As with most people of my generation, I was first exposed to “Indian” music by The Beatles. When George Harrison got interested in Eastern religion, philosophy and music, it started showing up in the group’s songs, starting with the sitar-guitar duet on “Norwegian Wood.”
Other musicians followed suit, and the whole trend came to a head when Harrison had sitar master Ravi Shankar play at the massive benefit, Concert for Bangladesh, which was released as a multiple-record album in 1972. One full side of the set consisted of Shankar and his accompanists performing a raga, after Shankar asked the audience to please not smoke or talk during the performance.
Other than that, and perhaps some playing in the background at one of the handful of Indian restaurants I’ve been to in my life, I know very little about this kind of music.
Well, now I know a little bit more, thanks to this impressive book. Subtitled A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas, The Raga Guide is an exhaustive and scholarly work, aimed primarily at musicians and serious students of music. It comes with four CDs, each containing 18 to 20 “condensed” versions of classical ragas. The ragas themselves feature either sarod (a sitar-like stringed instrument), flute, or male or female vocal soloists.
The book begins with a definition of ragas and an explanation of how they are constructed and performed. This is followed by the main section of the book, in which each of the 74 ragas in question is written out in both Western and Indian notation. Next is a series of “plates” or pictures, reproductions of paintings called raginis, which illustrate a classical Hindustani tale, and to which one or more of the ragas is also related.
The four CDs are contained in plasticine pockets affixed to the inside of the front and rear covers of the book, which is, conveniently, about two CDs tall.
All ragas have three main sections. In the first (alap), the basic scale is laid out (or at least alluded to) by the main instrument or vocalist, accompanied only by the droning of the stringed tanpura. In a full raga performance, this section can last several minutes and sounds to Western ears like the instruments are being tuned; on this collection, the alap lasts at most about a minute.
Next comes the jod and jhala sections in which the piece’s structure is revealed. The jod is medium-tempo, the jhala is faster. Rhythm is supplied by a tabla, a variable-toned drum.
Classical Indian music uses the same basic eight-tone scale as Western music, but also allows much freer use of the tones (sharps, flats and other microtones) in between the basic notes. As a consequence, the vocal performances can sound whiny to Western ears. The effect is a little less noticeable on the sarod, but the sound remains distinctly foreign.
On the flute, however, the slurring of the scale into sharps, flats and other microtones lends the piece a very jazzy sound, one which sounds much less alien. If I had a newer programmable CD player, I’d probably put all four CDs in and set it to play just the flute pieces, perhaps interspersed with a few of the sarod compositions.
This book and the accompanying CDs are not for popular or casual consumption. The abbreviated ragas are a good idea, as is the use of the colorful related artwork, and an explanation of what ragas are all about. But the text of this book is highly technical, written with professional musicians or upper-level students in mind. The ragas on the CDs are arranged in alphabetical order, rather than in a sequence that makes for an optimal listening experience. The plates are arranged like some older birding guides, with the explanatory text totally separate from the plates themselves, even though there’s plenty of room on the plate pages for the text.
I’d like to see Nimbus (or anybody else, for that matter) put out a one- or two-CD package, with some explanatory text written for non-musicians, and a few pages of art in an accompanying booklet — and probably featuring mostly the instrumental ragas with a light sprinkling of the vocal ones. Such a package would be a good introduction to ragas for the average Western listener who is interested in but intimidated by the music. This book-and-CD collection is not the package for the general public, although I’m sure it’s invaluable for the serious student of the genre.
(Nimbus Records, 1999)