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ALCOHOL IN INDIAN MUSIC

ALCOHOL IN INDIAN MUSIC

by Al Gromer Khan ©

When I was a small boy in my Bavarian parental home, beer was always on the table, and with it came the loud voices, the cigarette smoke, the dull atmosphere.

I soon realised that alcohol turns music into background noise, into an unwelcome marginal, a secondary occurrence. At art gallery openings and stand-up parties people clutch wine glasses and beer bottles, while a type of pop music (that is meant to stir emotions and provoke lower energies) pumps against their posteriors. Soon someone turns up the volume and the atmosphere becomes nightmarish, with everybody having to shout to get heard, while the content of the conversation turns nonsensical.

Indian music – its essence – can be kept alive through persons who represent it. These would be musicians with access to certain states of perception and trance, called bhava. This points towards persons with a “different" state of thinking and emotion. Otherwise, what remains are grey scriptures, empty rituals with mundane desires at the base – or else insecure protagonists who face a majority that prefers pop and disco beat anyway - even in India.

The strength of Indian music lies in overcoming the point of restlessness, insisting on penetrating into a sphere of timeless contentment. This challenge depends on the strength of the player. Who, in fact, IS this player? What is his sense perception? His prime motivation? What is the age of his soul? Can this musician put forth something that cannot be achieved by willpower?

It´s as simple as it is fundamental: Indian music works best with the absence of alcohol. Alcohol is not an integral part of Indian culture. Even though it has always been there (like almost everything else has in India, from the beginning) and, for instance, used by the Mughals to some degree, together with Bhang (cannabis)and Afim (opium) it also played a part in the decline of the Mughal Empire.

But since it does not correspond with the specific refinement of the Indian spiritual mind, it is not surprising that it does not support Indian culture, and the classical Indian music tradition in particular. Certain things became obvious when I started my practice of Vilayat Khani sitar music around 1968/69. The magic of the sitar sound, (and yes, Indian music is a sound art, rather than a structure art) seemed to vanish as soon as the listeners started drinking, and what´s more, my music made them irritable, aggressive even. And by the way: since any spiritual music is about sound, structure is merely there to make it apparent, like the cup for the tea.

The aspect from which Indian music derives its energy, its meaning, is being destroyed by drink. Through alcohol humility is interpreted as weakness, and arrogance as “power”. The smile loses its sweetness, it begins to serve a purpose and – with time – vanishes altogether.

However much the musicians may have practiced in their time, however early in their life they may have started their music, alcohol will gradually change it from a spiritual quest to an art, from art to skill, from skill to circus act, and from there decline further down the line to vain competitive pastime. Alcohol enhances the ego: a mechanism that hardly anyone can resist, once the habit is established. The person in question will not notice this change in themselves: the point in time when bhava is being replaced by insecurity as a prime motivation. From insecurity competitive thinking arises, and from that all else that is undesirable in human social intercourse. For example, in order for soldiers of bygone centuries to be able to muster enough courage, enough gross energy, to go into battle and kill other people, brandy was given to them before going out to meet the enemy. Because – not surprisingly – fear lay at the core of their motivation.

I had supremely happy times during my first India visits in the early Nineteen seventies. This was in no small measure on account of the fact that people drank tea and not beer. People were kind, the atmosphere sweet. Satelite TV was unheard of.

I can handle most situations. An angry Muslim will embrace me instead of beating me if he finds that I can recite the first Sura. However, if an opponent has been drinking, I am helpless. Whenever there is drink around, I simply leave, because everybody talks louder, gets combative and silly –and nobody notices the music. The kind of music that comes with beer and wine is of the type in which the listeners will follow only the structural development of a piece instead of the energetic content. The subtle poetic value that takes place between the time-measures is manifest in vain. During the Hippie years, people experimented and tried the lot: playing music on hash, on wine, beer and cocaine – the effect was always terrible: the feeling of timelessness, of content devotion vanished, the music stopped making sense. For the last forty years I have drunk only water and tea. Despite the humble nature of my art I have often felt a force taking over in my music, the result of which made me praise That Force.
It is ironical that the rich class in India now can afford whiskey and beer, having to live arrogant and dull lives, whereas the sadhus and the poor can afford only water and chai, and with it a chance of entering through the minute opening into a subtle sphere.

It is no secret that alcohol is the great destroyer of Indian classical music. Even at an early stage of the performance it wants everything louder, it roughens the edges, it stereotypes the structure work, it takes the dynamics, the sweetness, the subtle poetry out of it – makes it clever, ordinary, it suggests that the performer is the doer instead of the tool. It makes the performer fear pauses.

