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  • Thom Holmes

Sitars and Synthesizers

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


In this episode of the podcast, we explored the use of the Indian sitar in electronic music. The modern sitar is a stringed instrument that can have 18, 19, 20, or 21 strings. Five to seven of these strings are used to play melodies, running along a fretboard and the rest are sympathetic strings positioned underneath the frets to add a resonant drone to the played strings. The sitar has 20 frets that are arched and can be moved to change tunings. The neck is long, the instrument has a large resonating body made from a gourd and often has a smaller gourd under the peg board. Overall, the sitar measures about 4 feet or 1.2 meters long.


Prior to 1965, the sound of the sitar was usually heard only in traditional ragas and folk songs of India. The Beatles album Rubber Soul, with its use of the sitar by George Harrison on the track Norwegian Wood, led to an immediate adaptation of the instrument in pop and rock music of the West. The Rolling Stones, Traffic, the Guess Who, Pentangle, and many others all worked it into their songs. Jazz musicians such as Mile Davis, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Wolfgang Dauner added the sitar to their combos. Some of these artists used actual sitars and practiced sitar players, others played it themselves, such as George Harrison of the Beatles and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and still others used a guitar-like instrument known as the Coral Electric Sitar. The Coral Electric Sitar was invented in 1967 in Los Angeles by session musician and guitarist Vinnie Bell, and while his instrument was more electric guitar than sitar, it included 6 strings for playing melodies and chords plus 13 sympathetic strings that could be strummed to provide a droning reminiscent of the sitar. In this program, we will hear some examples of the Coral Electric sitar, but mostly we’ll focus on the traditional sitar used in electronic music arrangements.


Beginning around 1970, there was a growing affinity of the sitar with electronic music. The musical form of the raga is akin to the improvisation and spaciousness of much electronic music. Synthesizers such as the Moog, Buchla, and ARP could reproduce drones and rhythms that could play in harmony with the sitar. Like electronic music, the soothing sounds and extended musical threads of sitar music weave a meditative atmosphere and soothe the restless mind. We are going to explore this union of the sitar with electronic music beginning in 1970 and leading to the present.


Joining me for this podcast was Ami Dang, electronic musician, sitar player, and instructor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She hails from Baltimore and learned classical style sitar locally and in India. We heard several recent works by Ami and she explained her sitar training, the symbiotic relationship between sitar music and electronics and her approach to fusing the two. You can explore releases of her music as well as check out her podcast at her website.


We embarked on a retrospective listen to the past fifty years at the sitar used in electronic music.


In roughly chronological order, we heard two tracks from Ananda Shankar from 1970, two tracks from Dutch sitar and Moog player Okko Bekker from around 1971, including a German yoga instruction record, a track from German group Amon Duul II in 1972, Yves Hayat with a track from a DeWolfe recording for broadcast libraries dated at 1976, The American group Cosmology from 1977, a 1978 track from the French progressive rock band Clearlight, and then we will jump to the more present with a dub-influenced track from Greek musician Sitarsonic and Belgium-based Electric Universe from 2020, and finally a trance-inducing treat from Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO, from Japan from 2003. You can see the podcast for a complete, detailed playlist for this episode.


Playlist

1. Vincent Bell With Orchestra, “Quiet Village,” from Pop Goes The Electric Sitar (1967 Decca). The Coral Electric Sitar with chorus and orchestra. Coral electric sitar, Vinnie Bell (its inventor). AKA Vincent Gambella, a popular session player, primarily on guitar.


2. Big Jim Sullivan, “Flower Power,” from Sitar Beat (1967 Mercury). Sitar and electric guitar, Jim Sullivan.


3. Ultimate Spinach, “Your Head is Reeling,” from Ultimate Spinach (1968 MGM). Vocals, Lead Guitar, Guitar Feedback, Sitar [Electric], Geoffrey Winthrop. A very brief introduction to this longer track, featuring the Coral Electric Sitar.


4. Enoch Light And The Light Brigade, “Marrakesh Express,” from ‎Permissive Polyphonics (1970 Project 3 Total Sound). Coral Electric Sitar, Vinnie Bell; Moog Modular Synthesizer, Dick Hyman; Electric Alto Sax, Arnie Lawrence; Bass, Julie Ruggiero; Drums, Billy LaVorgna.


5. Ami Dang, “Conch and Crow” from Parted Plains (2019 Leaving Records). Sitar, electronics, audio processing, voice, Ami Dang.


6. Ami Dang, “Souterrain” from Parted Plains (2019 Leaving Records). Sitar, electronics, audio processing, voice, Ami Dang.


7. Ami Dang, “Simplicity Mind Tool” from Meditations Mixtape Vol.1 (2020 Leaving Records). Sitar, electronics, audio processing, voice, Ami Dang.


