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      Church of Betty
    So you want to be a rock and roll sitar?

    Church of Betty mixes Indian and Western music into a spicy, always surprising blend that sounds like neither style alone but expands the boundaries of both.


    If you're a rock and roll fan and the sinuous sounds of Indian instruments make you think immediately of the late George Harrison, it's time to fast-forward a couple generations and check out Church of Betty. The New York-based sextet plays a unique fusion that is, I suppose, like making a curry pizza — stirring together East and West into a zesty sauce that bubbles with familiar flavors and yet tastes like nothing you've ever had before. Perhaps you've never had a curry pizza (I haven't, I just made it up), but if your first thought is, "That sounds too weird," maybe your second thought will be, "Wait a minute, that could work." And that's how it is with the strange and intriguing music from Church of Betty.

    Chris Rael (sitar, guitar, vocals)
    Deep Singh (tabla)
    Joe Quigley (bass)
    Jonathan Feinberg (drums)
    Marlon Cherry (guitars, percussion)
    Rima Fand (violin).

    Related links: Official site
    Available from

     Fruit on the Vine
    Blood and Roses   RA  MP3
    Fallen Arrow   RA  MP3
    Ordinary Boy   RA  MP3
    Tiger Lily   RA  MP3
    © Church of Betty. Used by permission.
    Church of Betty is the brainchild of Chris Rael, who grew up on the Beatles, XTC and Talking Heads but got interested in Indian music in the 1980s, not because of any great sophistication but rather because of musical naivete.

    Messing around with guitar in college, Rael started looking for a new angle. "I was sort of self-taught — not obviously talented in any way," he recalls. "And I started immediately trying to do unusual things and weird things — anything that was interesting that didn't really require you to be able to play very much. That's how I got interested in Indian music — because I was just looking around for a different sound."

    "The thing that really interested me before I ever studied Indian music was that there would always be changes that you couldn't predict and you had no idea where it was going to go," he says.

    Rael's curiosity led eventually to Varanasi, India — the locale often seen in pictures of Hindu worshipers bathing in the Ganges — where he's spent a total of a couple of years, off and on, absorbing the culture and studying the music.

    "I didn't think that I was going to get so involved in it, but I wanted to spend more time with it — and I met this girl who was studying Indian languages," he explains. Enough said.

    Over more than a decade, Rael has assembled a band that occupies an unnameable corner at the intersection of rock and raga, including musical soulmate Deep Singh, a London-raised tabla player who's accompanied leading Indian musicians around the world. As a percussionist, Singh unfurls a relentless staccato that blends with drummer Jonathan Feinberg's drums but gives the music a distinct accent.

      Church of Betty
    "Jonathan and Deep do something that I've never heard anyone else do," Rael says. "With the tabla there's not a lot of space. And then the drums are so much louder, so [Feinberg] has really figured out how to get in there. It's really quite an achievement."

    As a collaborator, Singh has helped Rael forge a unique hybrid that is no longer the music that either of them grew up with.

    "Deep and I play together so much that we don't really draw a line anymore between where Western music stops and Eastern music starts," says Rael. "Church of Betty was his doorway into another world of sound, so he came into it and fleshed out my vision for the band. I can't even imagine doing it without him anymore."

    Although Rael notes that he has never set out to master Indian music on its own terms, Church of Betty's songs still owe a lot of their inspiration to Indian classical music (which we Westerners know through Ravi Shankar) and the country's superpopular movie music. Movie music of a certain era, that is. Rael explains that the movie music of the '50s through '70s was thought of as "light classical," a popular extension of classical, whereas the modern styles are more high-tech with simpler melodies.

    "I don't want to sound like an old fart, but the old stuff was really fucking hip, and the new stuff is more like American pop — and who wants to sound like American pop?" Rael says.

    Some of Church of Betty's music wears the influence on its sleeve. A song like "Ordinary Boy" (hear it on RealAudio or MP3) would sound nearly like an Indian song if it weren't in English — the twisting melody is in an exotic minor mode without a clear verse-chorus structure, and it's accompanied by sitar, tabla and the shimmering drone of the tamboura. And yet, the bass and drums anchor it in the Western tradition as well. "Blood and Roses" (RealAudio, MP3) is much the same, with Rael executing a vocal triple axel that would even get a 5.9 from the Indian judge. But it's still not entirely alien to an American listener.

    "The old [Indian movie music] was really fucking hip, and the new stuff is more like American pop — and who wants to sound like American pop?"  
    — Chris Rael  

    "We've realized that there are certain kinds of beats we can use and certain Indian melodies that go down like butter for the Western ear," Rael explains.

    On the other hand, "Fallen Arrow" (RealAudio, MP3) is more like a Western psychedelic pop song with Beatles-like harmonies, although it also features Indian instruments and it will still confound your expectations if you had the British invasion in mind. And "Tiger Lily" (RealAudio, MP3) is a strange case — steady and hypnotic and taking advantage of Gregor Kitzis's wafting violin, the song sounds like a twangy variation on Brian Eno or even the Kronos Quartet.

    After more than a decade, the band has a clear sense of its own style and how to reach an open-minded audience.

    "Some people really don't like it — to get turned on to something different," Rael admits. "[But] it seems like for the most part people experience it as an unusual rock band, so people who like something different from what they're used to hearing are really into it."

    APRIL 10, 2002

    Reader comments on Church of Betty:

  • Church of Betty   from susana, Apr 11, 2002
  • music   from us, Dec 29, 2006
  • Wake up to a great sound   from Nancy, Apr 11, 2002
  • Chris Rael Rox   from Andy Hanneman, Apr 14, 2002
  • Deep's amazing tablas   from Scott McDonnell, Aug 18, 2002
  • Always fresh, always alluring   from Ellen, Dec 14, 2003

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