“Music can help bring cultures together”, chimes the modus operandi of Milapfest, who ran a three-day Music India summer school in Liverpool this August, under the tagline of ‘uniting hearts through arts’. Strangely, it’s often the most trivial of things which bring about multicultural harmony: Mo Farah running very quickly around a track marked a watershed in the acceptance of Muslims in Britain – not only will the man in the street be more sceptical of their vilification by the BNP, EDL and assorted thugs, but Mo’s our national hero. In 2012, he seems more British than Winston Churchill. Intrigued by Milapfest’s promises of visiting gurus, intense lectures and immersive sitar drones to help create understanding through music, Bido Lito! sent along unendingly enthusiastic local musician EMILY LANSLEY, of Stealing Sheep and Emily & The Faves. As we meet up with her at the end of three challenging days of musical immersion – armed with her suspiciously Western-looking guitar (whammy bar intact, of course) – she energetically produces a finger-thick notebook crammed with absentminded illustrations, notes and diagrams (some of which accompany this piece). She seems so genuinely inspired that we’re half expecting her to be returning to her respective bands with gifts of sitars and Ravi Shankar’s entire back-catalogue.
Whilst Indian music is often viewed by the more narrow-minded with a tongue in the cheek (see the use of Punjabi MC in Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent film The Dictator), it’s clear that the warping melodies and offbeat rhythms are slowly coalescing with ‘British’ pop music. Take Alt-J, perhaps Britain’s most well received new band, who chose to close their album with the Indian stomp of Taro, and the continued popularity of Asian Dub Foundation. In fact, this successful colliding of two cultures might be proved by Emily, who treats the musicians who have been teaching her with an almost reverential respect. “There are people here who are gurus and I’m really quite in awe of them,” she says. “I’m merely a pop musician compared to them.” The whole course seems to have really impressed her, and so, when we ask what part of it has inspired her the most, she falteringly answers initially that “I’ve been really inspired by the rhythm lessons that we’ve been having,” before changing her mind and declaring that, “actually, I’ve been really inspired by the whole thing because there’s just all these amazing young people here who are incredibly interested in music.” Even as we’re leaving, she’s nervously asking whether she’s done the course justice and whether we want to ask her anything else, before running off to get the name of a tabla player who she found particularly inspirational.
Although she finished the course on this ecstatic high, Emily openly tells us that the three days have been very intense. “Yesterday was really tough,” she admits. “I was just realising how out of my depth I was, not being classically trained.” Judging by her elation the following day, maybe being out of one’s depth isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, Emily’s exposure to Indian musicians of such stature has already influenced her music: she tentatively adds that her experience “will potentially change the way I write,” citing something complicated-sounding called ‘polyrhythmic crossovers’ as a technique that she’d like to incorporate. It’s this open-minded nature that makes Emily and so many other experimental young musicians so intriguing. Unfortunately, many new British artists are the result of years of valuing British pop music above all else; they probably like Joy Division, David Bowie, and The Beatles, and will go about their business of becoming more of the country’s most mundane and successful indie outfits without challenging themselves. On the evidence of Emily’s inspiring experience, we should arrest them all and send them to Milapfest for cultural rehab.
That’s not to say that there’s no common ground between the music that Emily makes and Indian music, though. We may consider Emily something of an expert in the field of deranged melodies, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Indians have got melodies pretty much nailed down, too; a quick YouTube-ing of Milapfest’s resident sitarist Ranajit Sengupta should prove that. Emily also feels a great kinship with Indian music because of the psychedelic element that both makes her songs so woozily disorientating and makes Indian ragas the epic Eastern equivalent of krautrock. Asked if that was what drew her to the course, she openly responds that, “I think it was, actually. I was really into Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, and I feel like it’s really interesting how the meditative drone can take you to somewhere where you can leave your subconscious. It’s a much deeper form of music.” Emily also makes it clear that both genres are driven by an emotional desire, and that conveying feeling is actually far more important than creating a piece of music which is technically impressive. She relates that, “one of the girls mentioned on the second day that she realised that the notes were actually really insignificant, and what we were trying to do was to communicate the feeling of the story.” Despite this, Emily admits that the technique that they use to improvise made her question their methods. She recalls that, “I realised that there were a lot of rules, and I did question whether it was really improvising if there were a lot of rules. But I’ve realised that, in a way, the more rules you have, the more guidance you have, and the more it opens you up to discovery in some weird way.”
Clearly, the division between the way that Emily and the Indian gurus play is actually more superficial than musical: Emily isn’t classically trained, and they are. As she puts it herself, “we don’t play from a score; we just play what feels right and sounds right.” Beyond that, the chasm between the two styles is not so wide: both have the psychedelic, transportative edge, and both have energetic rhythms and arresting melodies; they’re just expressed in a different way. As Emily herself puts it: “Pop music often sounds very simple, but there are actually all these things going on which Indian musicians are conscious of, which we just don’t realise.” With this in mind, the possibilities of politely stealing their ideas are limitless, because real inspiration in new music doesn’t come from geniuses plucking true originality out of the ether, but from exposing yourself to new things, and looking beyond our usual narrow stock of influences. As Emily says, “I think you have to always be trying new things to see where it takes you and look for things that might make you feel uncomfortable.” We can learn a lot from Indian music, but new musicians can learn a lot from Emily’s exploratory enthusiasm, too.