East Meets West: Guitar and Sarod for Peace

For the past few years, Alan Fletcher, executive director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, has taken the issue of diversity very seriously.

More and more Festival events feature composers and performers of color.

This is the story of a guitarist who has worked for a long time with musicians all over the world.

And when it comes to the Aspen Music Festival’s diversity campaign, guitarist Sharon Isbin is a perfect fit.

Isbin has collaborated with musicians around the world for decades, bringing their musical voices into his recordings and performances.

But traveling in this time of COVID has become a real challenge for Isbin. She’s actually wearing a full hazmat suit when she does. She also gives herself maximum protection wherever she goes.

When Chris Mohr invited Isbin for an interview, she insisted that they both wear N-95 masks.

Isbin traveling in full hazmat suit

Isbin has strict sanitary rules, but his musical horizons have no borders.

“I liked flirting with folk people and bluegrass [as well as] other collaborators and artists who have such extraordinary talent.

Diversity found an early place in Isbin’s repertoire…and in his heart.

She was only 14 when she met Carlos Barbosa Lima, the great Brazilian guitarist who died in early 2022.

Lima introduced Isbin to Antonio Carlos Jobim, whom Isbin calls a “bossa nova icon.”

Professional collaborations for all three guitarists followed, as did recordings.

In Aspen on Saturday, Isbin brings us music from 12 time zones with artists from India for a program they call Strings for Peace.

Isbin herself is from Minnesota and graduated from Yale University.

So how did she become interested in North Indian music?

“A lot of listening: that’s for sure!” go back to his college days.

So what is a raga?

Western musicians traditionally use major and minor scales, with a few other scales or modes added.

North Indian musicians use countless different scales called ragas, all creating musical effects that are unfamiliar to traditional Western ears.

Many listeners will be at least familiar with the sitar and Ravi Shankar.

But nIbsen will play with a master of the sarod.

The sarod is a stringed instrument that is neither a sitar nor a guitar, but is central to the flavor of North Indian classical music.

Isbin jokes that the sarod is NOT an instrument that a classical guitarist can learn quickly!

North Indian classical music includes a strong element of improvisation.

Western classical musicians usually play notes on the page.

According to Isbin, improv won’t be entirely new to her.

“Playing with improvising jazz musicians” gives it a “beautifully compatible” experience with classical music from North India.

A North Indian-derived practice that Isbin was already practicing—Transcendental Meditation—proved helpful in identifying with this new culture.

Isbin jokes that it kept her from freaking out!

“Literally, when I left at the airport to fly to India, I knew I didn’t know music yet.” Without TM, she would have just lost it on the plane!

But she also believes that the practice can open a person up to “your own inner core of creativity,” which makes it especially useful when you need to improvise in a whole new style!

Strings for Peace at Harris Hall, Saturday August 6th.


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