.Ancient Sounds: Will Marsh, sitar for life

With all the variety of music available in the North Bay, it is rare to find something new, truly different. Will Marsh’s forthcoming album, Integration, is exactly that. The album is all the more interesting because this new sound is rooted in the most ancient of contemporary musical traditions and its most famous instrument, classical Hindustani’s sitar.

Marsh is a Novato-based sitarist with a penchant for putting the singular instrument into other genres. While sitar first became known to mainstream Western audiences through the raga rock experiments of the Beatles and their ilk, Marsh’s approach is to insert the authentic sound of the instrument into jazz, bossa nova and more, rather than playing the instrument like a guitar, as was done in those rock recordings from the 1960s.

No judgment on George Harrison; it takes decades to learn sitar and its music.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

“It’s almost like training to be an Olympic athlete,” said Marsh over the phone in advance of his upcoming concert in San Rafael. “That’s the [amount of] physical precision in the way that you sit and hold the instrument and the strength you need to execute it.”

Of the 20 strings on the sitar, only eight are plucked. The remaining strings are tuned to the scale played in the piece of music, and each resonates when its corresponding note is played, giving the instrument its characteristic drone.

Marsh started out playing guitar like so many young people getting their first taste of music, learning rock and the blues. He realized that music would be the focus of his life.

“I quickly was kind of curious to learn everything,” he said. He went on to study jazz and classical music, and through the drive of that curiosity turned to sitar in college.

From that moment, Marsh began a deep dive into traditional Indian music and especially Hindustani classical music, the form that is home to the sitar. For hundreds of years, the knowledge of playing sitar was passed down exclusively within families from father to son. Although that changed in the 19th century, the music continues to be communicated in a rich oral tradition through long lasting relationships.

“It’s quite a trip to be involved in something so ancient,” said Marsh. “I have spent a lot of time in India, studying and performing in the traditional way. We play these melodies that are all for a certain time of day or season. It’s very much an oral tradition.”

Although Marsh has played on other albums—including the spiritual pop chanter, Wilder Shores, by Belinda Carlise—Integration is the first album entirely of his own work.

“I wanted to take [all the knowledge] and bring it into other contexts, a blues setting, a jazz setting,” he said. “I feel that my artistic spirit wants to say everything that I’ve done musically, and that’s really what the album is about…What does Will Marsh have to say?”

After an album release concert on Nov. 17, what’s next for the maestro?

“I’m heading to India to be with my teacher, who’s in Mumbai,” said Marsh, himself now a sitar teacher. “I’m really honored and grateful to be a part of that tradition.”

‘Integration’ comes out Nov. 17. Will Marsh and friends will perform the music from his new album at 7:30pm on Friday, Nov. 17 at Studio Fourth Street, 1569 4th St., San Rafael. $25 in advance or $30 at the door. Get tickets here.

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