Surinder Sandhu’s Indian Fusion

“I think the guitar is the perfect companion for Indian music,” says U.K.-based composer Surinder Sandhu. “It has everything—including harmony and rhythm. Indian instruments are predominantly monotonal and melodic, so the two complement each other very well.”
Publish date:
Updated on

Both of Sandhu’s CDs, 2003’s SauRang Orchestra and 2004’s Cycles and Stories [available from], offer a fresh and inventive take on the Indian fusion genre popularized by Oregon and John McLaughlin’s Shakti. At the albums’ core are Sandhu’s virtuoso performances on the sarangi, a violin-like North Indian classical instrument. The music also has its roots in the Indian raga, a systematic melodic form that features combinations of notes designed to evoke distinct atmospheres, moods, and emotions. Sandhu’s albums make the combination of Indian classical music, jazz, rock, and symphonic elements sound seamless, but getting them to work together poses unique challenges.

“The very strict ascending and descending scales of ragas can create great problems when you’re trying to make chords and progressions,” he explains. “So, melodically, I take things from ragas, but the harmonic structures come from the Western side of the equation. There’s also the issue of playing very particular Indian scales and emphasizing certain notes that are characteristic to ragas.”

Renowned players that have contributed to Sandhu’s recordings include guitarists Steve Vai, Peter Brown, and Roland Chadwick; saxophonists George Brooks and Andy Sheppard; and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

“My choice of players has a lot to do with their phrasing,” he says. “With Indian music, the opening phrases of a piece can be really beautiful with a musician just playing two or three notes. In a way, that’s the beauty of Indian music, and I tend to take that philosophy when collaborating with Western musicians. I like to work with virtuosos whose phrasing and ornamentation contain a lot of character and complement the composition, rather than just playing a lot of intensive notes. For example, the things Steve [Vai] did with sustained notes, and mimicking the slides we do in Indian music with the whammy bar, were really impressive. I’d sit there with my sarangi, and he’d have his guitar, and we’d go through all of the phrasing. He’s a true perfectionist, and he wanted to do everything just right. Initially, I thought that was crazy, because the slides and grace notes of Indian music are difficult enough if you’re playing an Indian instrument. But he really wanted to capture them, so he’d play the phrases over and over again until he got everything right. It was such a powerful experience. He brought so much to SauRang Orchestra.”

Sandhu’s own initiative for pursuing such innovative projects derives from similar motivations. “For me, it’s not enough to just play an instrument,” he says. “I also feel a need to contribute to the evolutionary process of music.”