A musical encounter
“I was absolutely spellbound.”
Marja Burchard and Roman Bunker are members of the German bands, Embryo and JISR. In this interview, they talk about their first encounter with South Asia and their fascination for Indian music.
By Mohit Jindal
Roman: My first encounter with South Asia was a musical encounter, before my first trip to India. Indian music was very popular in the 1960s, thanks to George Harrison of The Beatles and Ravi Shankar. Bands like Traffic, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were suddenly dressed in Indian clothes, and were travelling to Rishikesh. These bands were the first to bring their impressions of South Asia to Germany, at a time when one otherwise knew very little about India. Moreover, my first experience in India was a tremendous culture shock because it was completely different from all that we knew in Europe. I visited India for the first time in 1976 and established the very best contact one can imagine – with Trilok Gurto, an Indian percussionist and composer.
Marja, you are the daughter of Christian Burchard, the founder of the band Embryo, which means you were familiar with South Asian music even as a child. How did you perceive South Asia?
Marja: I had the impression that the people were disciplined and extremely intense. A concert in South Asia was always a very solemn occasion, very respectful. You took off your shoes, it was a sacred place, a ritual. Also, meditation was and continues to be an important aspect. The singer R.A. Ramamani used to meditate before a concert. In this sense, music was treated with reverence.
What is your impression of the way South Asian culture is perceived in Germany?
Marja: I am critical of the adoption of the Indian culture in Germany because of its superficiality. Yoga is extremely popular, but I find it’s just on the surface. One just starts to play an instrument without first learning it, which I think is also superficial. One goes to India for two weeks, buys a sarod, and then starts playing it! I once spoke to a sarod player. She said one first has to spend years learning to sing before you can even pick up the instrument.
What made you embark on the journey to South Asia in the 1970s?
Roman: I was interested in the music and in the spiritual aspect. At the time, India was considered the land of magic. Of course, there was a great deal of curiosity, also about the religious diversity. Most important of all was the pop culture. The world’s best-known singers were wearing t-shirts with a photo of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master. For me, this connection between music, spirituality and curiosity was a decisive factor. Hermann Hesse too contributed to the fascination.
Marja, in your opinion, how did South Asians perceive Germany?
Marja: I would say, they were very open and curious. The people found it interesting to see the kinds of instruments that were being brought to India and whether they could create something new together. They sought inspiration from Germany.
Do you believe that South Asia influenced European music in any way?
Marja: Of course. The Beatles!
Roman: The US was the most modern country in the world in the 1950s, more modern than Germany. In 1956, the first Indian classical music concert was broadcast on the radio. Prior to this, nobody had heard any Indian music. For some, this was an explosion, total rapture! For instance, for La Monte Young, an American composer and musician. He heard it on the radio and said: I must go there, that’s interesting for me.
In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of young Europeans and Americans travelled to South Asia. What do you think were the reasons for this enthusiasm?
Roman: Fascination about a country with such polarities. People celebrate, throw colours, drink bhang, it is complete ecstasy. On the other side, the asceticism. At that time in India, or perhaps even today, one could spend years sitting under a tree and meditating. If you were perseverant enough and remained sitting, nobody chased you away. Where else can you find this? It’s very hard to imagine something like this here in Germany.
Are people still fascinated by South Asia?
Roman: Yes, I do think so. There are many fans of Indian and classical music, of course also Bollywood film music, films and dance. You rarely see this elsewhere.
Is there any particular South Asian melody or song that has influenced you?
Roman: I was greatly inspired by one of my very first experiences of Indian music, namely Bismillah Khan’s “Shehnai Vol. 2.” It blew my mind.
Marja: I grew up with South Asian music. The Indian musical instrument shehnai moves me totally. I also got to know a tabla player at the time. With each finger, he struck the most incredible beat, and I was absolutely spellbound!