HOW THE WEST WAS WON
A brief history of how South Asian music went international
When sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan went to the US for the first time, he was struck by how westerners found it hard to believe that India had its own music. Released in 1955, the success of Music of India prompted HMV India to start producing LP-length Hindustani classical recordings.
Released in 1967, East Meets West went on to win its two collaborators—violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sitarist Ravi Shankar—a Grammy Award. Not just was Shankar the first Asian musician to win a Grammy, his influence abroad began to spread fast.
After his jazz fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra dissolved, British guitarist John McLaughlin joined violinist L. Shankar, tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and ghatam master T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram to form Shakti. The band’s output was sporadic, but their sound felt iconic from the start.
By 1997, the year he sadly passed away at the age of 48, the list of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s fans included everyone from Eddie Vedder to Madonna, but it was in 1985, when Khan took the stage at the WOMAD festival in Essex, that he made music history. It was the moment when qawwali first went global.
‘Asian underground’ once applied to everything—Apache Indian’s reggae and Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ (1998). It was in 1999 that Nitin Sawhney’s Beyond Skin and Talvin Singh’s Mercury Prize-winning OK gave fledgling attempts at fusion a mainstream spin.
Marked by rapturous applause and rave reviews, M.S. Subbulakshmi’s UN concert in October 1966 was surely historic, but her travel history also proves that the ‘first lady of Carnatic music’ had by then already filled concert halls from Edinburgh to Boston.
Ustad Vilayat Khan played in England in 1951, long before Ravi Shankar, but by the time he reached Boston for his first US tour in 1978, his rival had cornered the loyal sitar audiences. Yet, reviews hailed Khan as “the world’s greatest sitar player”.
The South Asian diaspora didn’t need Slumdog Millionaire’s rousing soundtrack to discover A.R. Rahman—they were grooving to ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ and ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ long before. But in the end, it took A.R. an operatic and touch over-the-top ‘Jai Ho’ to get Oscar and Grammy attention.