Readers recommend playlist: songs inspired by India

Artists taking musical inspiration on our final playlist include the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Monsoon and David Sylvian

The readers recommend series is coming to a close this week. Here are songs on the final topic of India, picked by a reader from hundreds of your suggestions last week. Thanks for taking part – and hear more about the closure of the series at the end of the piece.

This week, Readers recommend has listened closely to the influence Indian music has had on other genres, with some surprising results.

We begin with the accomplished songwriter Joe South’s lyrical masterpiece Games People Play, which rails against spiritual hypocrisy through gritted teeth and makes use of a Danelectro electric sitar.

Listen to the playlist on YouTube.

Nominally by the Beatles – and an integral, if incongruous, component of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Within You Without You is, in reality, by George Harrison backed by members of the Asian Music Circle. AMC were a group of Indian and British classical musicians working out of London promoting Indian music. They struck gold when Harrison’s life-changing love affair with India led him to their collective, whose orbit circled the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. The song is a wonderful meditation on the distance we unconsciously place between ourselves and others, and is one of that famous album’s most enduring tracks.

The Steve Miller Band neatly sandwich the traditional and the modern with the beautifully sung and played Wild Mountain Honey. This time we hear a Coral electric sitar. There’s a set of up to 13 sympathetic strings at an angle across the top of the instrument, which gives Miller that characteristic chiming cascade of notes.

Much covered but never bettered, Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours was Stevie Wonder’s first self-produced song. It is fascinating that he led it with an electric sitar, which illustrates what he was listening to in 1970. But maybe his managing to persuade a Funk Brother to play this strange new instrument was not as groundbreaking as it might first appear, as it appealed to guitarists the world over.

The lyrics to Fun-Da-Mental’s Mother India may be read as a diatribe against misogyny but, as diatribes go, this is calm and controlled. Maybe that’s what the band were seeking: the cool voice of a worldly woman enunciating irrefutable statements about feminine strengths. Strengths that lay outside the world of violence and attrition. Strengths that may pass a man by unnoticed because of their ephemeral and thoughtful nature. Strengths that surprise some people, as when women reveal themselves as warriors who understand strategy and their place in history.

David Sylvian’s Krishna Blue burrows into India’s erotic legacy, mining a past when sensuality was an art form, celebrated in temples, ritual and music. Sylvian’s voice, admittedly, does lend itself to a certain rakish, even louche, sultriness. His music, though, especially in this extended squint at the subcontinent, carries the listener as if in a warm current towards a pulsating climax.

This grandson of immigrants was reduced to quivering jelly in 2000 upon first hearing Asian Dub Foundation’s New Way New Life. How good it felt to be reminded of the adventurous bravery of our very recent ancestors. It was understood completely. The tribulations that motivate people to cross the sea are sometimes forgotten or drowned in complacency. ADF incorporate real manual instruments into their explosive sound, and while their other songs sometimes carry anger, this one expresses the deep joy of living in a safe and prosperous country.

Lyrics here are simply two lines repeated, giving us a succinct critique of the greed and ignorance of the ego. No wonder Future Sound of London called this Guru Song. This band cannot be pinned down – they go where the next beat takes them – and this set took them inside themselves, where a crystal of awareness awaited.

Some people are born with it, but you always have to work at what “it” is, precisely. Desire, something pulsing in the veins, an obsession, a feeling, an addiction almost. Davy Graham was driven to unknown regions, a traveller in a sonic landscape. The cream of western acoustic guitarists worshipped at his feet, but he did not desire success, wealth or fame, just personal achievement, satisfaction and happiness. Here’s his Blue Raga.

Indian-sounding? Not particularly. But Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben’s Filhos de Gandhi translates from the Portuguese as Sons of Gandhi, so we got there in the end. This is an acoustic tune with a recognisably Brazilian rhythm. However, the subject is Indian, and Gandhi influenced both singers, so we can go there.

When the Jamaican enigma Lee “Scratch” Perry was introduced to the famous Hindi song Milte Hi Aankhen, he joined forces with the Upsetters and gave us Bird In Hand. To paraphrase Captain Beefheart: that goes to show what a tune can do.

The British teenager Sheila Chandra stormed the international charts fronting Monsoon with Ever So Lonely. Her performance was a paradigm of innocence in that she was just doing what she knew without realising she was smashing cultural barriers.

A note from the Guardian’s music editor, Ben Beaumont-Thomas

This is the last entry in the Readers recommend series, bringing to a close a weekly column that has generated thousands of comments over its 13-year lifespan. It has been a massively eye-opening and indeed ear-opening series – you have given suggestions for songs about everything from eavesdropping to embarrassment, body fluids to schadenfreude, monkeys to narcissism.

It has been a difficult decision to end the series, as the passion and involvement of those who take part is a joy to see. But it has had a long run, and I feel that the breadth of our readership would be better served with a new community-focused music series that invites everyone, not just the Readers recommend faithful. We will be announcing this in the coming weeks.

I want to thank everyone who lovingly sent suggestions each week. I can well imagine that devotees of the series will keep making recommendations at the ’Spill and Song Bar, sites that continue to canvass music fans worldwide.

I know this will be a disappointment to some but, rest assured, we will still be relying on your musical knowledge for our new series.


George Boyland

The GuardianTramp

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