The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones are all known for their innovative and award-winning music. What most people don’t know is that at some point in all of these artists’ careers, they included the delicate sounds of the sitar, a foreign instrument that, over the years, has slowly merged into American culture.
The sitar has also played a major role in the music of artists today, including Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Not only are mainstream artists getting acquainted with the instrument, but more musicians are starting to learn how to play the sitar.
“Now I think what’s happening is since the instrument has been around for a little while, we’re finding musicians who just pick up the sitar and play it like it’s a guitar,” said Stephen “Sitar Steve” Lieto, a Columbia alumnus.
The sitar is about 800 years old and it comes from the Indo-Pakistani region. It is a hybrid of two instruments that resemble the sitar, one from India and the other from Pakistan region.
The first time the sitar was introduced to American culture was when The Beatles went out in search of a new sound and landed in India. Their guitarist George Harrison introduced them to Ravi Shankar, a sitar guru and father of singer Norah Jones.
Lieto has had a long-term relationship with the sitar since he was a kid when his mother played The Beatles’ and Ravi Shankar’s albums and then he went on to actually play it. He does struggle with playing the sitar publicly, however.
“One of the issues I’ve struggled with is whether or not I should even play in public or play professionally because in some ways I can see it as insulting to an 800-year-old tradition,” Lieto said. “It is a classical instrument that comes along with intense musical theory.”
He said that each instrument in Hinduism has a deity (the sitar’s is Saraswati), which is why the instrument is so respected in Eastern culture.
“Each instrument is a sacred thing that represents some type of spiritual communion with the divine,” Lieto said.
Lieto said that he and the sounds of his sitar have been in high demand lately. Among his accomplishments with the sitar are a lot of fundraisers, comedy shows and spoken word events, his proudest being with Kinetic Energy, a spoken word duo.
“The sitar was something of interest—it felt right,” said Kirk Latimer, the executive director and founding member of Kinetic Energy. “[It’s] a kind of interesting spiritual connection in and of its own.”
Kinetic Energy does mostly introspective spoken word and wanted to work with an artist and an instrument that was along the same lines as their art form.
“The sitar played a key role in most of our songs, but in particular, added a lot of depth to one of our poems called ‘I Am That Wall,’” Latimer said.
During the show, Latimer said they let the sitar’s delicate sounds guide them and set the pace of the show.
“It’s not like here we were doing our poetry and the sitar was just coming in and it would work or it didn’t,” Latimer said. “It’s like we wanted to hear what the sitar would provide and once we heard it, it also inspired us.”
Because of Harrison’s exploration into Indian culture, many artists like Kinetic Energy have been able to take their art to another level.
“When he did come back and re-expose what he learned in India, it was such a culture shock … it was like Kabbalah,” said Brian Malnassy, assistant to the Music Department at Columbia.
He said he feels that there was a great movement and a renewed interest in the Eastern culture by Western culture.
“One of the really good things about these musicians going over there and coming back was these musicians were incredibly well-known … there was kind of like a renaissance, a rebirth of interest in foreign cultures,” Malnassy said.