John Coltrane’s ‘Scales of India’ – which ragas are they?


John Coltrane left behind a few handwritten pages of notation entitled ‘Scales of India’, hastily scrawled for a student (full context explained here). We’re trying to work out which ragas they are – so I’ve reproduced them below, along with some ideas and thoughts. Let me know what you think! george@ragajunglism.org


 

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Notes to collaborators: This is a hidden url for now – so if you’re reading this then that means I’ve actively sought you out for ideas, opinions, corrections, etc.

 

The scales themselves are below, along with quick audio demos recorded on my guitar, descriptions in Indian and jazz terminology, and initial notes on what they might be. I’ve identified some, but need a hand with the rest.

 

My guess is that they’re more likely to be Hindustani – North Indian music was more prevalent in Trane’s listening world at the time. Peter Lavezzoli, percussionist and author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, confirmed to me via email that Trane listened regularly to Ravi Shankar and shehnai (reed horn) master Bismillah Khan.

 

Also, Hindustani ragas have much stronger samay associations (links to particular times of day). But in the end there’s no reason to discount strong matches from Carnatic or folk – he was a wide musical searcher, and we already know that he once borrowed a Vedic chant melody from Religious Music of India, a 1952 compilation record.

 

Bear in mind that, wherever he got them from, they could well be approximations rather than the ‘established’ theoretical forms of the ragas in question (not that ragas are ever reducible to the theory). It seems that they may have come from a textbook, many of which were unreliable at the time, or have been transcribed based on guesswork from his own listening. 

 

So don’t necessarily expect each set of ascents, descents, and adjectives to exactly match to a raga as you know it. And don’t totally discount the possibility of murchana (modal relationships) – this is second-nature to a jazz musician, and we can’t discount the possibility that Trane rotated the original scales for his own purposes (e.g. jazz guitar virtuoso Pat Martino ‘rotates’ much of his harmonic thinking into its relative Dorian/Kafi key).

 

The ‘Scales of India’ are a fascinating musical puzzle. I’d love to hear your thoughts – literally whatever comes to mind as you hear the audio, and which ragas the notes and accompanying words remind you of most. All contributions will be name credited – thanks for being involved! george@ragajunglism.org

 

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Source: As explained in the full contextual overview, I first came across these on p.210 of jazz scholar Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the most comprehensive biography currently out there. The actual photo in the book is (I assume) under copyright, so I’ve notated the scales instead, retaining Trane’s formatting. Porter explains the picture’s origin on p.209:

 

“Carl Grubbs, Naima’s cousin, offers some more information on Coltrane’s studies of India. When he visited Coltrane’s place in Queens, he noticed a page of Indian scales that had been copied out of a book. Grubbs made his own hand copy.” (I’m still trying to track down what book Trane had).

 

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Scale 1 – ‘Night, Power, and Majesty’

 

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[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-4-5-7-8 | 1-3-4
  • Sargam: SRmPNS | SGm

Several ragas contain these notes, e.g. Brindabani Sarang, Desh, Pilu, Bihari, and various Malhars. My initial guess is Raag Desh:

  • “Night” – Desh is associated with the second part of the night.
  • The SRmPNS ascending line is an exact match for Desh’s usual aroha, and the three notes in the final bar may reference the addition of Ga (major 3rd) in Desh’s descent.
  • Desh typically features unusually strong Sa-ma (1-4) and Sa-Pa (1-5) relationships, and a prominent Re (major 2nd) all of which would have piqued the ear of a jazz musician.

But this is far from conclusive. There is no descending line, and “power and majesty” may suggest a grander raga than the folksy Desh – perhaps, given the SRmP, something from the Malhar family? Is it too skeletal to suggest Desh Malhar?

 

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Scale 2 – ‘Morning, Sad’

 

ColtraneScale2

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-b2-b3-4-b6-b7-8 | 8-b7-b6-5-4-b3-b2-1 | b3-4-b6
  • Sargam: SrgmdnS | SndPmgrS | gmd

This is undoubtedly the Hindustani Raag Bhairavi: 

  • “Morning” – Bhairavi is a famous morning raga, which Coltrane would doubtless have heard both live and on record.
  • The scale clearly matches Bhairavi’s swara material (note set) – roughly akin to the lamentative, mournful Western Phrygian mode.
  • The sketch retains a characteristic feature of Bhairavi’s phraseology – the Pa (5th degree) is omitted on the way up, but played on the way down.
  • Though not notated here, Bhairavi commonly takes a mishra (mixed) form, allowing for the injection of some rare chromaticism into the tightly-constrained world of raga. No wonder recordings of the raga would have attracted a jazzer.

As mentioned above, Trane regularly played Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar records. So perhaps he was studying renditions such as these – in particular Shankar’s version, recorded in New York in 1957 for his Sounds Of India album and widely circulated in the West. His take, which showcases Raag Sindhi Bhairavi, a popular folk-based regional variant, begins by laying out his ascent and descent in more detail.

 

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Scale 3 – ‘Night’

 

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[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-4-5-b7-8 | 8-b7-6-b7-5-4-2-1
  • Sargam: SRmPnS | SnDnPmRS

Not sure on this one yet – these notes are in many ragas. Key points:

  • The irregular nDnP movement in the descent might be the key
  • Aroha of SRmPnS is like Megh Malhar and Madhumad Sarang? But what matches the descent?
  • “Night” – which Kafi and Khamaj ragas have no Ga, and are associated with the night?

 

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Scale 4 – ‘Evening & Night, Praise’

 

ColtraneScale4

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-3-4-5-6-8 | 8-7-b7-6-5-4-3-2-1 | 5-6-8
  • Sargam: SRGmPDS | SNnDPmGRS | PDS

Initial thoughts:

  • Which Bilawal or Khamaj ragas feature both Ni swaras in avroh? I can’t recall seeing four chromatically adjacent swaras in a raga’s form before (SNnD). I think Coltrane reordered the descent to match with the pattern of the Bebop Dominant, an eight-note scale he would already have known inside-out?
  • What might the isolated PDS in the final bar refer to? A chalan or pakad, or maybe even the tones of the tanpura if this scale is from a recording?
  • “Evening & night” is unusually vague for a samay (time of day) designation, but is still an important clue.

 

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Scale 5 – ‘Evening, Gay’

 

ColtraneScale5

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-4-b3-4-b6-b7-8 | 8-b7-b6-4-b3-1
  • Sargam: SmgmdnS | SndmgS

At first glance this looks like Raag Malkauns:

  • Identical swara material, which in the case of Malkauns is highly suggestive, as it dominates its own swara set.
  • It seems as if ma (the 4th) is being used as a melodic ‘centre of gravity’ (e.g. Smgm), in keeping with its use as Malkauns’ vadi (king note)

But…Malkauns is seen as a heavy, auspicious raga (read my full essay on it for Darbar here). Musicians fear its supernatural powers, and scholars describe it in terms such as ‘austere’, ‘contemplative’, or ‘severely tranquil’. And it is associated with the late night.

 

Trane’s “evening, gay” just doesn’t seem to fit with any of this. Then again, they might just be his own reflections on a recording, and we all know that the emotional interpretation of music can greatly differ across cultures. Are there any swara-synonymous ragas that fit these descriptors better?

