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Published: 2002/06/28
by Robert Johnson

But For Ravi Shankar

If it wasn't for Ravi Shankar, this website might not exist. A bold statement? Perhaps, but the Indian music icon introduced, and even created, so much of our jamband vocabulary that he deserves maximum respect. He risked censure from purists in order to bring Indian music together with rock in a way that is still reverberating today. The spiritual dimension of this music, as well as the loosely-structured, improv-heavy nature of the Indian tradition, are part of the ancient roots of the thoroughly modern jamband phenomenon.


The Beatles were not a jam band. However, they did jam, and George Harrison's fascination with Indian music produced some of their most memorable tunes. Harrison eventually became one of Shankar's most fervent disciples, and helped produce the landmark Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit featuring Shankar that raised money to aid flood victims.

Besides being a student and disciple of Shankar, George Harrison did as much as anybody to promote his music in the West. The classic Beatles tune Norwegian Wood was the first time many Westerners had ever heard the sitar. This unusual 19-stringed instrument was capable of subtle inflection and rich overtones that were unlike anything in Western music. That exotic, mysterious flavor helped give Norwegian Wood much of its charm, even if George's sitar playing isn't up to the level of Master Shankar.

“Within You Within You,” from the monstrously successful Sgt. Pepper album, was the first time that a Western act incorporated Indian musicians playing traditional instruments. An ensemble of talented players accelerates the haunting central riff to a stunning, powerful climax midway through the song. The spiritual impact of the music is augmented by the lyrics, including the Universal Hippie Mantra: "With our love, with our love we can save the world."


In no time, our jamband forefathers began eagerly exploring this new palette of sonic color. The late, great, criminally overlooked Butterfield Blues Band deserves credit for first synthesizing Indian sounds and Western music in their classic East-West. Released in 1965, this intense and uncompromising jam still packs a wallop today.

Legend has it that that Butterfield guitarist Mike Bloomfield came up with the idea for “East-West” during an all-night acid trip. After cloistering himself in his room for most of the night, Bloomfield finally emerged and announced that he had a revelation into the inner workings of Indian music. “East-West” is the legacy of that revelation.

“East-West” is constructed of two different rasas, or moods. The opening segment is turbulent, troubled and angst-ridden, with Eastern-sounding guitar wailing in sorrow and despair as Butterfield's harmonica roars in anguish. The bass line propels the jam along in dadra tal, a traditional Indian rhythm with six beats divided 3/3.

After Bloomfield builds the jam to an apocalyptic peak, the band effortlessly glides into a very different, much happier place. Slowly and patiently the joyful vibe builds and builds, finally arriving at a supremely happy riff that carries the band off into the Dream Jam Zone.

The Butterfield Blues Band was an early regular at the Fillmores, and their influence on jam heavyweights like the Allman Brothers, the Dead, and Santana can hardly be overstated. “East-West” in particular was a hugely influential piece of music. At 13 minutes, it was the first really long jam by a "rock band," and showed that there was an audience out there that was interested in more than hit singles. Bloomfield's dazzling guitar work earned him a place in the pantheon with Clapton and Hendrix back in the day, however forgotten he may be today.


On July 17th, 1967, the Monterey Pop Festival served as Ravi's coming-out party in the U.S. He played a special afternoon set in front of an audience that was full of jamband pioneers. The Monterey Pop movie (highly recommended) shows Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield sitting in the front row for Shankar's performance, both men utterly transfixed by the virtuosity of the great Indian master.

One of the remarkable things about the Indian system of music is that every melody, or raga, is associated with a specific emotion, and often with a certain time of day. This is one of the reasons Shankar asked for the special afternoon slot, so that his music would stand apart from the raucous sounds of bands like The Who. This seemed to work, as the audience remained quiet and respectful during the performance, only to explode with applause afterwards.

Indian music had definitely arrived in the United States. Here was an entire musical system that was as rigorous and complex as anything the West had produced, yet it was so new, so exotic, so different. To the burgeoning psychedelic scene, it was like finding a whole new path to musical transcendence. Even better, it was a clearly marked, well-traveled path that had been providing ecstatic release for generations of listeners for thousands of years.


One of the many bands at Monterey Pop was the Grateful Dead. They didn't even make the cut for the movie, and never considered it one of their better performances. Even so, it was worth it for the opportunity to see some of their most important influences up close. Otis Redding's soul-shattering set planted the seeds for covers like “Hard To Handle” and “Lovelight,” while Shankar helped spark their long-running interest in Eastern music.

If nothing else, the Dead were incredible synthesists, able to adapt the music of many different cultures into one sound. They assimilated much Middle Eastern music, and this side of them is well documented on Blues For Allah and helped inspire their 1978 trip to Egypt. However, they were also influenced by the music of the Indian subcontinent. Phil Lesh has said that the band was listening to a lot of Northern Indian music in the 60's, which is reflected in the frenzied release of jams like “Viola Lee Blues” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)”.

A band that began its musical career at the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests knows all about using music as a key to unlock higher levels of consciousness. “The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion” is a good example of this attitude in the Dead's music, and a song whose title and lyrics borrow heavily from Eastern mysticism. The Dead could respect Shankar's ability to transport his audience to otherwordly realms. In a very real way, the Indian classical musician serves as high priest at a ritual intended to produce a spiritual effect on the listener. However heretical it may sound to some, that is exactly the intent of most jam bands.


Most people who know me know that “Mountain Jam” is my favorite piece of music ever. This Allman Brothers classic is well-known in the jamband community, but not many know that it is derived from a Donovan song called “First There Is A Mountain.” The lyrics of the chorus go something like this:

First there is a mountain,
then there is no mountain
then there is.

This verse refers to the three stages of enlightenment. At first, the ignorant man sees an object at face value, never guessing at its transcendent nature. Then, once we perceive the transcendent in all things, this radiance can sometimes overshadow the reality of the world. Finally, the truly enlightened man sees both the mountain and the divinity that created it.

The spirituality of the original song is part of what gives “Mountain Jam” its power, but the majority of it comes from six people working together in harmony to create a wonderfully rich and powerful sound. The structure of the song is profoundly similar to Indian music, with the band starting out soft and then building up, hinting at the theme before they finally play it. Once the energy of the theme has been built up, the band goes into half an hour of the best kind of free-form improv, only to return to the theme for the big finish.

The subtlety and dynamics of “Mountain Jam” speak to me of Indian music, as well as the magnificently Eastern slide solo in the second half of the song. Even if there was no other obvious connection to Indian music, the similarity between “Mountain Jam” and “East-West” would connect the dots indirectly. Most importantly, “Mountain Jam” is a wonderful example of a melody carrying a specific emotion. I dare anybody to listen to the “Mountain Jam” theme and not feel happy and peaceful. This notion of sound as emotion is probably the biggest influence of Indian music on the Allmans, and the dramatic Fillmore East “Whipping Post” is another great example of their ability to convey emotion through music.


Yes, Phish. The Vermont jammers actually have several jams with Indian overtones. The free-floating ending jam in “Reba” is a case in point. Trey begins by introducing the various notes and phrases, a technique called alap in the Indian system. The jam builds slowly and patiently, growing in an organic way until it bursts into pure light. As a friend of mine once said, Trey melts into his guitar during this jam, and this total identity with your instrument is the goal of Indian music as well. (Okay, I'll admit that the whistling and disturbing lyrics would not be found on a Ravi Shankar album, but stay with me.)

There are several good examples in the Phish catalog of the "build from silence into total frenzy" technique. The relentless tempo-driven momentum of a good “David Bowie” jam is reminiscent of the driving rhythms of Indian music, ever escalating to an ecstatic ending.

“Harry Hood” is another good example, as the final jam definitely carries a lot of emotional content for many Phish fans. You really CAN feel good about Hood, and that's because the music is designed that way on purpose.

Most importantly, Phish has a vision of live music as spiritual ceremony that is very sympathetic with the Indian worldview. Trey has said that the looks at playing a live show as "performing a ritual." When a master Indian musician plays an ancient raga, he is serving as high priest at a ritual that has been performed for thousands of years in much the same way.

Anyone who enjoys great musicians playing great music should make an effort to educate themselves about the wonders of Indian music. I have focused mainly on Ravi Shankar, due to his enormous influence on Western music, but there are many equally worthy artists. The jamband scene owes a lot to this rich and ancient musical tradition, so check it out!

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