Sanjay Mishra: A Cross-Cultural Exploration in Music Many cultures incorporate the guitar into their musical heritages, but the instrument is unheard of in traditional Indian music. Guitarist Sanjay Mishra demonstrates how he coaxes Eastern sounds from a Western instrument.
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Sanjay Mishra: A Cross-Cultural Exploration in Music

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Sanjay Mishra: A Cross-Cultural Exploration in Music

Sanjay Mishra: A Cross-Cultural Exploration in Music

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The Alfred Publishing Company, specialists in music instruction books out of Van Nuys, California, has released a series called Guitar Atlas, focusing on guitar techniques from around the globe. African, Brazilian and Celtic styles, for example, are all represented. This year, there's a new title, Guitar Atlas: India. The author is Sanjay Mishra, an Indian-born player who now makes his home in Arlington, Virginia. He also has a new CD, called Chateau Benares.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: But we'll let you in on a little secret here. There really is no Indian guitar style. In fact, there are limitations to the Western instrument that make Indian music almost impossible to play on the guitar. Sanjay Mishra joins us in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. SANJAY MISHRA (Musician): Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

SEABROOK: It's great to have you here. So how in the world do you make a guitar sound Indian?

Mr. MISHRA: Well, I do it by adding a lot of tabla, which is a percussion instrument, and I think that probably in my recordings gives the predominant Indian flavor, more than the guitar, I would say.

But I do things like, you know, use a fretless guitar for one, in very small doses. And I do some slides on the instrument, which is not unusual in Western technique, either, in late Romantic music.

But getting rid of frets allows me to play that portomento that you hear in Indian music, where one note glides to another to another.

SEABROOK: Play it. Play it for me. Show me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: So they always slide from one note to another, which I find grating on my nerves, but you know, some people find it very...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MISHRA: I mean, it's an acquired taste. So I try not to use too much of that, because for me, I'm not playing Indian music on my records; it's fusion.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: Sometimes people listen to me, and they think, oh, that's Indian music. And then they go to an Indian concert, and they're just completely taken aback, because it's not what they were expecting at all.

SEABROOK: Well, let's switch over here - let's hear some techniques of Indian-sounding music on your fretless guitar here that you have set up.

Mr. MISHRA: I'll turn on this little drone, which keeps me in tune. So if I did something like, you know - in Western music, I would play...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: But in this, I would go...

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: That sounds beautiful to me.

Mr. MISHRA: Oh, thank you.

SEABROOK: It sounds gorgeous.

Mr. MISHRA: It's a cross between a Japanese koto and a guitar and an Indian instrument that I can think of.

SEABROOK: So you are telling people in your - in this latest book, which actually, it's an instruction book, it's a learning book.

Mr. MISHRA: Yes.

SEABROOK: How to make their guitars sound like sitars or other Indian music.

Mr. MISHRA: Teaching them a little bit about Indian music. You know, when I was first given the project, I said I'd love to do it. This is a book I've been writing in my head for the last, you know, I don't know how many years. And then when I actually sat down to write it, you know, it's like somebody saying, could you write about America in 47 pages?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MISHRA: And you go, well, there's so much. I mean, you know, what do I include and what do I leave out?

SEABROOK: Well, let's say people don't have access to, say, you know, an Instadrone and a fretless guitar.

Mr. MISHRA: Right.

SEABROOK: How can they play Indian music?

Mr. MISHRA: Well, it's interesting what techniques are used. The drone can be substituted by just re-tuning the bass strings to an open tuning, which is not unusual in Western music either. Like for instance right now, even my fretless...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: tuned to an open tuning.

SEABROOK: Which means a chord without putting any fingers down.

Mr. MISHRA: It's just fifths, not thirds.


Mr. MISHRA: So it doesn't give a major-minor feeling, it just has an open sort of sound. So you can just keep strumming that, which a lot of Renaissance lute players did. And then the other thing that a lot of Indian musicians do but I don't do, they use a lot of oil on their fingertips.


Mr. MISHRA: So if you notice, if you go to an Indian concert, they're constantly dipping their fingers in oil, because it helps slide smoother.