 

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Scale 6 – ‘Night, Melancholy’

 

ColtraneScale6

n.b. Porter notes that he “penned in the penultimate Db because it appeared on another one of Grubbs’ copies” (it is bracketed in the original image).

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: b7-1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7 | b7-b6-4-5-b3-(b2)-1
  • Sargam: nSrgmPdn | ndmPg(r)S

Initial thoughts:

  • I’m assuming the Sa (root) is the second note rather than the first (all the other scales are notated in C, and this one ends on C). But this also seems to leave us with a problem – the resulting scale follows the Bhairavi mode, which usually contains morning ragas (Bhairavi itself is the ‘queen of morning ragas’). What to make of this?
  • The vakra (zigzag) descent of ndmPg looks like a good key – which ragas have this pattern?
  • So I guess it boils down to which Bhairavi-swara ragas place particular importance on the komal ni, and feature a ndmP movement. This one seems odd to me. Any ideas?

 

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Are there more of these scales out there?

 

Porter also notes that: “Two more pages of scales, in Coltrane’s own hand, are reproduced in Simpkins (113)…[including] three ragas from India, the third, at the top of the second page, being the type that differs slightly when ascending and descending”.

 

The book he refers to is Coltrane: A Biography, a poetic 1975 work by Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins – I’ll add those scales when my copy arrives. And similarly, I’m getting in touch with everyone mentioned who may know more.

 

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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Which Indian ragas was Trane listening to? Decoding his handwritten notes with master musicians of the East and West


John Coltrane left behind a few handwritten pages of notation entitled ‘Scales of India’, hastily scrawled for a student. I collaborate with some modern masters from jazz and Indian classical music to work out which ragas they are – and how he might have drawn from them. Ideas, feedback, etc to george@ragajunglism.org


 

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“I collect [Ravi Shankar’s] records…and his music moves me. I’m certain that if I recorded with him I’d increase my possibilities tenfold, because I’m familiar with what he does…” (John Coltrane, 1961)

 

John Coltrane was, indisputably, one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians. India’s classical traditions were, in turn, among his greatest stylistic inspirations – perhaps more so than any others beside jazz and the church music of his childhood. Indeed, Trane’s obsessive blend of technique, mysticism, and deep philosophical enquiry is unthinkable without the vast imprints of India (just ask his son Ravi…).

 

But even half a century on, surprisingly little is understood about the precise points of Indo-jazz confluence. Coltrane devotees immerse into his raga-length exhortations, with titles such as Om, India, and Meditations, and read about his penchant for ‘exotic scales’. But we musicians need finer detail than this. What Indian music was he listening to, and how did it influence his sound? How did Trane really draw from the world of raga?

 

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Lewis Porter’s excellent biography (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) goes deep into archival sources to unpick his thoughts and innovations. Upon reaching page 210, my heart jumped at seeing a picture entitled ‘Scales of India, cont.’. The single-side image showed handwritten notation for six brief ascent-descent patterns, each untitled but accompanied by a few mysterious adjectives (“night, power, majesty…”).

 

According to Porter, the scales were copied from Trane’s own personal notes by Carl Grubbs, his long-term saxophone student and the cousin of Naima, his first wife. Grubbs, who is still active as a performer, suggests that Trane may have originally got them from a book – but if this is the case, it is unclear which one. (I’m getting in touch with them both to find out more).

 

Might this scrawled artifact be a rare, direct window into the heart of the Indo-Coltrane conflux? Musicians are what they imbibe, and to learn how he learned, we should try and listen to what he was listening to. So – what are these curious scales? And how might he have been using them?

 

I immediately recognised the second (‘morning, sad’) as the Hindustani Raag Bhairavi, perhaps the most famous morning raga in all of North Indian classical music. Trane’s sketch matches Bhairavi’s swara material (note set), roughly akin to the Western Phrygian mode, and retains a characteristic feature of Bhairavi’s phraseology – the Pa (5th degree) is omitted on the way up, but played on the way down. (Listen here).

 

After delving further into the vast world of public-domain Coltraneology, I found that ethnomusicologist Carl Clements had also identified the second scale as Bhairavi in his 2008 PhD (John Coltrane and the integration of Indian concepts into jazz improvisation – an excellent read covering the contexts and timelines). But as far as I can tell, none of the other scales have been identified yet.

 

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Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Photo: Jerry de Wilde

Whatever approach Trane did take, we will understand it better for working out which ragas he was actually drawing from. Perhaps we can uncover some precise crossover zones – say, borrowing a uniquely Indian scale into jazz, or introducing raga-like differentiation of his ascents and descents.

 

Jazz composer and scholar Bill Bauer notes that Coltrane based the head melody for 1961’s India on a Vedic chant from Religious Music of India, a 1952 Smithsonian Folkways compilation. So when we know what else to look for, we may be able to spot other Indian-derived phrases in his longform playing.

 

Or perhaps the interchange was more on the conceptual and philosophical levels, without so much in the way of direct melodic borrowing. Either way, we should try to find out – at the very least, gleaning some further Indo-Trane insights will add sonic depth to the mysticism of his track titles, and help us understand his musical beliefs a little better.

 

I didn’t have to look very far for one such convergence. On the very next page, Porter quotes from Coltrane’s correspondence with the late Village Voice critic Nat Hentoff, recounted in the latter’s linear notes for 1962’s Live at the Village Vanguard: “In India…particular sounds and scales are intended to produce specific emotional meanings…I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain…”.

 

On reading this, the mind of any Indian classical musician would turn instantly to the Malhar raga family, synonymous with the monsoon – many believe their melodies can summon the rains when played with enough force and precision. The legendary composer Miyan Tansen is fabled to have demonstrated this at Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century court, entrancing visiting kings, warlords, and diplomats with his musico-magical feats.

 

Similar tales turn up in more recent Hindustani history too. The Mallick vocal family still live on land gifted to their ancestors by the Maharajah of Darbhanga, for, it is said, ending a drought in the Nepalese border kingdom with a special performance of Megh Malhar. All this musical supernaturalism would doubtless have fascinated Coltrane.

 

So was he learning the Malhar ragas? His words to Hentoff hint at this, but the persuasive proof seems to be in the scales themselves – two of them begin their ascents with Sa-Re-ma-Pa (1-2-4-5), suggesting several Malhar variants.

 

Have a listen to Budhaditya Mukherjee’s rendition of Miyan ki Malhar, named for the great Tansen, in an extraordinary performance filmed by Darbar (I’m currently their resident writer/musicologist). See how well you think the raga’s fluid slides and glides match with the surrounding Indian rainstorm – no wonder Trane was into this sort of thing:

 

But many of the other scales are, for now, less clear (full analysis on the next page). Grubbs’ account seems to suggest that they came from a book, but even if we can ascertain which one, this may only end up telling us so much. Western works on Indian music available at the time could vary greatly in accuracy and quality (…they still do).

