to take pride in their regional repertoire of music and are, therefore, aiming to take their music to an international audience by giving their traditional songs a western touch. Several Indian classical musicians and bands are taking an interest in fusion music, which is leading to a greater number of new album releases and live fusion performances per year.
Among the fairly recent collaborations that have been recorded and released as music albums, the collaboration between the illustrious Amjad Ali Khan family and the renowned American folk singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer stands apart with the two forms of Indian classical and American folk music beautifully blending in their album, Everything is Everywhere. The ethereal low sounds of the sarod complementing Newcomer’s deeply resonant voice reflect the power and depth of fusion music. There’s something truly remarkable about the collaborative works of Shubha Mudgal who has explored different forms of music including pop and fusion. To her credit, she has albums like Ankahi which presents a rich blend of fusion of Hindustani vocal music and Western instrumental music. One Stranger Here by Shubha Mudgal, Ursula Rucker and Business Class Refugees, released in 2011 is a product of one such cross-cultural artistic exchange that wove diverse musical perspectives and cultures together. Anoushka Shankar, Pt. Shankar’s daughter, who is said to have inherited her experimental nature from his guru and father, is currently one of the neo-fusion artists who believe in pushing boundaries and improvising with different styles of music. Her tunes draw heavily from genres like flamenco and electronica, fused with Hindustani classical music, especially her 2016 album, Land of Gold, reflects her love for fusion with its eclectic soundscape.
Tabla Beat Science formed in 1999 by Bill Laswell and Zakir Hussain, presented a fusion of Indian classical, jazz and electronica. In 2000, some of the most renowned percussionists and fusion artists, Trilok Gurtu, Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale joined the duo to create Tala Matrix that can be hailed as one of the greatest contributions to instrumental fusion music. Other influential electro-fusion musicians of the country are Talvin Singh and the Midival Punditz.
Bands and projects like Indian Ocean, Advaita, Raghu Dixit Project, Swarathma, Avial, Mrigya and Baiju Dharmajan Syndicate are truly responsible for redefining Indo-Rock fusion in India. While they improvise with western scales and modes yet they are to a large extent deeply rooted to the music of the motherland.
With the live music industry rapidly growing to attract a larger audience and the new fusion bands creating quite a buzz with their original music, the new and upcoming fusion artists are depending on live music festivals, digital platforms and social media to make people believe in their style of music that is so different from genre-bound music. The fusion music scene looks brilliantly promising with all the young and talented musicians who want to integrate different forms of music to create fresh sounds, and are ready to face any challenge that their journey may involve. The artists have chosen their music to be the medium through which they can express themselves and convey their message to the world.
At the heart of any fusion music there is an urge to unite. It is only when an artist rises above the constraints of a particular style and tradition that true fusion is accomplished and a greater freedom of expression is achieved.