It is not in my nature to tell people how to live their lives. However, it undermines my philosophy as organizer and musical director of a show if the participants come on the stage slightly sozzled. Some musicians perhaps consider their drinking as an act of rebellion. In fact, I think that rebellious aspect in some musician´s personality is part of their charm, as are their emotional outbursts. And I still love them as a performers and a human beings. If, however, as Sukhvinder Singh the tabla player did, they turn round and accost me, “Is the white man telling us what to eat and drink now, or what!?”, if they see in me only “the White Man”, and not the musician, the friend, twenty years their senior, it saddens me
I have had to find my way to India – with all implications – and to that which makes India special: its spiritual core. However much humiliation I have had to take on the way, and however much some Indian musicians and restaurant owners have tried to ridicule me. Make no mistake, I love Indians more than anything, but I would never make a pre-selection, I know the qualities of western culture too, and I am – Alas! – also aware of the almost legendary silliness Indian culture, complete with Bollywood and its whiskey habit, is capable of.

If players and singers have to have a beer nowadays before going out on the stage ... well, it is a free country. All I said was: “I, as an organizer, am not paying for the alcoholic refreshments of the musicians.” This was then apparently misinterpreted as, “...is the ´White Man´ now telling us what to eat and drink?!”
Well, alcohol is the white man´s drug, and it is the materialist´s drug. It projects artistic and spiritual occurrences into the realm of the material. Its effects do not manifest right away. First comes the subtle switch in outlook – almost unnoticeable, followed by the asinine notion that suggests that happiness and fulfillment can be found in the outer world or in extroverted gestures, in social acceptance, in circumstance, rather than attitude. Alcohol creates replica-systems instead of the real thing, something ersatz: a hollow form. Instead of worshipping the One, the drinker gets stuck with a fraction of The One, an idea, an image of himself, a projection – and will worship that.

But we are all human beings with our human weaknesses. I should, therefore, not judge. And everybody drinks nowadays I hear you say. Yes, right. How can we be wrong if we are so many? Even if I come across sententious here, and I must admit that I feel far from perfect (one recalls a fair amount of illusions, wrong decisions and erring judgements during one´s own life), but I feel strongly about drink, also since no-one else seems to take notice of its subtle destructive nature.

“But all the famous Indian musicians drink whiskey,” you come back. Well, could it be that people don´t go to Indian classical music concerts because drink hollows out the essence and leaves you with stale aftertaste? The glassy-eyed icons of Indian classical music are unable to transport the listeners to a plane sublime. Jazz and pop, on the other hand, have always been associated with drink, because they´re about entertainment. Raga and Taal are not about entertainment, they are different in that they are meant to take the listener from an ordinary to a subtle state, to a sublime one. But when the protagonists come out on stage slightly pissed, how can that be achieved? Raga music is not only about aesthetic values, it is about being true and truthful. I feel that it is dishonest to have to muster courage with drink instead of prayer in order to go out and face the audience.
Alcohol is also the businessman´s drug: it asks what the public wants, so he can supply it and get rich in the process. Good thinking. But one doesn´t practice left hand Vilayat sitar alaap for forty-five years to revert to that sort of attitude in the end.
All the people I admire – dead or alive – hated alcohol, a certain teacher at school, one of my first spiritual advisers Tiane na Champassak the 5th husband of Barbara Hutton, Paul Bowles, Ronnie Scott, Vilayat Khan. I believe that alcohol will eventually meet with the same fate as cigarette smoking: it will be declared uncool, it will go out of fashion, and the scientists and psychologists will confirm all the damaging facts. There will be only a hand-full of misfits left, who´s uncomely habit will receive pitiful side glances.

Drink is also the white colonialist´s drug: a method to destroy ancient indigenous cultures in order to establish “white” culture, globally: American Indians were annihilated by whiskey, Africa was ruined by beer, Australian aborigines by both. In an interview Paul Theroux tells that in British Malawi in the early nineteen-sixties there were never enough school books, but beer was always made easily available by the colonial power. Precisely by drink you bow down to the white man´s extroverted and materialistic outlook. What was so wonderful about the British Colonial Masters in India, sitting around in the Mughal gardens with their whiskey glasses, talking rubbish? What´s so wonderful about it that Indian musicians till today feel they have to copy this life-style to feel special? Nobody thought it was possible: much of Indian classical music, especially in the West has kept the traditional form, however the energy behind it has been replaced by a western one. This could well be due to alcohol. “The world is run by stupid and common people, for the benefit of stupid and common people”, said V.S. Naipaul. And since the beer companies have more or less taken over the world, you can multiply this quote. Alcohol supports social intercourse at the lowest common denominator, it shuts the door to higher, more intelligent communication and turns persons into restless, insensitive consumer morons.

There is this innocence in Indian music that I love, something that looks simple at first sight, and only after dealing with it for a long period you find an entire other dimension of feeling and wisdom inside it. A simplicity indispensable for carrying bhava the mood. Indian music must not lose this innocence.

The biggest mistake of the protagonists of the western culture like Hector Berlioz made when he announced at the London World Fair in the 19th century that “Indian music is still at the stage of barbarism”, was always to confuse this innocence with weakness. Alcohol makes one lose this innocence by making one insensitive to sound. The great Vilayat Khan said: after some time into the Raga I myself become the listener. What great and wonderful wisdom! And by the way: Vilayat stopped drinking as a young man.

