No single playlist could encompass the astounding and complex musical traditions of India. With a population of more than 1.3 billion, the second most populous country in the world has many rich sonic heritages to pull from. For this playlist, I focus on two: the classical raga tradition and the electronic offshoot that began two decades ago, first in the U.K. and later in the U.S., honoring the classical tradition while taking the sound in entirely new directions.
I became immersed in Indian music after hearing the collective known as the Asian Massive, many of whom are represented here—Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz, Vishal Vaid and Cheb i Sabbah—a crew of friends and collaborators all released on Six Degrees Records.
Their perspectives and music were always global, though rooted in the Indian traditions that affected their lives in some capacity. Kale—a U.K.-born, U.S.-bred tabla player, drummer and DJ of Indian heritage—remains an important musical figure, writing and producing music for the Indian film industry, while Sabbah, an Algerian-born producer and DJ, started spinning records in the mid-1960s in Paris (and sadly passed a few years ago from cancer).
Kale was also part of an Indian music supergroup, Tabla Beat Science, featured here, as well. Orchestrated by bassist and producer Bill Laswell, this multi-generation, multinational group included two of India’s most well-known classical musicians, tabla player Zakir Hussain and sarangi player/vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan, as well as percussion master Trilok Gurtu and tabla player and producer Talvin Singh, on their recordings.
Singh is credited for founding the Asian Underground movement in the U.K., which in large part inspired the Asian Massive. His track “Sway of the Verses” from his epic album “Ha” captures the cultural moment when Indian music was first given proper electronic treatment. While international collaborations had been happening for decades, an entirely new vista opened up underneath Singh’s fingertips.
Also included is the prolific songwriter Nitin Sawhney, whose track “Sunset” is a bright, beautiful song. Another U.K. counterpart, Sam Zaman (aka State of Bengal), produced numerous collaborations—the one here is with Baul singer Paban Das Baul—before tragically dying in 2015 at age 50.
The singer Kiran Ahluwalia straddles many worlds, having been born and bred in India before moving to the multicultural city of Toronto, where she and her husband, guitarist Rez Abbasi, continually push musical and cultural boundaries. Her collaboration with the Tuareg group Tinariwen is magnificent, especially considering the song “Mustt Mustt” was made famous by qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. On this playlist, I include an original number, “Khafa (Up in Arms).”
As mentioned, many if not all of the above artists straddle classical and modern traditions. There is no greater example than Anoushka Shankar, who has such a diverse and rich catalog that I include three songs: “Ghost Story,” from her collaborative album with Karsh Kale; “The Sun Won’t Set,” a fantastic example of sitar music and Western pop featuring her half-sister Norah Jones, singing; and finally “Guru: Raga Jogeshwari,” in which she truly shows off her stellar classical chops.
Anoushka’s father, Ravi, is the reason the West knows anything at all about Indian classical music. One of my favorite ragas closes this set. Other classical contributions come from another luminary, Ali Akbar Khan, as well as an offering by Talvin Singh showing his proficiency on tabla.
Finally, I included “Love You To” by The Beatles because really that era in music is too important to overlook. It is the only song on this playlist not to include a musician of Indian heritage, but knowing how important their work was in a Western audience discovering this amazing tradition, it’s worthy of inclusion.
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