(WINDSOR, ON) – It isn’t every day the melodic strains of India’s classic sitar music is heard downtown. It turns out it is only on days sitar player Ray Chatterjee finds a spot to practice his playing.
As a boy, Chatterjee was fascinated by his father’s collection of music recorded by Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury. The late Chowdhury, known to many the world over as Ravi Shankar, is credited with popularizing sitar music in the western world.
He did this with performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, the famed farmer’s field rock and roll festival.
Much of his acclaim was due in part to his association with the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Shankar taught Harrison to play and he mastered it and used his new found capabilities on the Beatles Norwegian Wood recording.
As Chatterjee will tell you, learning to play the sitar is no easy matter. It is even harder in Windsor, a city with few, if any, masters of the ancient Indian instrument. It is also something he says you simply can’t learn from watching YouTube videos.
Chatterjee has ventured to Toronto were there are instructors, but the instrument is so complicated the first few hours were taken just learning how to tune its strings. There are eighteen strings, three times the number on a normal guitar.
When it comes to guitars, Chatterjee, who plays both, knows they are worlds apart. On the surface they both seem to have fretboards, but the sitar’s is diametrically opposed to the one on a guitar.
For starters, most of a sitar’s strings don’t run the distance of the fretboard. Unlike a guitar, the fretboard is not flat but curved, and there are hollowed out sections. Tuning is a challenge. It takes gentleness and patience because things can quickly go wrong, and often do. It usually leaves Chatterjee with a few less strings than normal.
That he is playing on the streets of Windsor is not only a classical starving musician story, but one about landlords and the fact there isn’t a lot of demand in the city for sitar players. Jobs are few and far between, but one he remembers was a night entertaining at the Art Gallery of Windsor. It was all part of an event requiring authentic Indian music.
The other reason he practices out in the open, which does attract donations from passers-by, is because noise is prohibited in his apartment building. Oddly, one man’s sitar music can be another man’s noise.
There are other differences between a sitar and a guitar. One key one is the high regimentation of guitar music. Intricate chord progressions must be mastered. Not so with sitars.
In fact, as Chatterjee explained, much of the music he plays is actually improvisation. There are, of course, certain fixed points that come together, but after that it is all up to the musician.