 

My guess is that this one wasn’t even focused on Indian music specifically. Porter notes that the “Scales of India” were written next to others, marked “Algerian”, “Chinese”, “Japanese”, and so on. Perhaps he got them from a general compendium of scales (why else would they have no raga titles?). It could even have been his beloved Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, published by composer and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky in 1947 (I’m awaiting my copy).

 

Besides, there are other possibilities for their origin. Coltrane is known to have corresponded with Ravi Shankar for several years, but sadly died before achieving his stated ambition of studying directly with the sitar master for a planned six-month stint. I imagine their letters got technical and theoretical sometimes, so maybe he got some of his knowledge this way.

 

But to me, Shankar, in keeping with the aural, unwritten approaches of his own traditions, would have been disinclined to teach from the page. And it’s hard to think that Coltrane wouldn’t have been jotting down Indian scales by ear from recordings and concerts, perhaps modifying or approximating them in the process. The descent of scale 4 (SNnDPmGRS) seems to have been reordered to match the shape of the Bebop Dominant (8-7-b7-6-5-4-3-2-1), an eight-note jazz staple he already knew inside-out.

 

Some scales have an extra bar with just three individual tones picked out and played again. To me this suggests that Trane was ‘thinking aloud’, considering which notes to strengthen in his explorations. This is a core feature of Indian raga – each one has several melodic ‘centres of gravity’, including Sa (the root note), vadi and samvadi (king and queen notes), nyas (resting tones), and chalan (characteristic phrases).

 

So despite their vague origin, I don’t think that decoding them is an insurmountable task. With a little help from my Hindustani classical friends, we can ‘join the dots’, matching Trane’s notations and adjectives with the ragas we know. And we can fine-tune our focus with some historical inquiry too – why not also trace which artists, records, and concerts Trane could conceivably have had access too at the time?

 

The ‘Scales of India’ present a fascinating musical puzzle, and the process of solving them could well bring fresh insights into a highly significant area of transglobal musical interchange. As we already know, Trane’s legacy is unthinkable without his vast interweaving of Indian ideas – and much of modern music is, in turn, unthinkable without his legacy (just one example: Golden Age hip-hop innovator Rakim grew up matching his rhymes to the rhythms of Coltrane solos).

 

So for those who are interested, the scales themselves are on the next page, including audio demos on my guitar and sitar, notation in Indian and Western terms, and some initial thoughts on what they might be. Thanks to my collaborators so far!

 

—Musical analysis: Coltrane’s ‘Scales of India’ – which ragas are they?

 

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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Recordings, Compositions, Videos


Right now I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer) in the London area, recording, performing, and meeting open-minded collaborators. I also teach, and write lesson articles for Guitar World, and recently started releasing music as Rāga Junglism, loosely fusing jazz and jungle with Indian classical concepts.


 

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I sent Indo-jazz sax master Jesse Bannister the loop and broken tabla solo, and he sent back a fascinating 17-min improv full of Indian melodic turns, rhythmic ambiguity, and more. I cut it up and down into the final track – stretching notes, splicing melodies together, etc.

 

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[page under construction…lemme do some mastering]

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Other Music

  • Lots of lesson studies written for articles in Guitar World and other publications, spanning odd-time blues and jazz walking bass to Ghanaian polyrhythm and Malian kora harp music.
  • Various session projects, including recording guitar parts for a BBC1 wildlife soundtrack (The Great British Year) – I remember having to play along to a deer chase.
  • Aged 19 (nearly a decade ago), performing some Tommy Emmanuel-style fingerstyle acoustic in Somerset.

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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Article Snapshots


I write about things loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music, aiming to bring the sounds to life and illuminate the human contexts behind them. Recent articles have appeared in Jazzwise, The Wire, Guitar World, and elsewhere, covering topics from hip-hop and Hendrix to Indian raga and 20th-century minimalism.

 

Below are some ‘tasters’ of various pieces I’ve written, with synopses and quick extracts. Get in touch! george@ragajunglism.org


Articles | Reviews | Interviews | Explorations | Odds


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What is it about drummers? Rock mythology vs. tales of the tabla [RJ]

 

Societies of the East and West build remarkably similar stereotypes around their percussionists. Do they genuinely share particular psychological traits? Or does society always find comfort in painting the percussionist as a certain kind of outsider?

 

“Stereotypes about drummers abound – they are intense, excitable, and locked in their own worlds, radiating a nervous energy which can only be dissipated by tapping on whatever surface they can lay their hands on. They seem to be in constant communication with something unseen, and can only focus on the present when immersed in the beat. They escape boredom by harnessing a primal force, and prefer the grooves of their inner world to the mundanities of everyday life.

 

But to us percussionists, living this way is the most natural thing in the world. Who would choose to go without such immediacy and childish playfulness? What is a rhythm other than just a pattern observed through time? What could be more fundamental than that? All conscious beings search for structure in the sounds around them, and we can’t predict the future without a feeling for regularity. An infant can tap in rhythm long before they can sing in key – perhaps compulsive drummers are just keeping the habit up.

 

These stereotypes are not confined to the West. The history of North Indian tabla is also full of colourful characters, and heroes who perform extraordinary feats of virtuosity in chaotic circumstances. They totally dedicate themselves to the tala cycles, drawing on supernatural powers to aid in their quest. Blues and rock have a penchant for self-mythologising, but how often do their tales involve rival kings, battle scenes, or dramatic divine interventions?”

  • [Full article forthcoming]

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The power of threes: Hindustani rhythm’s ‘tihai’ resolutions [Darbar]

 

Exploring classical tabla’s angular rhythmic resolutions, and examining why patterns of three have such a distinctive power to tell concise ‘stories’ in music, art, and literature.

 

“Groups of three are core to human cognition. We live in a three-dimensional world, conceptualising time in terms of past, present, and future. Christians praise the Holy Trinity, Buddhists uphold the Three Jewels, and Hindus worship a Trimurti of gods – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.

 

Patterns of three have a natural rhythm. We strive to see the beginning, middle, and end of a story. The tale’s protagonist must often pass three tests, defeat three foes, or return back home after journeying to distant lands. The rhetorical tricolon rouses us (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”), and trilogies hold a special place in the canons of film and literature. Tripartism abounds.

 

Put simply – three is the smallest number at which a pattern can be established and then either confirmed or challenged. Observing two similar events in sequence suggests a trend, allowing the third to settle or surprise you. A straight line can always be drawn between two randomly located points, but a set of three must be arranged precisely for the same to be true. The line can point off somewhere else. In other words, three is the lowest number with which you can really express deviation. Consider the structure of a ‘threes’ joke…”

Listen to a divine tihai in motion:

 

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Curious cultural interchange: Indian music in Bristol [The Wire]

 

Brief anatomy of the fascinating, scattered scene on which I played for many years, featuring jazz-funk drummers, temple chants, and apocalyptic prophecies.

 

When I returned to Bristol for university I found occasional work teaching the basics of tabla and sitar, instructing open-minded saxophonists and Gujarati housewives who sought to reconnect with the music of their childhood. I played at weddings, yoga sessions, temple celebrations, and (with my guru-ji’s unexpected blessing) the chillout room at Lakota nightclub…

 

The city’s micro-scene for Indian classical is a curious cultural prism, reflecting romantic visions of the country’s heritage for some and catalysing fresh musical innovation for others. Many find the music via the life of the temple, while others move in the opposite direction.

 

Their points of confluence can create disparate social connections in one of Britain’s most multicultural yet divided cities, but overall the scene remains fragmented – plenty of the musicians above have never heard of each other, let alone collaborated. But virtually all share an open, inclusive approach, exploring ancient music as a living tradition.”

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How your favourite genres chime with Indian classical music [Darbar]

 

Discover India’s classical traditions via styles you already like – this article builds sonic bridges to rock, blues, jazz, jungle, hip-hop, house, techno, ambient, minimalism, and Western classical.

 

“The best house and techno sets are masterworks of gradual development. DJs carefully select and order tracks on the fly, responding to the mood of the crowd to form a coherent whole. Heavy rhythms loop and fade into each other until the early hours, bringing moments of release, space, and surprise. Like Indian music, house and techno demand patience and precision. So if you’re partial to Jeff Mills or Carl Cox then you may find similar delights in long-form ragas…

 

Ever been enthralled by the timing of a kick drum line? Try out Gurdain Rayatt’s fierce jori playing, and see how he controls the bass space with deep resonating tones, from 120bpm upwards. And hear Rahul Sharma’s santoor circle around Raag Kalavati, climbing up the scale and then releasing tension every 4th bar – an idea familiar to any techno head.

 

And why not be hypnotised by rhythms other than 4/4? Let Alla Rakha be your guide through jhaptal’s 10-beat cycle on Jogeshwari (a track sampled by Four Tet). A pair of tabla can command the stage just as well as a pair of turntables – come and see it live (Darbar Festival is easier to get into than Berghain)…”

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Exploring Raag Chandranandan: modern creations, metaphysics of raga [Darbar]

 

Sarod master Ali Akbar Khan created Raag Chandranandan (‘Moonstruck’) in the 1940s, naming it hastily during a cigarette break and soon forgetting how to play it. But it is now regarded as a bona fide modern classic. What does its curious tale tell us about the nature of raga?

 

“Ragas are improvised for the precise time and place of performance. They may aim to crystallise universal human sentiments, but performers cannot help but set them to their own moods. The resulting musical churn means they are expanded, modified, and reinterpreted over time, as artists search for new territory amidst a shared understanding of certain essences and inviolable boundaries.”

 

“Khan’s approach to resurrecting Chandranandan illuminates how he sees the fundamentals of raga. He connected musical exploration with visual imagination and cultural association, with all three paths allowing him to understand and elaborate different aspects of its new ‘taste’. For him, a raga will only reveal its full spectrum of emotional colour when drawing on multiple forms of human cognition.”

Excerpt from Raag Chandranandan (1964):

 

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Singing sculptures: India’s curious musical instruments [Darbar]

 

Exploring ten strange, beautiful instruments: the rudra veena, surbahar, taus, sitar been, chaturangi, sarangi, tabla tarang, jaltarang, ghatam, and morsing.

 

“The jaw harp is found on all the earth’s inhabited continents, with scholars estimating that there are over a thousand distinct names for it. Like the instrument itself, many have a pleasing syllabic ring to them – the Indian morsing, Indonesian genggong, Nepalese murchunga, Persian zanboorak, Norwegian munnharpe, Finnish huuliharppu, Tuvan khomus, Lithuanian dambrelis, and Italian marranzano (let’s leave aside the German maultrommel).

 

Abraham Lincoln is said to have played one to mock his opponent’s brass band at a town-hall debate, and rumours circulate that Stalin banned it as a symbol of shamanism. Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven’s principal teacher, wrote seven curious concerti for jaw harp and orchestra, and 19th-century Austrian society later grew to fear the instrument’s corrupting influence. Musicologist Anthony Baines describes its devious reputation: ‘Female virtue was endangered, and instruments were repeatedly banned by the authorities’.

 

So we shouldn’t underestimate it. Though small, the timbre is immediately powerful, somewhere between a drone and a drum. It has a warm shiver, a weightlessness, a syllabic roll, speaking as much as singing. The frequencies it summons bring out the harmonic series, the mathematically fundamental notes of the universe.”

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Ustad Shahid Parvez Darbar Festival 2018 Barbican Centre

Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music, my book-length collection for Darbar, exploring how music with ancient roots is adapting to a fast-paced, interconnected modern world. Aimed at newcomers and connoisseurs alike, it features eleven artist interviews and ten in-depth essays, examining various technical, social, and mystical dimensions of the music itself along with audio and video examples.

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Glancing backwards, moving forwards: John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension @ the Barbican [Jazzwise]

 

Reviewing the guitar virtuoso’s 2019 return to London, the city where he cut his teeth before moving to New York to work with Miles Davis’ legendary late-60s electric groups.

 

“Now aged 77, McLaughlin has a lifetime of intriguing work to revisit. The master fusioneer’s wide musical travels have incorporated jazz-rock, flamenco, orchestral scores, and extended immersions into Indian classical – few jazzers have tackled such a broad range of styles with such depth and sincerity, and fewer still have earned acclaim from both stadium crowds and ascetic Hindustani maestros.

 

But any Barbican attendees hoping for a straightforward retrospective would have missed the point. Colin Harper’s engaging biography of McLaughlin describes him as “the world’s worst nostalgic” – something that should come as no surprise to those who have followed his career. How could anyone prone to nostalgia remain so restless?”

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Marcel Khalifé brings Lebanese humour and heart to the Barbican [Jazzwise]

 

The oud (fretless lute) master has long been a symbol of liberation to his Lebanese compatriots, embodying an eloquent blend of musical and political freedom while garnering global acclaim for their local music. I review his sold-out London show.

 

“But this was no ordinary singalong. The concert’s lyrical themes included pan-Arabism, the apartheid struggle in Palestine, and the legacy of siege and war in Beirut, moving many to tears as they danced in the aisles…Most of those in attendance were old enough to have themselves lived through the savage 1975-1990 conflict, which killed over 100,000 and displaced a million more, including a sizeable contingent who migrated to London’s Edgware Road area…

 

While such outspoken boldness may not seem in the usual script for a former Professor at the National Academy, he has always embraced his dual role as a preserver and updater of tradition. Despite his revered classical status back home, Khalifé is first and foremost a folk artist, ever-inclined to give aesthetic shape to the human struggles of the day. After all, what could be more folk than reinterpreting your community’s core cultural vocabulary for changing technological and political times?”

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Alina Bzehezhinska’s Hip Harp collective captivate at the Crypt [Jazzwise]

 

The eclectic harpist gathered a varied ensemble around her 47 strings for a superb evening of jazz, Afrobeat, and ambient-infused electronica in the Crypt of St. Giles Church in Camberwell.

 

“The harp is among the world’s oldest musical instruments. All civilisations seem to have independently devised their own variants – they feature in some of the earliest literature of India, China and Korea, and examples have been unearthed in the royal tombs of ancient Egypt and Sumer. In fact, harp history stretches back to prehistory, with depictions of them turning up in Mesolithic-era rock paintings from well before the dawn of writing.

