At first, it sounds like one of those weirdly random food combinations that bored stoners might experiment with (bananas and taco sauce?). On Thursday at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, 1980s hitmakers Violent Femmes (“Blister in the Sun”) will take the stage with Indian-American sitar master Ashwin Batish.
Turns out, this pairing is anything but random. The post-punk trio from Wisconsin and the sitarist from Santa Cruz have been occasionally performing together for decades. The unlikely collaboration is a vestige of one of those largely forgotten and bizarrely inspired impromptu jams that pop up throughout modern music history.
In 1991, at the New Jazz Festival in Moers, Germany, madly adventurous avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne convened a supergroup featuring jazz banjo giant Tony Trischka and Jimmy Carl Black, famed drummer for Frank Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention. Among the many others recruited for the band to be known as “The Daffy Duck Dozen” was Violent Femmes bass player Brian Ritchie and sitarist and tabla player Batish.
The two men enjoyed improvising together on stage and struck up a friendship. Batish began jamming with the Femmes when the band came to the Bay Area. The relationship has actually intensified over the past few years. And now, in addition to sitting in with the band, Batish will open for them with his own group, which includes his sister Meena on vocals and his son Keshav on percussion.
Jamming with the Violent Femmes whenever the band comes to the Bay Area isn’t merely incidental for the 67-year-old Batish. It is at the core of the man’s nearly five-decade career bridging East and West with a specific mission to push Indian classical music further down to the path to evolution. Few musicians are more comfortable straddling cultural traditions than Batish, who is both a lifelong student of the complexities of the Indian raga system of music, and a freewheeling maverick merrily looking for collaboration and influence in Western styles wherever he can find them.
Batish has found a way to be comfortably both a traditionalist and a maverick—in his case, a contradiction contained in the label “Indian-American.”
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In Santa Cruz, the Batish family name is a familiar one, even for those who have never heard Indian music. The name itself is prominently featured on a square vermillion-colored building on Mission Street, in the heart of Santa Cruz’s commercial district. What once was Santa Cruz’s most prominent Indian restaurant is now more of a grocery and gift shop. It also serves as the hub for the Batish musical mini-empire.
Batish’s story is a family story. The Mission Street center is his family business and has provided a living for himself, his siblings and his wife and children for more than 40 years. The sly, jovial Batish is known for his ever-present trucker’s hat advertising Sitar Power, his personal brand.
Batish first came to California at the age of 23, in the early 1970s. “All I remember was people moving their heads very … very … slowly,” he recalls. “I’m coming from London and, before that, Bombay. I’m high speed. My sitar playing is a million miles an hour and I come here, and it’s like everyone is trying to slow me down. I thought, Oh my God, where am I? It literally took me a year to slow down and learn to relax, and now I never want to change.”
You can’t tell the story of Ashwin Batish without the story of his father, S.D. Batish. It was Ashwin’s dad who developed a name as a prominent composer and performer in the Indian film industry going back to the 1930s in India, and then in the U.K. And it was S.D. who decided to follow a hunch and move to Santa Cruz in the late 1960s, where he settled until his death in 2006.
Shiv Dayal Batish was a giant in the Indian film industry as a composer, singer and instrumentalist in the early Bollywood period. He later became a prominent presence in the U.K., where he composed and performed the theme song for the hit BBC show “Make Yourself at Home,” a drama recorded in Hindustani designed to help Indian immigrants assimilate. Among his credits at the time was the recording of incidental music for the Beatles’ movie Help! He also developed a teacher-student relationship with George Harrison’s wife (and famous rock & roll muse) Pattie Boyd.
In 1969, mathematician Ralph Abraham was in London, on a sabbatical from his faculty position at UC Santa Cruz. Abraham was interested in the Indian spiritual tradition and wanted to take up the veena, an Indian string instrument. He called a number he found in an Indian magazine and soon found himself in the South London drawing room of S.D. Batish.
“He was this tall, imposing, very handsome figure,” remembers Abraham, “and I said, ‘I would like to learn the veena.’ He laughed and pointed to the corner and there was this large musical instrument covered with a cloth, which he pulled away and there was a vichitra veena, of which he was a master. Then he said, ‘First, you have to learn how to play the sitar. And to do that, you have to learn how to play the tabla and practice for a couple of years.’”