Drink makes one try to use art, rather than remain a devotee to it. The jokes become gross, the fraternization with Tom, Dick and Harry embarrassing. Like I said, alcohol is ordinary. It is forbidden in Islam, in Sikhism. In Hinduism, too, except at highly specific tantric rituals in pursuit of the spiritual quest. Alcohol produces the kind of music that Islam rightly declares haram: damaging for the spirit. Why? Because alcohol supports projections, and it demeans and weakens the authority of the subtle emotional experience. Once you work with projections in religion, you start looking for and identifying with the institution rather than your own conscience – this is convenient for institutions but a disaster for the soul. On a social and political level you then become subject to manipulation and propaganda more easily.

Not everybody is chosen for mystic path, and I suppose there isn´t much harm in ordinary persons drinking beer or wine to unwind after a stressful day. That is if they don´t know anything better. If, however, one wants to ascend to the more subtle realms of mind and spirit, experience genuine satisfaction, then alcohol and its effect are a severe hindrance. I am leaving aside all the terrible inhuman actions whereby, under the influence of drink, there is no turning back for the perpetrator, I am solely dealing with its influence on music here. In my mind there´s enough ordinary in the world. That is why I was attracted to Vilayat Khan´s left hand sitar work. He was special: through his classical sitar he broke through the limitations of stuffy, dead traditions into a universal sound art.

“Alcohol wants everything louder and more complicated” I wrote 1994 in my “99 Axioms”. In the course of the last three or four decades I organized concerts for dozens of Indian singers and instrumentalists, but instinctively my preference stayed with those who didn´t drink. Vilayat Khan´s music still leaves me spellbound. On the other hand, in those players who are whisky-fans I can admire only their technical skill, if anything at all. Twenty years ago a certain Sikh table virtuoso´s tabla solo brought tears of joy to my eyes, but today I want to wear ear-plugs when he starts his solo, and I feel like running and hiding from the sheer volume. Mr Singh and his tabla cannot, I repeat cannot, win against pop, disco, Bollywood, techno and rock by turning up the volume. To my mind you have only one chance: to play soft and thereby cultivate dynamics, and with the dynamics a magnetic pull, to get the listener´s contemplative perceptive faculties to open up. THEN you can still – if you want to – create the big bang for maximum effect. If you start loud, performing everything at maximum volume, which alcohol dictates, you will simply leave the listeners unnerved, exhausted, tortured. Plus, the kind of people you attract that way will not stay loyal to you. They will not stay loyal to raga and taal, they will, at the end of the day, go for the social event, the pop event, the disco event – and all that which is supported by alcohol. Drink undermines the very core of Indian music, undermines dhyan, the meditation. Why is alcohol adverse to Indian music? Because it creates the illusion that you are in control, instead of humbly acknowledging and accepting the fact that you are the tool. And because it makes you worship structure rather than sound: the western way.

Pyare nahi he surse jisko
wo murak insan nahi he
(ancient bandish in raga Malkauns)

He who is not in love with pure sound
cannot be counted as belonging

Why is drink kept out of the mystic´s approach? Because it destroys the millions of brain cells that are essential for subtle creative faculties in a person – parts of the nervous system that open specific doors to the Higher Self, necessary for worship. Indian music derives its power from devotion and it induces humility. You can do science and math on drink, but not meditation. Alcohol is the drug of cynicism: Where is devotion going to get me, when all around me everybody is getting rich?
Ah, but arrogance will fail, empires will perish, wealth can go down the drain – humility and devotion will prevail and be carried forward towards more favourable circumstances.
However, once the doors of perception are shut, everything is lost. The subject will never know. The Highest Force in the universe speaks: Only those may worship me whom I allow to worship me. This is not Gromer Khan psychology: a brief look at history books will confirm it: With the drink the arrogance came, and arrogant leader have always failed in the end. There are enough examples in the music scene too, where musicians started out high and ended, through the damning influence of drink, boring and low. Even Ali Akbar Khan, complete with his laughable whiskey collection, became a pitiful and self-pitying structure freak, sitting pissed and crying at George Harrison´s house in 1969. “Why is Ravi Shankar so famous and I´m not?” Really.
The Music does not begin or end onstage. Can the artist cook a meal? Will he extend to hospitality without ulterior motive? How will he serve you a good cup of tea? Alcohol in contrast represents pretense and fakery. To go out on the stage sober: there lies the true challenge. Sometimes you win, sometimes you fail – that´s life – and that is music. To use an artificial confidence-giver means to avoid that challenge. Wanting to appear strong, trying to impress the listener, descending to the listener´s level is a sign of weakness: a sign of insecurity. Where there is drink, paranoia, superfluous discussions and bully are not very far away.
Once you want to please the audience instead of THE INNER WITNESS you are much better off in pop or disco music, where ego cultivation is the name of the game. Leading to, you guessed it, “see what I can do!” To watch the trees in the wind while working with sound, what could be better? A cup of tea supports that.