Cuccurullo with Ustad Sultan Khan
By Christopher Scapelliti
Most young Americans growing up in the Sixties first heard the strains of Indian classical music through the recordings of the Beatles. George Harrison, the group’s lead guitarist, immersed himself in the genre beginning in 1966 and used Indian musicians on Beatles tracks like “Love You To,” from their 1966 album, Revolver, and “Within You Without You,” from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
As a young guitarist and rock and roll fan, Warren Cuccurullo was well aware of those songs. But it was an event outside of the Beatles’ music that most profoundly instilled a love of Indian classical music in the Brooklyn-born guitarist.
“My first exposure to Indian music was The Ed Sullivan Show with Ravi Shankar via George Harrison,” says Cuccurullo, now 58. “When that sound came over here, I was instantly attracted to it—just the Indian classical music itself, forget about ‘Within You, Without You’ and the stuff on Revolver.”
Shankar’s Sullivan performance, from 1970, put Cuccurullo on a unique musical journey that culminates in the present with his new album, The Master. The record features the guitarist performing with Ustad Sultan Khan, the late musician long celebrated as India’s master of the sarangi, the short-necked stringed instrument that figures prominently in Hindustani music.
The Master originated during a 1998 weekend recording session in London between Cuccurullo and Khan. The recordings, made on 24-track tape, lay dormant for years until Cuccurullo dusted them off earlier this year and added bass and drum tracks. The resulting blend of Khan’s inimitable sarangi playing and singing with Cuccurullo’s lushly textured ambient guitar is a unique and mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western musical influences.
WATCH A SONG PREVIEW FOR ‘THE HOLY MAN’S PLEA,’ FROM THE MASTER
Cuccurullo’s career has no shortage of high points. He has worked with Frank Zappa and cofounded the new-wave band Missing Persons with Dale and Terry Bozio. In 1989, he officially joined Duran Duran and went on to co-write some of their most famous songs, including “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.”
But Cuccurullo never lost his passion for Indian music, especially the sound of the sarangi. In addition to three gut strings, which the sarangi player bows, the instrument has 35 to 37 steel or brass strings that resonate sympathetically. Its vocal-like sound is uniquely expressive and, in the hands of a master like Khan, intensely emotional.
“The first time I ever saw the actual instrument played live, it was onstage in 1991 at Royal Albert Hall,” Cuccurullo says. “Duran Duran was doing a benefit concert, and Sultan Khan and Zakir Hussain were performing at the same show. It was him sitting there. I was able to see who makes that noise.”
Khan, who died in 2011, is legendary in India. He single-handedly kept the sarangi tradition alive and, like Shankar, was known for ambassadorial outreach efforts. He composed for Hollywood blockbusters, joined Bill Laswell’s East/West supergroup Tabla Beat Science and cut a record with Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg.
Cuccurullo himself aided Khan in those efforts. Five years after the 1991 benefit concert, while working on the Duran Duran song “Buried in the Sand,” the guitarist remembered an alap—a melodic improvisation that introduces a raga—by Khan that he thought would fit the track perfectly. Its inclusion in the song provided many Westerners with their first exposure to the sarangi. The following year, Khan joined Duran Duran for a performance at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, and a friendship between Cuccurullo and Khan began to form.
The genesis of their recording sessions began a few months later, when Khan visited Cuccurullo’s London home. The guitarist played him an album of acoustic and ambient guitar music that he was about to release. Khan was interested in performing and singing on it but was unable to due to timing: it was the month of Ramadan, for Muslims a time of spiritual reflection and worship.
When Khan returned in July 1998, he and Cuccurullo fell into a spontaneous recording session that lasted the weekend. All of the recordings that make up The Master were cut that weekend on Saturday, except for “The Lost Master,” which was done over the course of the following day. Originally a 12-minute workout of guitar and sarangi titled “4D Suite,” the song was shortened to a five-minute ambient composition due to complications in its recording. “There was a lot of drama,” Cuccurullo says. “The mridagnam [a cylindrical double-head drum] player couldn’t do it. The time signatures looked like phone numbers.”
The weekend sessions, though unplanned, were productive. And yet the recordings languished, unheard, for 16 years, until one day when Cuccurullo set out to find what had become of his old friend via an online search.
“A Times of India article came up with an obituary,” he recalls. “I had no idea. Then I realized I have to get these tapes, I need to make his family aware of them, and I had to finish ‘4D.’ ”
Today, Cuccurullo remembers the music as fondly as the weekend it was recorded. Among the highlights are “The Holy Man’s Plea,” the album’s cinematic opener, and “Mirror Margana,” on which Cuccurullo’s guitar playing shimmers above Khan’s earthy intonations.
Ironically, Cuccurullo is now the same age that Khan was when they sat together in his London apartment 16 years ago. The Master reflects not only his youthful passion for Indian music but also the continuing evolution of his creativity.
“The growth in your forties and fifties is incredible,” Cuccurullo says. “There’s a curiosity factor built into musicians that helps you get through these levels. By the time you reach my age, 58, you realize you’re going to be learning until you die. You’re going to enjoy the wonderment of it until you drop.”
WATCH WARREN CUCCURULLO DISCUSS THE MAKING OF THE MASTER