Sunday, June 14, 2015

Beats of India


My views on Cambridge seem to undulate continually from good to bad, although I'm still not particularly knocked out by the people I meet. However, I think most people going up to university suffer from misconceptions about the types they will meet there. Thinking they are going to find a place brimming over with interesting and enlightened people, it doesn't take them long to discover that the average student is in fact extraordinarily dull. So one just has to be patient and hope that one will eventually discover some of the above average. There does at the moment seem to be a hope of better things to come.

I went to an extremely interesting meeting of the Asian Music Circle the other night. It consisted of a lecture given by an Indian dancer about the themes and rhythms involved in Indian dancing as well as the philosophy behind it. There were also practical demonstrations given by him and his rather beautiful wife. It was all fascinating but so complicated that the mind boggled, and it made one aware of how far ahead of us the Indians are in certain artistic fields.
That is Nick Drake writing to his parents in November 1967. Nick studied at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge before abandoning academia for his all too short career as a singer-songwriter. He was fortunate to have Cambridge University's Asian Music Circle to mentor him, as Western popular culture's love affair with the Indian performing arts had not yet started: the Beatles did not travel to Rishikesh until February 1968 and Ravi Shankar performed at Woodstock a year later. Thankfully, in an age where music education is viewed as an expendable commodity, Cambridge continues its enlightened tradition of pedagogy. My header photo was taken yesterday evening at Beats of India, an interactive concert exploring the role of percussion in Hindustani and Canartic music presented by the university's Indian Classical Arts Society.

Diverse influences moulded Nick Drake's music. Masters of the guitar such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are acknowledged as primary influences. But Nick traveled in Morocco in 1967 where he was exposed to Middle Eastern tunings and Sufi rhythms, and he moved in the same circles as Fairport Convention's Richard Thompson, who is a Sufi adept and was an early member of the Beshara Sufi community. Hindustani music absorbed elements of the qawalli style from the Sufis of Muslim Afghanistan, and it can be speculated that Nick's exposure to Indian rhythms in Cambridge was an influence. His 1967 letter is reproduced in the recently published Nick Drake: Remembered for a While; here is an excerpt from an essay by Robin Frederick in that invaluable anthology hinting at the influence of the beats of India:

The regular, rhythmic beat of a drum, the steady throb of a bass string, the whispery pulse of chanting voices - all cast a kind of hypnotic spell over us. These things tug on the body, pulling it towards a rhythmic centre, containing it, capturing it. When you listen to a fast-paced, steady rhythm, it will cause your breathing and heart rate to gradually increase. An even unhurried beat will slow down your heart and breathing rate. This is the the magic of musical rhythm - it communicates with the physical body in ways that are outside of your awareness and beyond your control. That's one reason why so many cultural and religious rituals involve the steady rhythm of drums and voices. When the body becomes entrained, the mind follows, falling into a kind of rocking motion; thoughts becoming steady, repetitive, trance-like and open to suggestion.

Listening to the incantory drone of Nick Drake's guitar on tracks like Three Hours or Cello Song is to let your mind and body be drawn into that hypnotic place. You might not notice it at first, In fact, if there are too many distractions, you might not feel its influence very much at all. But if you listen late at night, when life is willing to leave you alone for a while, and you focus on the rhtthm of a Nick Drake track, you'll slowly beging to experience a sense of vertigo, of being pulled out of your own internal sense of time and into his.

My thanks go to music therapist Lyle Sanford for introducing me to Nick Drake: Remembered for a While. No comps involved in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" fo critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

No comments: