I remember the feeling well. It was like someone had found their way through my eardrums and into my skull, awakening every synapse in my brain and inducing a rush of adrenalin known only to those who have experienced an epiphany through music. I no longer consider Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s rendition of ‘Walk This Way’ to be the pinnacle of musical endeavour (I was fourteen at the time…), but the ramifications it had on my musical outlook were profound, and remain so to this day.
Musical collaborations represent a fascinating marriage of minds, a blending of influences and ideas that might otherwise never be merged. Perhaps most interestingly of all, however, they often combine disparate cultures, and in doing so introduce audiences to things they may never otherwise have encountered. In this sense, musical collaborations have the ability not only to create innovative forms of art, but to abolish social barriers and reach further than a piece of music ordinarily might.
It is this principle that makes the collaborative projects at this year’s Alchemy, of which there are many, particularly exciting. These events present accessible introductions to South Asian culture, and consequently have the potential to capture new audiences and forge fresh paths of musical discovery. If you’d like to do some background listening to make the most of the Alchemy concerts, check out the following tracks:
‘Norwegian Wood’ – The Beatles
You’ll struggle to find anything about the musical confluence between India and the West that does not mention ‘Norwegian Wood’, track number 2 on The Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul. This song is often credited with the first use of a sitar on a popular music track, heralding a genre that became known as Raga Rock. Although it represents a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, it was the beginning of a musical journey for George Harrison and The Beatles that would thrust Indian music to the forefront of the world stage.
‘Ragas in Minor Scale’ – Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass
The same journey turned Ravi Shankar, a virtuosic sitar player from Varanasi, into a household name, and he remains to this day possibly the most famous India musician ever to have graced Western ears. His collaboration with Philip Glass in 1990, on the album Passages, is an excellent gateway to both artist’s works, with the track ‘Ragas in a Minor Scale’ offering a particularly dazzling display of what can be done on a sitar. It’s also well worth checking out Shankar’s work with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he is almost as famously associated as The Beatles.
‘Joy’ – Shakti
Shakti combined the formidable talents of John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, along with a smattering of other outstanding musicians, in a group that infused Indian music with jazz, and in doing so became one of the first musical projects to be labelled World Fusion. ‘Joy’ is the opening track on the group’s eponymous first album, and is an electrifying example of what can happen when experts from the East meet the best from the West. Pursue any of the musical strands that comprise this group and you will not be disappointed.
‘O…Saya’ – A. R. Rahman and M.I.A.
When Slumdog Millionaire was released in 2008, it placed a spotlight on Indian culture that could be traced from its spectacular visual displays through to its groundbreaking soundtrack. ‘O…Saya’ was one of the film’s most popular songs, written by Indian composer A. R Rahman and M.I.A., a British artist of Sri Lankan descent. It represents a modern take on musical collaboration, for it was composed via email and is notable for the plethora of cultural influences that can be heard throughout its three and a half minute duration.
‘Take Five’ – Sachal Jazz Orchestra
Another example of a collaboration of ideas rather than musicians, the Sachal Jazz Orchestra made international headlines last year when a video of their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ went viral. Originally from Pakistan, this group explore Bossa Nova and Jazz standards using South Asian instruments, and performed their world premiere at Alchemy on 17th April. Upon hearing the group, Brubeck himself summed up the magic of musical collaborations when he said ‘East is East, and West is West, but through music the twain meet’.