Continuing from our last week’s story featuring Nelson Myers-Daly - a young Kiwi musician who has a spiritual connect with the bamboo cross flute, this week we speak to Liam Oliver, another accomplished musician based in Christchurch who has taken up to play the sitar which is mostly used in Hindustani classical music.

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument originating from the Indian subcontinent and most believe was invented in medieval India. The sitar, which is commonly used throughout the Indian subcontinent, gained popularity throughout the world thanks to Ravi Shankar leading to the instrument appearing on tracks by bands such as the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and others.

Here are excerpts from the Indian Weekender’s interview with Liam:

When and how did you get interested in playing sitar?

I have played the guitar most of my life, but have always been interested in other cultures, especially their music. Having been fascinated with traditional stringed instruments from around the world since I was a teenager, I appreciate the ease of access to music from other countries now that the internet allows for greater awareness. While scrolling through some videos, I came across some videos on sitar and thought “I've got to try that! ”

Many people might be familiar with George Harrison’s experiments and collaboration with the Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, which helped popularise Indian classical music in the West. My father, a big fan of The Beatles, was very enthusiastic about me wanting to learn the sitar and he bought me one in 2017, from the Gandharva Loka music store in Christchurch. And that’s when I immediately fell in love with the instrument.

Where did you learn to play sitar?

I am mostly self-taught because, unfortunately, there were no sitar teachers in Christchurch and not many players either. Luckily, thanks to the Internet it is not difficult to find good resources online to help learn and practice. I believe that a big part of learning comes from just listening and then practicing. My guitar experience also gave me a head start in learning sitar by just observing and experimenting with the instrument on my own.

There is, however, a limit to learning by oneself and I would love to find a proper teacher one day as I still have much to learn.

Where have you performed till now?

I have been lucky enough to perform sitar a lot over the last few years, including several performances with local music duo Monk Party (Nelson & Pragunya Myers-Daly). Together we have put on our concerts in Christchurch, Timaru, Akaroa, and Wainui and have been guest performers at a few other multicultural events. On some occasions, I have also accompanied Sikh friends in performing kirtan at local Gurudwaras, and this year I got to play at Revathi Performing Arts’ 2022 Sangeetham concert which was a great experience.

I have also had the privilege of being a part of some concerts at the University of Canterbury School of Music, such as their 2021 Gala Concert and the 2022 Golden Ribbon Multicultural Youth Music Festival in the James Hay Theatre, Christchurch Town Hall.

Have you visited India or have any plans to visit?

Unfortunately, I have never been to India yet, but it is definitely on the bucket list! I feel that visiting India would be a great opportunity to experience and soak up the culture, spirituality, music, and vibrant energy that the country has to offer

Which Indian sitar player(s) do you admire and follow?

Sitar legends such as Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan were perhaps unsurprisingly the first sitar players I discovered, but some of my more contemporary favourites would be Shahid Parvez Khan and Anoushka Shankar.

Which other instruments do you play?

Aside from guitar and sitar, my main interest is in traditional string instruments from around the world, especially the Middle East, so I play Persian setar, Afghan rabab, Turkish saz, Turkish/Arabic oud, Kazakh dombra, Greek bouzouki, as well as other similar instruments to varying degrees of proficiency. Some I am consistently performing, such as sitar and setar, whereas some are more of a hobby.

What are your career plans? Do you intend to pursue music or are you already working on something else?

I have been involved with the Christchurch Iranian community in founding Simurgh Music School, a music school aimed to teach traditional instruments not just from Iran but also the surrounding regions of Afghanistan, the Middle East and India, so I teach sitar here too. We view it not just as a typical music school but also as an important way to help international communities keep in touch with their musical traditions and promote their culture in New Zealand. Between working with Simurgh Music school teaching, organising community events, and performing with various other music groups and projects, I definitely am keeping busy with music for the time being.