A Musician’s Journey to the East



Ethan Sperry is a musician from America who is bridging the gaps between the East and the West by adapting Carnatic symphonies in western choirs. His efforts are for a truly mutual exchange of music and a bridging of civilizations.

Kavya Thomas 

The difference and diversity between the West and the East can be understood in a beautiful manner if you look for them on the globe. If we consider America for example as a representative of the West and India as a representative of the east, we see that not only are they opposed in terms of their cultures,diversities,languages, religions and cultures but they exist on different sides of the globe.

Globalisation has been asserted as a process that enables the interaction of people and culture but in contemporary times a great portion of what we call globalisation has become centred on business, economy and corporate exchange.

The benefits of the new world that globalisation seems to have opened up seem to be limited largely into economics and little egalitarian, reciprocal exchange of cultures takes place between the west and the east. It is possible to find an aloo tikki burger in the American food chain of McDonalds and a can of Coco-Cola in the remotest village in India but our own Pani-Puri or Jaljeera are not equally popular on the streets of U.S.A. or England.  

Ethan Sperry/ Image Credit : Oregonlive

Most of our youngsters wear jeans as a symptom of globalisation but not many walking on the streets of European or American nations sport a traditional dhoti or a bindi for example. The exchange is hierarchical, non-egalitarian and ethnocentric.

Music is one domain which has allowed nations to interact, to connect with one another and develop some sort of empathy towards the culture of others. It is often said that music is a universal language and it has actually led to the interaction of varied populations and enabled them to find common ground. America and India have started a new era in exchange that is bridged through music.

America’s encounter with real Indian music, her rich tradition of ragas and classical music began in late 1950s through the likes of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akhbar Khan and Allah Rakha Khan among others.

The three artists mentioned here belonged to the Hindustani school of music. The Carnatic School of music belonging to South India did not quite reach America until much later.  It gradually gained ground in America where through a series of musical tours and programs, the music from both schools of music in India reached America.

In 1969 when Ravi Shankar was a rage in America, the audiences would be a combination of the elite and the hippies who would be intoxicated by his music. The enhanced exposure to Indian music brought both Indians and westerners learn about each other’s music and cultures. It made them familiar with the similarities and exposed the several differences. The exposure to culture was in some sense not just an aesthetic act but an act in humanity.

The difference between the orient and the oxidant, between the so called ‘civilized’ and the ’barbaric’ world would be merged or at least bridged by the magic of music. Indian music has a monotonic texture and was based on stringent ragas, scales, specific notes, aarohana, aavrohana. Western music is based on harmony that is based on chords and notes simultaneously played. It has a polyphonic nature.  In Indian music the tala as a strict measure of rhythm is significant whereas western music has a stronger emphasis on harmony and meter.

 American artists like Ethan Sperry are heralding the exchange of eastern and western music through the adaptation of Indian (Carnatic) ragas into western choirs. This kind of music has opened a new way of negotiating the world of music and finding commonalities no matter how diverse nations can be.  What must be understood is that although there are two schools of music within India it does not meant that they do not interact with each other. Over time both have been inspired from each other. The classification of classical music into the Hindustani and Carnatic schools took place in the 16th century CE.

The main differences that exist between the schools of music could be ascribed to the Muslim conquest of India which resulted in the influence of Persian and Islamic music. Muslims rulers did not extend their domination to the kingdoms of southern India, so the music of the South was not influenced by them in any way.

The Hindustani style is largely dominant in Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh whereas Carnatic music is mostly extending in Southern India and Tamil-speaking areas in Sri Lanka.

Ethan Sperry studied Indian music. He stresses on Carnatic music and uses it in adaptations in western choirs. His music has allowed two civilizations to know each other’s traditions and relish the diversity.

His efforts to enable nations to learn about each other, share each other’s music and cultivate a civilization of reciprocal exchange will forever be etched in history.


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  1. I really like to read on music and other medium of arts. I would like to thank for innovating this column.


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