 

But despite its cultural ubiquity, the instrument’s role in the 21st-century jazz world is still something of a paradox. While most open-eared listeners are warmly familiar with the work of Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, few of them seem to have ever seen a jazz harpist in the flesh. Real-world supply has somehow never seemed to match demand…”

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Phronesis in concert

Phronesis stand united at Ronnie Scott’s [Jazzwise]

 

Soon to enter their 15th year as a performing group, Scando-British trio Phronesis still command the rhythmic-melodic ferocity to cut through any crowd. I experience their unique live interaction at LJF 2019.

 

“Despite their indisputable, ever-present virtuosity, there’s always been something oddly unflamboyant about Phronesis. Known for banishing any hint of fixed hierarchy from their creative interactions, both sets showcased their communitarian ethos in full flow, with the spotlight being split more than passed around.

 

Principally drawing from their acclaimed 2018 album We Are All, Danish bassist Jasper Høiby and British pianist Ivo Neame found consistent joy in twisted harmonies, ably trading sharp chromatic fragments over Swedish drummer Anton Eger’s indomitable stick-work. Eger was at times reminiscent of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit, propelling unbroken, micro-stuttering lines forward like some great line of falling dominos…”

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Bauhaus @ 100: Inspired musical variety at the Barbican [Jazzwise]

 

LJF celebrated the art movement’s cultural impact in London with a triple-bill concert at the Barbican, featuring Michael Wollny’s Bau.Haus.Klang project, percussionist Daniel Brandt, and Brooklyn trio Dawn of Midi.

 

“The Bauhaus school of design, despite its explicit aspirations to foster Gesamtkunstwerk (a ‘total synthesis of the arts’), never taught music directly. But, according to critic Joshua Barone, “musical thinking permeated the lives of its students and faculty”. Walter Gropius, the movement’s principal founder, married Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma in 1915, and Alban Berg’s seminal Violin Concerto was written in memory of their daughter Manon, who died of polio aged 18.

 

Heinrich Neugeboren envisioned sculptures based on the interlocking layers of Bach’s Eb Minor Fugue, and Wassily Kandinsky, who taught at the school in the 1920s, spoke of his paintings as “compositions” with “rhythm” and “melody”. Oskar Schlemmer choreographed a bizarre Bauhaus ballet, and the movement’s social gatherings often featured ad hoc musical groups armed with saxophones, banjos, and whatever sonorous objects (musical or otherwise) they could lay their hands on.”

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Ancient forms, modern fusions: Darbar Festival 2016 [JazzFM]

 

Covering one of the largest Indian classical music festivals outside India for a jazz audience (just for fun, but it ended up getting me my current freelance role as Darbar’s in-house writer and musicology guy…)

 

“Western listeners often want to hear the ‘purity’ of traditional music from other cultures. But Indian classical is probably as impure as any tradition gets, with the North in particular having been a fertile fusion ground for millennia. Folk melodies and devotional Vedic chanting intertwined at the same time as the pharaohs ruled Egypt, forming styles that have since been coloured by the influence of many other cultures – medieval merchants, Indian Ocean settlers, the Islamic Mughal Empire, and colonial Britain.”

 

“The front row of the audience was filled with the other festival headliners, keeping in clear focus the deep reverence younger performers held for those who had inspired them. There are few other live events where you can regularly experience modern mavericks playing directly to their forebearers…Darbar was everything a classical festival should be – a finely balanced blend of traditional forms and modern fusions, which jumped at the chance to both address its social history and engage with its cultural subject matter as a living tradition…”

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Ustad Shahid Parvez: ‘What you play spontaneously should be perfect’ [Darbar]

 

Discussing intuition, bounded innovation, and hyper-discipline with the world’s leading sitarist.

 

“So is the old master really “Indian music personified”? He certainly represents how many still see the tradition – a lineage of preordained heroes, living ascetic lives dedicated to exploring ideas revealed by the divine. But whether this is still an accurate reflection of today’s Indian music is less clear. Few artists I have spoken to fit the mould easily.

 

Besides, Khan also embodies more modern aspects of the music. He demonstrates Hindustani’s global reach by touring the world and spending much of the year at his academy in Arizona. He shies away from replicating the disciplinarian approaches of his ancestors, and has embraced new technologies, instructing beginners with patience and humour over Skype.

 

Neither the man nor the music are easy to summarize. Maybe he really is the best personification of modern Indian classical – one of the last bridges between the isolated traditionalism of the old greats and the global connectivity of today’s world. Or perhaps his understated persona allows listeners of all persuasions to see what they want to in him…”

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Ustad Bahauddin Dagar interview: ‘Dhrupad – flourishing branches, dwindling roots?’ [Darbar]

 

Reviewing the rudra veena master’s landmark solo performance in London, and delving into Dhrupad’s curious modern context with him afterwards.

 

“There are benefits to Dhrupad’s decidedly niche status too. Those who devote themselves to it are only ever there for the sake of the music, which has itself absorbed few outside influences, protected by its highly particular nature. A sitarist’s classical playing can be affected by frequent forays into fusion, but Dhrupad’s slow, architectural world does not exactly lend itself to filmi or keyboard jams.

 

This is not to say that innovation has been absent – for example, the Gundecha Brothers have in recent decades augmented the Dagarvani’s predominantly Islamic repertoire with Hindu poetry. But the tradition has largely innovated from within itself, retaining a certain purity along the way. It may be India’s oldest surviving form of classical music, but Dhrupadyas consider it to be the most highly evolved by virtue of this.”

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Debasmita Bhattacharya interview: ‘It feels like nature is summoning you to play’ [Darbar]

 

In-depth Q&A interview with Kolkata’s rising young sarod star. She eloquently discusses a vast range of topics, ranging from banjo technique and tuning theory to combating gender discrimination and the concept of raga as an illusion.

 

[…I guess our proto-human ancestors were also moved by birdsong and the breeze, but it has taken our species millions of years to come up with music that can articulate these sentiments.] These feelings of deep connection with nature help with the creative side of music. For an alap [rhythmless introduction] it is good to be in an open space…but if you want to have hardcore technical practice then…just close the door and go into yourself. There is no nature there, no black and white even, just you and the music.”

 

[How can men in the Indian music industry help in the push for equality? What should they be thinking about?] I would say: don’t give a woman any opinions, just let her be the way she is. Even a devoted husband who believes in equality can limit his wife, as he may be overprotective when trying to help her. What I find beautiful is when a man gives their space to a woman, and says “do things your way, if you want to”. You cannot just expect the world to treat you as equal – you have to stand for equality. You need to be powerful.”

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Pandit Rupak Kulkarni interview: ‘The only thing you need is to be in tune internally’ [Darbar]

 

The bansuri master discusses therapeutic music, life with his legendary guru Hariprasad Chaurasia, and the primal, divine nature of the flute.

 

“The bansuri is a tantalisingly simple instrument. Little more than a stick of bamboo with holes bored through, it cannot be retuned, and has no moving parts. Similar creations turn up across human history – in fact the modern bansuri differs little from the oldest musical instruments ever discovered, 40,000 year-old bone flutes found in a cave near the Danube.

