On Friday, June 13th I received my first private lesson in Indian classical music (also known as Hindustani music) with GMI Faculty Ujwal Nagar. I was excited to go into the lesson knowing next to nothing about the genre and to learn from a young master of the style.
Ujwal began by setting up a speaker sounding a drone (a single note). In Indian classical music the note of the drone indicates the key of the piece, which is called a raag. The drone was kept on for the entire lesson. The title of the raag he taught me was “Raag Yaman”. The notes in the melody of this particular composition were derived from a specific scale (a set of seven notes) that Western musicians call “Lydian”. The melody of any raag never deviates from the given scale, which is one of the fundamental differences between Hindustani and Western styles of music. Jazz in particular is known for its tendency to use multiple scales in a single song to adhere to its rapidly changing chords. Since there are no set chords accompanying a raag’s melody, it can remain in the same scale.
At first listen one might think that it would be easier to improvise in Hindustani music than in jazz since each Hindustani piece only uses one scale while a jazz song requires constant alterations of the set of notes. However, we must consider the difficulty in creating something beautiful and unique with few options or variations at our disposal. Imagine trying to cook a delicious meal at home with minimal resources. It may be more challenging than executing an intricate recipe with unlimited ingredients in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant.
Learning “Raag Yaman” was challenging for me. Grasping the rhythm and structure of the melody were formidable tasks due to my inexperience. However, Ujwal and I discussed the similarities between jazz and Hindustani music that could inform my performance of this piece. In both styles the melody is played, then embellished and finally restated. Jazz and Indian classical pieces have a form and structure that needs to be followed during the playing of the melody and improvisation. They are the folk music of their countries of origin. Eastern music has been a source of inspiration for North American jazz musicians for decades, most notably saxophonist John Coltrane.
In my first month in New Dehli I experienced the power of cross-cultural musical interaction. In the rest of my lessons with Ujwal Nagar we will continue to share our knowledge of our respective nation’s music. Through these artistic exchanges we will learn about other aspects of each other's home country as well. The music of India in particular is an extension and reflection of her people and history. As my students and I share our musical influences with one another we are gaining a greater appreciation for our different backgrounds. Our discussions have inspired me to recall the capabilities of music on a larger scale. During the Cold War era, the US government funded the travels of jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Through international musical collaboration these artistic ambassadors carried out a successful effort in decreasing tension between the countries involved.
I do not believe that music alone can save the world from international conflict. But it can influence a deeper consciousness and understanding of our similarities and differences. It can provide a vision of the world as a whole.