If Abraham had been intimidated by the elder Batish’s timeline, the Batish family story would have taken another turn entirely. But he was not. Abraham took up the lessons and eventually helped secure Batish a temporary position teaching Indian music at UCSC, which was just a few years old at the time. Abraham was living in a 24-room Victorian mansion in Santa Cruz and he invited the elder Batish and his wife to share the house.
“They completely revolutionized our life,” Abraham remembers. “They taught us the elements of Indian cooking and spiritual practices and we would meditate and play music together all day.”
After the UCSC assignment ended, the Batishes decided to stay on in Santa Cruz and open a restaurant, eventually bringing in other family members, including a young Ashwin. “So we loaded up the truck and we moved to Santa Cruz,” Ashwin Batish says, mimicking The Beverly Hillbillies theme song with a laugh.
The Batishes’ restaurant doubled as a performance space and it was there, through nightly performances, where Ashwin graduated from tabla to sitar. For the next dozen years or more, Ashwin performed almost every night, often with his father. At the same time, the elder Batish took on the massive task of converting several thousand Indian ragas to Western notation, a mission that would comprise his life’s work in his later years. The result is an ambitious multi-volume set of scales in Western notation by father and son titled Ragopedia.
During a time of intense generational conflict in the U.S., Ashwin Batish was able to both work closely with his father in documenting the Indian raga tradition and create a signature sound by taking Indian music where it had not gone before. The 1990 collaboration with what was called the Daffy Duck Dozen was typical of the kinds of musical collisions that Batish sought out. His taste for experimentalism and culture clashes soon resulted in Sitar Power, not merely an album title but a kind of collaborative East-meets-West ethic. Batish was not following on the heels of the much more famous Ravi Shankar by bringing traditional Indian music to the West. He was more interested in adapting sitar music and raga scales to Western music, and bring the sitar sound to surf rock, reggae, jazz, samba, and R&B rhythms.
Only in California did Batish feel comfortable enough to freely adapt sitar and Indian raga scales to other kinds of music. “It’s a fun way to look at the world,” he said in his Santa Cruz studio. “Being here and not having anyone bugging you—‘Why are you changing this? Why are you changing that?’ If you say something is jazz or bebop, you have to stick to the elements of those things. If you’re doing classical, someone is going to say, ‘Are you really doing classical?’ I never worried about all that. I’m in California. I don’t give a crap. I just do it for the fun of it.”
Not only is he known for his voracious experimentation, his irreverent, very American sense of humor surfaces in his punny song titles (“Sitary Sitary Night,” “Smokey and the Pandit”).
“He was 16 when I met him,” Abraham says of of Ashwin. “He developed a very hip California style early on. He resonated with young people. At the same time, he maintained the classic tradition through his father. He has this total knowledge of hundreds of ragas and the subtleties of playing them. He’s the ideal conduit between the authentic tradition and young people in California.”
“The best musicians are fearless,” says the Violent Femmes’ Ritchie. “That’s the quality that he has that makes him appealing. When you’re improvising, especially if you’re playing with people you don’t normally play with, and you really go for it, you need that fearlessness. That’s what sets him apart.”
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In January, Batish was given an opportunity to complete a circle when he was invited to teach at UCSC, which was what brought his family to the U.S. to begin with almost 50 years ago. He has been teaching a course in Indian percussion in classes that contain up to 50 general-ed students. The tabla is a big focus, but the class features several other Indian percussive instruments, including the dholak, the mridagam and manjeera. “I tell my students select the thing that you like, and next week, we’re going to switch.”
Batish’s son Keshav Batish is also now a UCSC student and an accomplished drummer in his own right. He has been working as his father’s teaching assistant (“Keshav has been taking my class since he was born,” Ashwin jokes). His daughter Mohini, who is also a musician, has just graduated high school and is on her way to UCSC as well.
Batish likes to joke that he was born in Santa Cruz; and he’s not lying—the punch line is that he’s referring to a district, often spelled “Santacruz,” in Mumbai (now the official name of the city called Bombay when Batish was born). When S.D. Batish arrived in Santa Cruz, no one expected him to stay there for decades, least of all his son.
“Once you’re here, there’s just some kind of vibe that you really don’t want to move from here. The thing about this place. I can be myself over here. I can do whatever I want. That’s a very important thing.
Violent Femmes, with Ashwin Batish
Thursday, June 21, 7:30 p.m.
Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga
$39.50 to $79.50