 

Consequently, flutes also appear throughout the world’s mythology, often associated with gods, spirits, or animals…German folk tales warn of invisible flautists who cause mischief by hiding in households…and the Amazonian Tucano people tell the tale of Uakti, a creature with holes in his body such that he would produce alluring melodies by running through the wind. He used his music to seduce the local women, eventually leading their menfolk to kill him, burn his body, and bury his ashes in the soil. The Tucano believe Uakti’s essence lives on in the palm trees from which they build their own flutes.”

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Meeta Pandit interview: ‘My grandfather never allowed any student to copy him’ [Darbar]

 

The khayal vocal star discusses religious tolerance, changing teaching styles, and picking up on the musicological work of her brother after his untimely death. 

 

“Gwalior’s early khayal masters guarded their art tightly, performing only to the royal court and practicing in the palace basement to prevent their compositions being overheard. Knowledge was a closed shop, passed down through tight-knit musical families who sought to protect their secrets at all costs…

 

But this custom was broken in the late 19th century, when Meeta’s great-grandfather Pandit Shankar Rao Pandit (yes, technically a double Pandit) convinced the leading Ustads of the era to accept him…Shankar’s son Pandit Krishnarao Shankar Pandit became a veritable khayal legend, performing across India throughout the 20th century. Far from hiding his music in dark basements, he practiced in Gwalior’s forests and took on hundreds of students in a long lifetime that spanned the pre-electrical era to the advent of the internet.”

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Dr. Trichy Sankaran interview: ‘For every rhythm there is a counter-rhythm’ [Darbar]

 

The Carnatic mridangam (double-headed drum) maestro discusses cross-cultural teaching, the rhythms of the ocean, and the future of South Indian percussion. 

 

“Now 76, he is a revered member of the Carnatic establishment. His long musical path has led him to embody many different roles – traditionalist, fusioneer, teacher, performer, scholar, philosopher, and plenty else. But in conversation he has all the immediate energy of a wide-eyed child, as if sitting in the kitchen discovering the power of banging pots and pans in sequence. In his words, “music is an intuitive joy, and for it to bear fruit you cannot answer every question. It is always a mystery in the end”.

 

Put this way, it is not hard to see why he continues to strive. After all, us percussionists know that questions about why they do it should be flipped round. Why wouldn’t you want to keep touch with such immediacy and playfulness? Why would you ever stop when you draw such a basic joy from continuing to learn?

 

I ask him where he finds musical satisfaction. “I particularly love to be at the shoreline looking at the waves roll in. I still recall the korvais my guru taught me at Madras Beach half a century ago, and have written many ‘beach korvai’ of my own since then. The flow is very useful for understanding and creating – it helps your mind so much. They say every seventh wave is stronger – does that mean the ocean moves in a seven-beat cycle?”

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Akram Khan interview: ‘Indian dancers place themselves in the shoes of gods as well as mortals’ [Darbar]

 

The trailblazing choreographer discusses curating for Darbar, how classicism can be experimental, and why reconnecting with nature must be physical.

 

“Newcomers to Indian classical arts often enter expecting a reverent atmosphere, and leave surprised at the sheer playfulness of the performance. Hindustani musicians will twist and stretch each other’s phrases, and kathak exponents are masters of mime, transforming into peacocks, demons, and many-faced gods at a moment’s notice. There is something refreshing and childish going on, as if witnessing a return to our most basic human impulses.

 

Choreographers combine the playful and cerebral, contrasting these mime-like expressional movements (abhinaya) with those embodying ‘pure form’ (nritta). A dancer may impersonate a flock of birds, then use rapid-fire footwork to tease new tensions from a 14-beat rhythm.

 

Khan credits Indian classical music with first opening his eyes to mathematics, and is drawn to kathak’s interlocking numerical patterns (perhaps a logical inclination is in his genes: his grandfather was a prominent Bengali mathematician). But he doesn’t see it as an abstract mode of engagement: “I had a natural impulse to search for sequences in the world around me, and ‘take things apart’ as I learned them”.”

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West African rhythmic ideas for the fretboard [Guitar World]

 

Reworking Ghanaian polyrhythms and Malian kora music, and learning about the people and cultures that created them.

 

“Most of today’s music has direct ancestry in the intricate rhythms of West Africa. Some such links are readily apparent – it’s not hard to guess at the African roots of Latin America’s percussion instruments, and blues fans are well-aware of the genre’s origins in the spiritual songs of Transatlantic slaves. Blues, in turn, is a parent of rock, jazz, funk, and virtually all other popular music styles of the modern era.

 

But much of West Africa’s vast imprint still goes unheralded, and the contributions of African musicians are all-too-often written out of the history books. How often is it mentioned that that J.S. Bach’s canonic sarabande dances have origins in Berber dance rhythms from the Sahara? Or that Brian Eno’s looping electronic innovations were in part inspired by an obsession with powerhouse Nigerian drummer Tony Allen?…

 

All music is in some way a profound reflection of its circumstances. So to better understand the sounds, we will also explore some of the human lives, routines, and beliefs behind them. Cross-cultural borrowing must always come from a place of open-minded respect, and musical ideas will only yield their full blossom when connected to their real-world contexts.”

Study – melodic ideas from the Malian kora:

 

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Rāga Jungle: Turntables, Tablas, & Talas [RJ]

 

Jungle/DnB music and Hindustani classical tabla playing have some really striking similarities…

 

“Listen to We‘s jungle masterpiece Magnesium Flares, and Zakir Hussain & Alla Rakha’s Lineage tabla duet. Both are both based around intense 16-beat percussion loops, with rapid and unpredictable drum syncopation taking up the central listening position usually occupied by melody. This is surprisingly rare in music, but is fundamental to both tintal (16-beat) tabla recitals and jungle/DnB.

 

The styles regularly hit 160-180bpm, and overall instrumental textures are similar: busy percussion in the mids, ambient harmonic colour floating in the background, and a clearly distinct level of superdeep quasi-melodic bass. The tracks above are composed of little else. Both feature heavy drops, and multi-layered rhythm voicings are common in jugalbandi percussion duets as well as the more complex corners of jungle…”

Magnesium Flares vs. Lineage tintal solo:

 

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Guitar tuning in fine detail: introducing the ‘impatient meditation’ [RJ]

 

The (very) detailed version of an article I wrote for Guitar World in late 2019. Here, I lay out a fresh approach to tuning, showing how it builds on the imperfections of various existing methods and unpicking some of the fundamentals of string vibration along the way.

 

“Tuning lies at the heart of broader guitaristic mastery. But how many of us really feel we do it as well as we should? We all fall into lazy habits, allowing the compulsion to jam right now to override our better judgement. This results in much undesired dissonance, both literal and cognitive – the imperfections nag away at us, interrupting our flow, sapping our focus, and disbalancing the music…”

 

“A musician, physicist, and choreographer as well as a Ming Dynasty prince, Zhu Zaiyu expounded his discoveries in a sequence of pioneering musicological treatises presented to the royal court. His Fusion of Music and Calendar laid the groundwork in 1580, and his Complete Compendium of Music and Pitch, coming in 1584, gave the first detailed account of how to derive the intervals of 12-tone equal temperament. (The latter runs to 5,000 pages, i.e. one for every single word of this article so far)…”

Harmonic series (pictured above) played up the 6th string:

 

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Harmony in dreams: what, how, and why? [RJ]

 

Why can musical experiences be so vivid in our dreams? In what sense does ‘harmony’ exist in a dream? I delve into this mysterious area of quasi-scientific enquiry with help from musicians, academics, and a few friends.

