Anyway, all this was supposed to be just a prelude to the bigger question of why I like fusion music. Which involves us answering what fusion music even is and why it’s different from the Indian film music I mentioned earlier.
First, a little backtracking. Indian music is broadly divided into two main categories (at least for me): classical and modern. Classical music involves years of training and public performances and a lot of academic debate, which is pretty analogous to Western classical music scenes, I suppose. Modern music began with songs scored for films, which is not the soundtrack — they’re the songs and choreography for specific scenes and contexts within the narrative.
Of course this simple classification totally ignores the role of folk music, bhajans, qawwalis, etc, and we’ve seen independent music composers and singers make music that’s not tied to a film. But the point I’m trying to make is that the Indian non-classical music scene nowadays is dominated by film music.
When I was… well, let’s say younger, I fell in love with the Colonial Cousins*. They weren’t film music at all! And yet they incorporated all kinds of Western tropes into their songs: they sung in English sometimes, they had completely Western arrangements in their background music… it was a weird and wonderful mix. Here’s an example of a song I like even today:
(Oh god, that ending.)
Now try something by Karsh Kale, whose concert I tragically couldn’t attend:
Sure, they’re both sort of exploratory, favoring creativity and experimentation over a strict script, and they’re sort of electronic. But they both have a beginning, a chorus, a developmental period, and then a dramatic finish. So does this next song by Niraj Chag; in fact, it’s mostly Indian folk.
And now have a song from one of my favorite bands, Advaita:
Damn. What the hell was that? A shehnai in the background, are you kidding? You couldn’t find a more traditional North Indian instrument if you tried.
So… what’s the deal? Why are these fusion, and not Bollywood?
I think the difference is subtle. I’m not even sure I can articulate it, besides giving you a feel for what it feels like to me.
In most Indian film music, Western techniques and Indian qualities sit on top of each other like layers. Complex, well-chosen layers, sure, but separate and distinct entities. This for me is the aural equivalent of — ugh, I don’t know — samosa and ketchup. Actually, no, that’s how it’s mostly served anyway…
… never mind.
Fusion, for me, is a removal of those layers. The two components — Indian and non-Indian — sit together so well that you barely notice that you’re listening to an amalgamation of them. Somehow, artistes who create fusion understand that there are needs in Western-based (I’m using Western as an awful catchall term for non-Indian, in case you couldn’t tell) musical arrangements that can be fulfilled only by Indian instruments. And this works in the opposite direction as well.
Oh, you have a mellow, chilled-out folk song? Let’s give it a couple simple guitars and the most basic, un-intrusive drums ever. Completely different dimension, same song.
What about a bluesy, insouciant number with a multilayered instrumental background track? We can do that, and oh plus we’ll throw in a few extemporized traditional Indian classical verses and instruments that people used to Indian Bollywood music won’t even have heard of.
Speaking of which, let me just leave you with this, my current fusion obsession:
Unfortunately I can’t find it on YouTube, but it’s on Spotify. And it should be on your playlist if you like interesting music.
As a bonus track, here’s something of theirs I just discovered:
Right. There you go. Have fun. Hoo boy.
*Why did they call themselves this? I kept thinking of cowboys, which is an image diametrically opposite to their music.