SEABROOK: Interesting.

Mr. MISHRA: But I don't use oil because oil just destroys the strings on a guitar. The wound strings, particularly, get wrecked by oil because the oil gets in between the winding and then the stet.

SEABROOK: Do me a favor and pick up your - the guitar you have that has frets, and give us a little primer on how our listeners at home who might play, you know, a normal guitar, could get some of these sounds.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: I mean, it's hard. You know, as I say in my book, that a fretted is - but now you could do...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: So that kind of - but the limitation with that is that sometimes you hear the fret as you're sliding.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: So I'll play something that I played on one of my CDs. It sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: So I use a combination of slide and normal technique.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You're one of those hidden musicians, I think, that the general public may not know who you are, but you've played with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, you've played - you play with DJ Logic on this album. You've played with all of these great...

Mr. MISHRA: Dennis Chambers.

SEABROOK: Yeah, great musicians that they have heard of. Tell me a little bit about the people you play with in your most recent CD.

Mr. MISHRA: Most recent CD are people that I've been sort of playing live with over the last couple of years. So Keller Williams, who's from Virginia. I met Logic. Also we played a concert together. And I thought, you know, wouldn't it be fascinating to include tablas, which is a completely Eastern instrument, with a turntable, somebody scratching on a turntable. And you know, believe me, 20 years ago when I was at Peabody, if somebody had told me I'd be working with somebody scratching records, I would've said, oh, impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MISHRA: And here I am, you know, going, wow, this is fascinating.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You know, I have to ask you this question. The music you play is hypnotic and exotic and beautiful. Do you ever feel like you're in danger of crossing that, quote, "New Age line," or do you take on that?

Mr. MISHRA: You know, I don't feel any danger because I went to music conservatory too long to cross the New Age line, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What do you mean? What does that mean to you then?

Mr. MISHRA: Well, I mean - no offense to any New Age musicians, but New Age musicians sort of keep it more on the textural level. It's more the sound of the ocean crashing against a piano that's playing gentle, sort of Liberace-like melodies. And I'm saying that in a derogatory way. I'm just trying to think what it reminds me of, whereas I think my music has too many...

SEABROOK: It's complex.

Mr. MISHRA: It's complex, yeah. It's not just something you can put on in the background.

SEABROOK: It's also very - it calls into mind a kind of spirituality.

Mr. MISHRA: That I would agree, because I think to me music is a spiritual exercise. I mean, we work, of course, every day on our technique and trying to play cleaner, better, but the idea itself, I think - how does one compose? I mean, nobody really knows that answer, you know. Some people say it's divine. Other people say they're influenced by the trash can they saw on the street that morning.

You know, everybody has their own way. But I think ultimately in its higher form it's sort of a communion with God when you're a really good musician, because I think it all exists already. It's like Shakespeare said: All things are ready if your mind be so. And musicians just tap into this thing, whatever it is. Some people say, oh, I heard it in a dream. Others say, you know, it just came to me.

Paul Hindemith, a great composer, he described it at a very earthly level. He said composition - I'm paraphrasing now, somebody told me this - composition is walking out into a dark void, and there's a lightning strike, and in that one second, whatever you see, you have to paint it exactly.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MISHRA: And so I think that one second is the divine spark, and then comes the craft of taking that little germ and then making it into a full-fledged piece. A composer like Johann Sebastian Bach was a master of that. I mean, he takes one little idea, and he can just make it into an entire suite, if he likes to.

So I believe that the initial idea is a divine inspiration that's very small, and then it's the skill and the art of the composer to take that and flesh it out and make it into a full-fledged piece.

SEABROOK: Sanjay Mishra. His new CD is called Chateau Benares. Thanks so much for coming in, and again, could you play us out with something?

Mr. MISHRA: Yes. I'll play a very short piece, sort of a tip my hat to Debussy on this with the title. It's called The Lady With the Flowers, and there's a middle section there which is a Debussy. So here it is.

SEABROOK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "The Lady With the Flowers")

SEABROOK: Guitarist Sanjay Mishra. You can hear more music from his new CD on our Web site, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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