 

“Recently I’ve had several dreams which involve largely automatic musical composition…a quartet of jazz horns, and ghostly piano-like instruments…This phenomenon isn’t uncommon among musicians or non-musicians, but does raise some very interesting questions around how our dreaming minds model frequency interactions – the emergent properties that give all chords their colour and tension.”

 

“Minimalism pioneer La Monte Young has spent a lifetime striving to understand the fundamentals of sound, and to inspire reimagination of what we mean by musical performance. It’s no surprise that his work is relevant to the questions posed here…Close your eyes, and Drift Study 1969’s tight synaesthetic interweaving of vibration and spatial awareness may even tempt intuitive insights into Nagel’s question of what it is like to be a bat…”

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Shakti’s Remainder Bar Rhythms: unpicking some Indo-jazz masterworks [RJ]

 

Breaking down a highly effective and pleasingly concise rhythm ‘trick’, taken to unparalleled heights by John McLaughlin’s pioneering 1970s group (suitable for players of any or no instrument). Received the stamp of approval from McLaughlin himself when it came out.

 

“Essentially, they will take a long rhythm cycle (often with an odd number of beats), divide it into regular length bars (often 4s), and play through these until they reach a final bar of a shorter length. It’s all about the remainder – they play through the cycle using a familiar groove until there aren’t enough beats left to play it again in full, leaving a final remainder bar which breaks with this groove and is heavily accented.

 

This emphasised final bar is often the key to how Shakti’s unfamiliar time signatures can flow even to uninitiated Western ears, as it provides a marker for when the cycle will finish and repeat over again, and so anchors us to the overall groove. Making the very end of a cycle prominent is found throughout the world of music (for example the turnaround in a 12-bar blues), but Shakti break new ground by putting this particular odd-time spin on it.”

Fast-counted 27 cycle (as 8-8-8-3) in Shakti’s Isis (1976):

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Also see my Lessons page – I write regular lesson articles, including an extended series for Guitar World themed roughly around adapting ‘non-guitaristic’ music to the fretboard, and publish various articles on concepts from jazz, global music, and elsewhere. I also teach privately in London, and give masterclasses on improvisation and global music.

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—Workplace Activism Handbook [v2 draft available on request]

 

Collaborative project seeking to fight back against systemic injustice from within the private sector. (Ties into past work raising philanthropic funds for GiveDirectly in London, a fantastic ‘direct cash transfer’ charity who are currently running the world’s biggest UBI experiment.)

 

“Our world is crushingly unequal, and radical systemic change is needed. The private sector has vast systemic power, and many within it are desperate for change. Right now thousands of ethically-minded young professionals are sitting at their desks, wondering how best to fight global injustice. They want to act on inequality using their companies’ influence as well as their own, and to push for higher ethical standards in modern business – from supply chain standards and environmental impacts through to tax avoidance and workplace discrimination.

 

But despite there being thousands on the inside who seek change, there is little practical advice available on how to do it effectively. Workplace activism seeks to fill this gap. We provide the community and tactical guidance to bring about real change, both within and through your organisation. We keep open minds, and have well-founded optimism in what workplace activism will achieve. Radicals can be vastly more powerful when working from within.”

  • [Full handbook TBA – email me for a draft]

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Using rhythm games to escape office boredom [excerpt from Bullshit Jobs]

 

Quick description of how I used Indian rhythm games to help keep my mind alive through the grey mundanities of my former life as an office worker. Published in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, radical anthropologist David Graeber’s insightfully provocative 2018 book on the rise of meaningless employment under late capitalism (originally under a pseudonym).

 

“The frustrated musician in me has come up with ways of silently learning music while stuck at my corporate desk. I studied Indian classical music and have internalised two of their rhythmic systems. Indian approaches are abstract, numerical, and non-written, and so open up ways for me to silently and invisibly practice in my head. I can improvise music while stuck in the office, and even incorporate inputs from the world around me.

 

You can groove off the ticking clock as dull meetings drag on, or turn a phone number into a little rhythmic poem. You can translate the syllables of corporate jargon into quasi hip-hop, or interpret the proportions of the filing cabinet as a polyrhythm. Doing this has been a shield to more aggregate boredom in the workplace than I can possibly explain.”

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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Home | Articles | Recordings | Lessons | Teaching

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Lessons & Conceptual Breakdowns


I write regular lesson articles, including an extended series for Guitar World themed roughly around adapting ‘non-guitaristic’ music to the fretboard, and publish in-depth essays on Indian classical concepts for Darbar. I also teach privately in London, and give masterclasses on improvisation and global music. Contact: george@ragajunglism.org


 

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—Jazz walking basslines for the guitar: how to really make them groove [Guitar World]

 

“There are few things in music more satisfying than a perfect walking bassline. In this lesson we explore the sounds of classic jazz walking bass, learning how to adapt the ideas to the fretboard and use them for new harmonic-melodic inspiration.”

 

Ornamented walking line in Am:

 

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West African grooves: fascinating rhythms from Mali, Ghana, and beyond [Guitar World]

 

“This lesson gives a rhythmic taste of two extraordinary traditions from West Africa – the kora harp playing of Mali’s jali lineage, and Ghana’s polyrhythmic Ewe drumming….We will also explore some of the human lives, routines, and beliefs behind them. Cross-cultural borrowing must always come from a place of open-minded respect, and musical ideas will only yield their full blossom when connected to their real-world contexts.”

 

Reworking melodic ideas from the kora harp:

 

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Awareness of the zeroth fret: incorporating open string textures, chords, and scales [Guitar World]

 

“When soloing higher up the neck, the open strings tend to get forgotten. We rarely ‘look the other way’, missing out on a fascinating array of musical opportunities…This lesson will build your open-string awareness, allowing for new textures, patterns, and chord voicings.”

 

‘Harpifying’ a lick in A Dorian with open string tones:

 

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Indian classical ornamentation: how to integrate ‘alankar’ into your melodic playing [MusicRadar]

 

“Indian classical music has a distinctive ‘singing’ melodic feel. Unique bends, slides, vibratos, and legatos capture the expressive flexibility of the voice, and then extend it far beyond what can be humanly sung…’Alankar’ is an ancient Sanskrit word, referring to any pattern of ‘musical decoration’.”

 

‘Alankarising’ a melody in Raag Bageshri:

 

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Ultimate Tuning Guide: introducing the ‘impatient meditation’, a fresh, flexible approach  [Guitar World]

 

“The whole tuning process can even be re-conceptualized as a ritualistic act of mental, musical, and manual preparation. Or just a time to chill out before you play. Either way, it’s a lot more than just winding some pegs…The ‘impatient meditation’ aims to maximize flexibility, efficiency, and tonal precision by running through four concise ideas, which, taken together, allow us to balance the quirks of the guitar with the demands of the music.”

