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Indo-Western Fusion with the Amjad Ali Khans and Carrie Newcomer

What is it that makes the fusion of disparate music forms such as Indian classical and American folk music even conceivable? If the experience of a leading American musician, Carrie Newcomer is anything to go by, it simply builds and thrives on the deep, non-verbal reach of music.

 It’s a long way from Indiana to India, but American folk artist Carrie Newcomer and India’s famed Amjad Ali Khan family have shortened the distance by forming a musical bridge.

Photo by Available Light Records 

Newcomer has a new album out, 'Everything is Everywhere', a collaboration with three of the best sarod players in the world, Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan. While holding the role of artist-in-residence at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, Newcomer swapped music and ideas at the Khan home one afternoon. And before they knew it, one musical note just led to another.

"When Amjad Ali Khan sang a traditional Indian melody that first afternoon in the Khan family studio I found myself weeping. I didn’t understand the words, but I was powerfully moved by the depth and soul of the music." - Carrie Newcomer.

“At that first meeting it became apparent that even though Indian classical and western singer-songwriter forms are very different, there was a shared spirit in our works. When Amjad Ali Khan sang a traditional Indian melody that first afternoon in the Khan family studio I found myself weeping. I didn’t understand the words, but I was powerfully moved by the depth and soul of the music,” says Newcomer.

“That same afternoon I sang one of my songs called 'The Gathering of Spirits'. When I finished the song I saw  Ayaan's lovely wife Neema had tears in her eyes. Music is a language deeper than words. It was a beautiful experience working with Amjad, Amaan and Ayaan,” she says.

It was sitar maestro Ravi Shankar who really popularized the Indo-western fusion genre in music - leading to Beatles' bandmember George Harrison playing the song, 'Norwegian wood' on the Sitar in 1965. All sorts of indo-western collaborations followed, and the buzz died down a little in the 80s. However recent years have seen the return of the genre in a big way - especially post the bang hit 'Jai Ho' by A.R. Rahman - which was then fused into several western remixes, including that from popular American band, the PussyCat Dolls.

Newcomer, a music tour veteran, loves “the personality of places". She first toured India in 2009 and says was drawn to the country's outsized personality - returning to Indiana with a notebook filled with India’s sights and sounds.

The Khan clan: Amjad, Amaan and Ayaan went to Bloomington a year later to record with Newcomer, Grammy-nominated percussionist Jim Brock and pianist Gary Walters. They built on songs and basic tracks created by Newcomer since her return from India. The album’s finishing touches were completed by sharing audio files over the Internet after the Khans’ left America.

“We needed to be willing to try new things. We are all accomplished in our individual musical careers; we all do what we do very well. But this required we take risks and expand how we approached a song,’ says Newcomer.

“I think we all loved being able to find that new and creative musical edge that could propel a song like “Breathe In, Breathe Out" or touch the heart like "I Believe" or "Everything is Everywhere," Newcomer says, "We really didn't know when we went into the studio if the collaboration would work. But from the very first notes it was apparent something magical was happening,” she says. 

“The idea was to create songs that were based in western song form, but would integrate and preserve the power, depth and energy of Indian music. I did not want to create western songs, add a tabla and call it fusion,” said Newcomer.

The range of Newcomer’s voice is very low. For years reviewers have compared her voice to “dark chocolate.” There is something about the sound of a woman's voice singing in those deep lower ranges and the beautiful resonate low tones of the sarod that are surprisingly complimentary, they have been saying.

When I mention to Newcomer that one of the younger Khans had observed that the way she plays slide guitar is very similar to the way that they play the sarod, she is amused but very pleased. 

“I have always tuned my guitar in alternative tunings that incorporated drone strings and have played with a rhythmic style that feels similar to sarod stylings. It was a wonderful discovery. The first time I toured in India it felt like I'd been writing my whole life for the Indian listeners,” she says.

“When writing for this album, two of the songs were composed on a traditional American folk instrument called the mountain dulcimer which has several droning strings and can have a slide feel to it as well.”

An incredibly prolific songwriter, Newcomer has 13 solo albums under her belt. She was included on Boston's radio station, WUMB’s list of the “Top Most Influential Artists” of the past 25 Years.

All nine songs on 'Everything is Everywhere' were written for this collaboration. “The idea was to create songs that were based in western song form, but would integrate and preserve the power, depth and energy of Indian music. I did not want to create western songs, add a tabla and call it fusion,” says Newcomer. “The idea was to truly expand all our musical edges and create something new and unique. I believe we accomplished that.”

Marg Herder, a well-known recording artist and owner of Softsound, says the album's first song, 'Breathe In, Breathe Out', had her hooked and she turned it up so she could hear the nuance of the mix: “The playing, loose and free, piques your interest. Moments later, the sarod foreshadows a vocal melody. Enter Jim Brock's percussion work. Here he crafts a beat that practically dares you to keep from bobbing your head. Thickly layered, chant-like vocals start. Ah, there's the sound of a strumming guitar. The sarod solo now sounds familiar. And just like that, East meets West.”

An incredibly prolific songwriter, Newcomer has 13 solo albums under her belt. She was included on Boston's radio station, WUMB’s list of the “Top Most Influential Artists” of the past 25 Years.

Everything is Everywhere

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