Into the mix

Embarking on a music project, Amit Chaudhuri was determined to avoid tired clichés about east and we

In 1999, on returning to India after 16 years in England, I began once more to listen to my old record collection. It comprised, in large part, a once-beloved array of American singer/songwriters, British rock musicians, and a fastidious selection of the blues and jazz, all of which I had ostentatiously turned away from in the early 1980s as I grew more and more involved in north Indian classical music, and as my subterranean writerly aspirations began to become increasingly powerful, especially following my arrival in England. Listening after almost two decades to Jimi Hendrix and others, I noticed what I had already realised in the late 1970s - when I played the guitar and had begun to learn the raga, and two or more musical systems had briefly overlapped in my life - that the pentatonic blues scale is identical to certain pentatonic ragas.

This led to a sort of double hearing; the conscious mind was registering one sort of performance or form, and the subconscious was stirred to recall another. Further, this created experiences of what I call "mishearings": for instance, one morning, when I was practising the raga Todi, as I usually do at that time of day, I heard the riff to Clapton's "Layla" in a handful of notes I was singing. I began to wonder, surreptitiously, whether some sort of hybrid musical vocabulary - distinct from the bringing-together we ordinarily associate with Indo-western "fusion" - might result from these "mishearings". It was this speculation that led to the experiment in music in which I've been involved for the past three years, called "This Is Not Fusion".

A person who has given such a title to a project had better have some thoughts on what fusion is. And this is the question I would like any listener to ask; not just, "Why is it not fusion?" but "What is fusion, after all?" It is a word we use, especially when talking about music, and in the context of Indo-western contemporary music in particular, as if it referred to a particular sort of activity that needed no further explanation. West, east; sitar, drums, tabla, marimba, bass guitar - these are just some of the components of "fusion" as we understand it today, especially in India. Permeating these combinations are un examined beliefs about identity and where we come from; beliefs that should be challenged in the course of a "fusion" performance.

A common assumption - call it prejudice or conviction, depending on which side of the divide you are - is that "fusion" comprises a departure, scandalous or liberating, from the canonical musical traditions. Yet we all know that these traditions (I am speaking of the Indian musical landscape within which I work, but I suspect the examples could be changed and the point still be made) - say, Indian classical music, or jazz, or film music, or rock, or Tagore-songs - came into existence as hybrid forms; that their richest periods will be the ones of assimilation, the fallowest in which their proponents subscribe to an inherited version of that music.

Canonical traditions both protect themselves from the arbitrariness of fusion and, in practice, thrive on it. When we listen to a song composed by the great music director from 1950s Hindi cinema O P Nayyar, we aren't listening to it as if it were a form in which unrelated musical sounds and cultural registers had come together, but as a variety of a genre we recognise as "Hindi film music". Nevertheless we wonder at the magical juxtaposition of the double bass and the sarangi, a stringed instrument used for accompanying classical vocalists, in a single song.

Similarly, when we listen to the Pakistani classical virtuosos Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan singing, we are aware of listening to a khayal (the principal classical genre for vocal music), and not to an unexpected bringing together of dhrupad (an earlier classical form) and Sufi- inflected qawwal elements. However, if we attend carefully, we will notice those disparate registers inflecting their rendition. It is this tension with in canonical traditions that produces anxiety, pleasure, development, and the genuinely new treatments and compositions.

It often seems to me that it is difficult to find this inner tension in "fusion" music. Even though there might be a long-standing quarrel between fusion and the canonical traditions, there is no quarrel within fusion, and therefore no development; the fusion we hear in India today is fundamentally little different from the sounds that Shakti produced 30 years ago. One of the reasons for this is that, in fusion, eastern and western elements have a designated static quality, which is not the case in their own contexts, where they are embroiled in histories and debates. In east-west fusion as we know it here, for instance, the Indian representative is commonly a classical performer and the bearer of an ancient tradition; the western representative often a jazz musician, a well-known type of modern, the exhausted romantic who has had enough of modernity, and must renovate himself (it's usually "himself") through contact with immemorial cultures.

If we listen to Hindi film songs or advertisement jingles, however, we realise that "Indian" music is not just immemorial: it comprises the classical lineages (themselves fairly modern inventions), regional and folk forms, swing, blues, techno and, with a self-reflexivity that only the creators of the 30-second fillers on MTV seem to tap into, those film songs and jingles themselves.

The random list I have produced reminds us how bewilderingly music is located in class, history, physical environment. One of the more problematic features of fusion is its wide-eyed transcendence not only of nationality, but of locality. While jazz emerged from urban neighbourhoods, and Indian classical music from families and regions, fusion seems to have no phy sicality, no smoke, traffic, weather, or furniture. It occupies a quasi-mystical space that engenders compositions with names such as "Rebirth", "Destiny" and "Journey". This is why the com positions have no clear delineation, and sound like each other; it is also why, after all these years, we have trouble identifying a classic of the genre. Genres, compositions, even the troubled notion of the "classic", are informed by history and its dissonances. "Fusion", however, belongs to some universalist - now globalised - plane where two unlikes constantly embrace, and where conflict is not openly admissible.

If fusion still has potential, that is because it constitutes a search, not just for interracial contact, but for an idiom adequate to the spaces we have inhabited. Most importantly, unlike the canonical forms, it has the capacity always to remind us, with a degree of mischief, knowledge and musical conviction, that there is both such a thing and no such thing as "eastern" and "western" music.

For me, that there are no clear demarcations of western and Indian music in my memory - although I do feel these categories exist in tension with one another - presents both problems and opportunities. At the root of my indecision and ambivalence is, I suspect, my metropolitan upbringing in 1960s and 1970s India, which indefatigably and startlingly reallocated the "Indian" and the "western" in ways we still haven't quite come to terms with. It is a sound that might be true to that hybrid metropolitan milieu, something that might have been born from, and be played in, one of its neighbourhoods, rather than some pointed and repeated gesture of musical commingling that I've been looking for.

"This Is Not Fusion" by Amit Chaudhuri is available from the London Review Bookshop, London WC1, and on Apple iTunes (£6). More information:

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?