8. Ananda Shankar, “Dance Indra,” from Ananda Shankar (1970 Reprise). Ananda Shankar is not related to Ravi Shankar, the great classical Indian sitar master. Sitar, Ananda Shankar; Keyboards, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Paul Lewinson; Tabla, Pranish Khan; Drums, Joe Pollard, Michael Botts; Bass, Jerry Scheff, Mark Tulin; Guitar, Dick Rosmini, Drake Levin. Trivia, produced by James Lowe and included Mark Tulin on bass, both members of the Electric Prunes from the late Sixties. Paul Lewison was playing a Moog owned by producer Alex Hassilev. Shankar wanted to combine Western and Indian music into a “new form” as he called it. Melodious, touching, combining modern electronics and traditional sitar. I think he succeeded. I have included two striking examples that stray a bit from the pop rock flavor of many of the tracks.


9. Ananda Shankar, “Raghupati,” from Ananda Shankar (1970 Reprise). Sitar, Ananda Shankar; Keyboards, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Paul Lewinson; Tabla, Pranish Khan; Drums, Joe Pollard, Michael Botts; Bass, Jerry Scheff, Mark Tulin; Guitar, Dick Rosmini, Drake Levin.


10. Okko Bekker, “East Indian Traffic,” Sitar & Electronics (1970 BASF). Sitar, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Tabla, Okko Bekker; Moog Modular Synthesizer, Simon Alcott (alias of British pop pianist Les Humphries); Flute, Herb Geller; Guitar, Peter Haesslein. Bekker is a Dutch sitarist, keyboardist, and producer. Indian influenced psychedelic music from the days of the Moog Modular, recorded in Germany. This came several years after the Beatles and Stones experimented with the sitar but was an early album to combine the sitar with a Moog modular synthesizer. I have no idea where he learned sitar but I do know whose Moog he used for this recording. The producer Simon Alcott had purchased some Moog modular units in 1970. Alcott is also the alias of Les Humphries. Most of the album consists of cover tunes of rock songs, such as The Beatles. I chose one of bolder Moog tunes.


11. Okko Bekker, “Delphin, Makarasana,” from Yoga Für Millionen (1978? Maritim). A German album of yoga instruction with musical soloist Bekker playing Sitar, Tabla, Moog Synthesizer, Flute, and Percussion. The narrator is Ulrich Brockmann.


12. Amon Duul II, “Wie Der Wind Am Ende Einer Strasse” from Wolf City (1972 United Artists). Bass, Lothar Meid; Drums, D. Secundus Fichelscher; Electric Guitar, John Weinzieri; Sitar, Al Sri Al Gromer; Tabla, Pandit Shankar; Tambura, Liz van Neienhoff; Organ, Synthesizer, Falk-U Rogner; Soprano Saxophone, Olaf Kübler; Timpani, Peter Leopold; Violin, Chris Karrer Paul Heyda.


13. Yves Hayat, “Path to Ascension” from Conversation Between the East and The West (1976 DeWolfe). Composer, sitar, guitars, bass, synthesizers, Yves Hayat; keyboards, vocals, Diane Crisanti. Produced as a record for broadcast libraries.


14. Cosmology, “Out of the Kiva,” from Cosmology (1977 Vanguard). Sitar, congas, percussion, Collin Walcott; Vocals, Percussion; Dawn Thompson; Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass, Rick Kilburn; Drums, Bells, Bob Jospé; Fender Rhodes, Piano, Oberheim Synthesizer, Armen Donelian; Trombone, Dave Glenn; Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Tin Whistle, Mayan Flute, Flageolet, John D'earth.


15. Clearlight, “Full Moon Raga,” from Visions (1978 Polydor). Bass, Philippe Melkonian; Grand Piano, ARP Odyssey, Gong, Cyrille Verdeaux; Sitar, Patrick Depaumanou; Minimoog, Luc Plouton; Tabla, Mohamed Taha; Drums, Percussion, Jacky Bouladoux; Electric Guitar, Bottleneck Cosmique, Christian Boule; Flute, Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Didier Malherbe; Violin, Bass Violin, Didier Lockwood; Vocals, Gérard Aumont, Gérard Gustin. The fourth album from this French progressive rock group headed by Cyrille Verdeaux on keyboards and ARP Odyssey. I have two recordings of this album. The original from 1978 had much less synthesizer. In 1992 they remixed the LP and added more synthesizer and vocals to the tracks. We are hearing the remixed version.


16. Electric Universe and Sitarsonic, “Dub Stanza” from Dub Stanza (2020 Sacred Technology). Electric Universe is an ambient electronic musician who teamed up with sitarist and electronic musician Sitarsonic (Paco Rodriguez) to produce this dub-flavored work. Paco is from Greece. Electric Universe is in Belgium.


17. Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO, “Ziggy Sitar Dust Raga,” from Ziggy Sitar Dust Raga (2003 Important Records). Vocals, Sitar, Cotton Casino; Tambura, Kawabata Makoto; Synthesizer, Higashi Hiroshi; Vocals, Tsuyama Atsushi. A psychedelic, trance-inducing treat from this inventive group of Japanese improvisers.


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Electronic and Experimental Music

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