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by Rachel Devitt

October 26, 2013

World 101: Sitar Jamz

by Rachel Devitt  |  October 26, 2013

It has enchanted Western artists from George Harrison to Stevie Wonder to Shakira for decades -- and been an integral piece of Hindustani classical music for centuries. The sitar, in other words, has long captured imaginations and ears -- and with good reason. Invented in the 13th century, the Indian plucked lute has 18-20 strings, but only a few are actively played. Three are drone strings, grounding the raag (or raga, kind of the musical "key"), while several others are "sympathetic strings" that vibrate with the drone and melodic strings to create the sitar's distinctive buzz. The melodic strings, meanwhile, can be pulled sideways to change the pitch, which provides the instrument's sliding, bending sound. The player can glide meditatively around the fretboard (as on the exploratory alap section, which introduces the raga) or pick a rapid-fire path across them with a wire plectrum (as on the rhythmic johr and jhala sections that continue to improvise on the raag with the addition of percussion).

The overall effect is one of entrancing, heart-pounding virtuosity. But don't take our word for it: On our sitar primer, you'll be captivated by traditional masters like Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, innovators like beloved cross-culturalist Ravi Shankar and his even more experimental nephew Ananda, and Western converts including Harrison and Brian Jones, who were inspired (and taught) by Shankar. But this playlist wouldn't be complete without Ravi's daughter, Anoushka, who broke down the doors of the sitar boys' club to become both a respected traditionalist and inventive experimenter herself. (Her new album, for instance, includes Americana-tinged duets with her half-sister Norah Jones.) Oh, and if that music theory is still a little hazy, let Ravi Shankar himself shed a little light with his "Introduction to Indian Music."

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