Global Bass Online May 2001
Ragas and Western Scales
By Lucas Pickford
Lately Iíve been immersed in
the world of Indian classical music. The music from India is an amazingly deep,
complex art form that has many things in common with our American art form of
jazz. Both rely heavily on improvisation, intricate rhythmic patterns, and both
utilize a vast array of scales for their melodic material. Most of us here
donít know much about the music of India or itís musical legends except for
perhaps sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Ravi is one of the only great musicians
from India that the average person in America has heard of.
That is a credit to him of course, as he is one the most amazing
musicians of the 20th century from any country. There are so many
great players from India that are on the scene here in America today though.
People like tabla master Zakir Hussain, mandolin prodigy U. Shrinivas, and sarod
genius Ali Akbar Khan just to name a very few. They are all tremendous masters
on their respective instruments and have all performed with some of our greatest
masters in jazz and rock. In this column I want to draw some parallels between
the ragas of North India and some of the scales we use here in jazz and in other
types of American music.
First though, what the heck is
a raga? Not just mere scales, ragas are precise melody forms with different
ascending and descending versions of themselves. Certain notes are used to bring
out the very unique ďcolorĒ of each raga. Specific degrees of the raga are
accentuated and embellished and that is what really gives each raga itís own
unique sound. Many Indian musicians like to stress however that although ragas
are modal in nature, they are not akin to the modes as we are taught them here.
The subtle differences in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note,
an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to another, and the
use of microtones together with other subtleties differentiate one raga from the
other. Many, many, ragas have no counterpart in either the modes or any scales
that I know of because of their different ascending and descending versions.
That doesnít mean though that they donít cross paths with our scales in the
West, they do.
One of the most inspiring
musicians to me from the jazz world who has cross pollinated with musicians from
India is the one and only guitarist, John McLaughlin. Starting back in the
70ís with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his groundbreaking group Shakti with
Zakir Hussain, John has blazed the trail for whatís possible when you combine
these two rich traditions. John is still touring with Shakti and their music is
truly amazing. If youíre not hip to them, check them out soon. There are
others like bassist Jonas Hellborg and Bela Fleck of Bela Fleck and The
Flecktones who have also done tremendous things with Indian musicians. I really
encourage all of you out there; even the ones who think you donít like Indian
music, to investigate some of these master musicians. The technical ability of
players like Zakir Hussain and U. Shrinivas is staggering. Indian music isnít
about hippies, free love, and incense. Itís some of the most technically
advanced, rhythmically sophisticated music in the world and if you give it a
chance you wonít be disappointed.
Here are some ragas that
usually on the descent are very similar to many of the modes and scales we use
in our neck of the woods.
This raga reminds me of a minor
ascending and the Dorian
This is similar to both the
scale and the Lydian
scale on the descent.
3. Rag Kirvani (ascending)
C-D-Eb-G-Ab-B-C (descending) C-B-Ab-G-F-Eb-D-C
This resembles the Harmonic minor scale.
4. Rag Tilang (ascending)
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (descending) C-Bb-A-G-F-E-D-C
This one is the Major scale going up and the Mixolydian scale coming down.
Pilu (ascending) C- Eb- F-G-B-C (descending)
Similar to Melodic minor going up and Aeolian on the way down.
As you can see, some of these ragas are like partial scales. Some notes are left out on the way up or down and that is what slightly changes the melodic possibilities when improvising on them. Iíve only scratched the surface of Indian music but I continue to study and learn more all the time. Ultimately, music is the language of the world, just spoken with a slightly different accent depending on where you are. To learn more about these scales and Indian music in general, check out the Sounds of India page on my web site www.lucaspickford.com.
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