For a brief period in the late ’60s, Indian music seemed on the verge of crossing over into the Western pop mainstream. Rock bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Lemon Pipers began incorporating Indian instruments like the sitar and the tabla as colorful, sometimes sinister, accents to their songs. George Harrison collaborated with musicians from the subcontinent on Beatles tracks like “Love You To” and “Within You Without You,” as well as his soundtrack to the 1968 film Wonderwall. Sitar legend Ravi Shankar, familiar to hip Western audiences since the late ’50s, became a genuine star, collaborating with scores of rockers and playing Monterey Pop and Woodstock.
While Western musicians often used Indian motifs superficially, to inject a touch of the exotic or the worldly into otherwise straightforward pop, there were exceptions. One of these was the short-lived band Shanti, whose sole release, their 1971 self-titled album, has now been reissued on CD for the first time by Real Gone Music. Shanti (from the Sanskrit for “inner peace”) comprised young Indian musicians Aashish Khan (sarod) and Zakir Hussain (tabla, dholak, and naal), as well as the California-based Neil Seidel (lead guitar), Steve Haehl (lead vocal and guitar), Steve Leach (vocal and bass), and Frank Lupica (drums), whose backgrounds were in rock and jazz.
According to Seidel, speaking to Richie Unterberger in the liner notes for the reissue, Khan and Hussain viewed Shanti as a vehicle “to showcase the beauty of Indian music and promote it to the world.” The band would be “a mainstream pop thing with an Indian hook,” accessible to Western audiences primed by years of psych-pop with Eastern overtones. Khan and Hussain, the latter barely out of his teens, had already begun to develop reputations in their homeland, but both they and the American musicians were unknown in the States. They had an ally, however, in Richard Bock, a respected producer and co-founder of Pacific Jazz Records. Bock (who, incidentally, had previously recorded Hussain’s father Alla Rakha on a 1968 album with Buddy Rich) produced Shanti and helped the group get signed to Atlantic Records.
The songs on the seven-track album that resulted can be divided into three categories. The first includes “Good Inside” and “Lord I’m Comin’ Round,” the songs most steeped in Western pop. Here, the Indian instrumentation is minimized and largely reduced to decoration, as it was on trendy raga-rock records of the era. There’s not much about these records that distinguishes them from any number of West Coast rock bands of the era, whose ’60s psychedelia had begun transmuting into a rootsy, jazzier sound at the turn of the decade (e.g., the Grateful Dead).
The second category comprises pop songs that integrate Western and Eastern sounds in a more cohesive manner. The melody line to “Out of Nowhere” recalls the sort of tonalites characteristic of Indian music, while “I Do Believe” takes a free-form approach to structure and vaguely mystical lyrics (“how many years will it take till we learn / how to love, how the world turns? / it’s all in you”). There’s nothing inherently Indian about the songwriting of “We Want to Be Free,” but the density of the instrumentation sets it apart from the more pop-leaning songs on the record, especially given the prominence of Khan’s sarod, treated almost as a lead guitar.
This blurring of the boundaries between Western and Indian instruments is also a feature of the third categories of tracks on Shanti: a pair of lengthy instrumentals composed by Khan. These are the least pop-centric tracks on the record, instead foregrounding traditional Indian sounds and approaches. Even so, there’s a conscious effort to integrate both Western and Eastern styles. The focus is on the Indian instruments for most of “Innocence,” but they’re joined at times by the rock rhythm section, and Seidel adds a country-rock guitar solo in the middle of the song. On the virtuosic showcase “Shanti,” the lead guitar doubles the Indian motif in places, while the sarod in turn cycles around a pop hook. Appropriately, as the track that shares the band’s name, it is the most representative of their ethos, showing how these separate styles of music can coexist and intertwine, borrowing from each other without pandering.
This one album proved the only testament of Shanti. Atlantic dropped the group, and no other label picked them up for a second album. (According to Seidel, the group auditioned for Apple Records, on an invitation from George Harrison; Ravi Shankar supposedly convinced Harrison not to sign them.) Khan and Hussain would go on to have successful careers in both India and the US. Hussain in particular has continued pursuing Shanti’s melding of Eastern and Western sounds, collaborating with Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin in Shakti, and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart in a series of projects since the early ‘70s. Even if the concept for Shanti never quite coalesced into a world-uniting pop phenomenon, however, it’s worth seeking out for those moments where its potential is realized, and a glimpse of a new musical world comes into view.
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