 

Melodic ‘check phrases’ to maximise accuracy:

 

 

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Odd-time songwriting grooves: five fresh rhythms based on classic tracks [MusicRadar]

 

“Basic counting isn’t the problem. Master percussionists are never really doing this anyway – rhythmic flow must be intuitive…It’s more about exposure than anything else. Bulgarian wedding guests have no problem dancing in 11/8 – it’s easy if you’ve grown up doing it. If you listen to enough irregular grooves then they’ll sink in.”

 

Radiohead-style chordal movement in 10/4:

 

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Basics of Hindustani raga: adapting some North Indian classical ideas to the fretboard [MusicRadar]

 

“What are the basics of Hindustani music? I think these are the most important first concepts for Western instrumentalists: raga (a melodic ‘recipe’ to guide improvisation towards particular moods), tala (‘clap’, or rhythm cycle), and alankar (ornamentation and ‘musical decoration’).”

 

Short ‘gat’ melody in Raag Bageshri:

 

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THEORETICAL & CONCEPTUAL


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The power of threes: Hindustani rhythm’s ‘tihai’ resolutions [Darbar]

 

“Exploring the angular rhythmic resolutions of the North Indian tabla, and examining why patterns of three have such a distinctive power to tell concise ‘stories’ in music, art, and literature.”

 

Self-referential ‘triple tihai’ in Raag Janasammohini:

 

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Guitar tuning in fine detail: introducing the ‘impatient meditation’ [RJ]

 

“This is the detailed version of the Ultimate Tuning Guide article I wrote for Guitar World in late 2019. Here, I lay out a straightforward, combinational approach to tuning, showing how it builds on the imperfections of various existing methods and unpicking some of the fundamentals of string vibration along the way.”

 

Overtone series played up the 6th string:

 

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Shakti’s ‘remainder bar’ rhythms: unpicking some Indo-jazz masterworks [RJ]

 

“Along with their successor band Remember Shakti, they have a real mastery of keeping a strong groove in irregular time signatures, and not allowing high degrees of rhythmic complexity to make patterns too difficult to follow. There is one particular trick they use to achieve this – centered around accenting the ‘oddness’ of the final bar in each cycle.”

 

Fast-counted 27 cycle (as 8-8-8-3) in Shakti’s Isis (1976):

 

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Exploring Raag Chandranandan: modern creations, metaphysics of raga [Darbar]

 

“Ustad Ali Akbar Khan created Chandranandan in the 1940s, naming it hastily during a cigarette break and soon forgetting how to play it – but it is now regarded as a modern classic. What does its curious tale tell us about the nature of raga itself?”

 

Excerpt from Ali Akbar Khan’s Raag Chandranandan (1964):

 

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Presto 28.05.2016

Raga Jungle: Turntables, Tablas, & Talas [RJ]

 

“Jungle music and Hindustani classical tabla playing have some really striking similarities…intense 16-beat percussion loops, with rapid and unpredictable drum syncopation…regularly hit 160-180bpm, and overall instrumental textures are similar: busy percussion in the mids, ambient harmonic colour floating in the background, and a clearly distinct level of superdeep quasi-melodic bass. Both styles feature heavy drops…”

 

Comparison – Magnesium Flares vs. ‘Lineage’ Tintal Solo:

 

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In-depth Carnatic primer: South India’s mellifluous, mathematical music [Darbar]

 

“Carnatic music’s unique wealth of ideas deserves far more global attention. Here’s a detailed primer on South Indian classical music, featuring sounds and stars from the past and present. Covers Carnatic history, concerts, vocals, instruments, percussion, ragam & talam theory, modern innovators, going global, and branching futures…”

 

Demonstration of ‘nadai’ – rhythmic level-jumping (4 to 5):

 

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Puzzle: can you reach James Taylor’s microtonal ‘stretched tuning’ without a tuner? [RJ]

 

“A couple of the Reddit questions touched on whether you’d need a digital cent tuner to reach his tuning, which I thought was an absolutely fascinating idea. In practice – yes, you definitely would. But there’s a curious workaround, meaning that (strictly speaking) you could do it with strong ears and no electronic technology at all. It’s pretty much entirely impractical, but the puzzle is intriguing…”

 

[…not braved trying to record this one yet]

 

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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Home | Articles | Recordings | Lessons | Teaching

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Teaching, Masterclasses, Sessions


Starting out on the guitar? Seeking more musical direction? Looking to ‘break through’ to the next levels of playing?


 

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I’m a guitarist and music writer, new in London and looking for students locally. Teaching is a long-term passion – I believe it should be:

  • Empowering: Attitude vastly outweighs talent – I aim to ‘teach you to teach yourself’ in a relaxed, fun environment
  • Personal: We’ll focus on the music you like, and on how to take charge of your learning process and broader musical path
  • Efficient: Every guitarist can become exhilarated by their pace of learning – I’ll help you unlock the methods that work best

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I’ve taught students of all ages and abilities for over a decade, including rhythm masterclasses and school workshops, and write regular lesson articles for Guitar World magazine (playing CV here, and you can listen here). I teach on electric and acoustic, time generously, and can walk/cycle/bus to you from Lewisham (within reason). Valid DBS check, extensive experience with younger students.

 

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£40/hour – or start off with 4 taster lessons for £120. Contact:

George Howlett | george@ragajunglism.org

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Masterclasses etc: I also give workshops and tailored short courses, suitable for non-guitarists and groups as well. Subjects include:

 

● Improvisation: starting out, removing psychological blocks, using ‘games’ to foster a playful approach. Doesn’t have to have anything to do with jazz, but I can teach the basics of jazz harmony, melody, rhythm, and ear skills too. Suitable for any instrument.

 

● Global music: I studied Hindustani classical raga and rhythm in India under master sitarist Pandit Shivnath Mishra, and teach global ideas for Guitar World, including Carnatic konnakol, Malian kora music, West African polyrhythm, and microtonality.

 

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Session work: You can hire me to play guitar, tabla drums, or santoor (100-stringed Himalayan dulcimer) for your album/event/whatever – recent gigs have included a jazz club, a Hindu Temple, and a wedding proposal. Or come collaborate! Listen to some of my sounds here.

 

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Writing: I write articles loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music, including for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and recently completed an in-depth collection for Darbar – Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music.

 

I seek to bring the sounds in question to life, and also to illuminate the human contexts behind them. Hit me up with any interesting musical topics you might want written about – articles, interviews, reviews, programme notes, theoretical breakdowns, etc. Read samples here, and see my writing CV here.

 

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—George Howlett | george@ragajunglism.org

 

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Home | Articles | Recordings | Lessons | Teaching

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(Nearly) full article/lesson list


Just about everything (2016-present). Non-linked = forthcoming.


 

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Guitar lessons


Living Traditions series – artist interviews [Darbar]


Living Traditions series – musical explorations [Darbar]


Reviews: concerts, albums, festivals


Interviews & features (non-Darbar)


Musical explorations


More for Darbar


Outside music


—George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more (or email me at george@ragajunglism.org)


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