Ravi Shankar – R.I.P. to the Maestro

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I suspect all the musos have heard by now – Ravi Shankar was pronounced dead yesterday. He passed away in San Diego, California, undergoing a medical procedure. He was 92 years old, so it’s not as much of a shock as say, his good friend George Harrison‘s death eleven years ago, at age 57. Still, the world has lost a true musical master – a virtuoso of Indian music.

Thousands of words will be written and blogged and spoken about this humble, but amazing musician and I can’t think of much to add to the various tributes and eulogies.

I can say that myself, like many, many other Westerners, discovered Ravi through George and The Beatles. George himself was turned on to Indian music during the making of the “Help!” film. The plot of the film involves an Indian cult devoted to the goddess Kali. They need a ring to perform one of their rituals and the ring belongs to….yep, Ringo. In any case – a few bits of Indian music were recorded for the soundtrack and that led George to Ravi Shankar’s music. I’m not sure if Ravi was directly involved with the “Help!” project, but his name must have surfaced during the sessions.

I can’t remember what order I heard The Beatles’ albums in – probably “Sgt. Pepper” first, with George’s “Within You, Without You“, a tune as about as Eastern as a Western pop song can get – combining sitars and cellos and sarods and violins in a great swirling melange. Then I may have heard “Rubber Soul“, with his first slight excursion into fusion, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)“. Though the song was written by John Lennon, Harrison’s tiny sitar riff is what gave the tune an otherwordly jolt. Then, of course, “Revolver“, with the groovy “Love You To” – where tabla-players were brought in to shore up the sitar riffs and “Tomorrow Never Knows“, a psychedelic masterpiece by John that begins with the droning of tambouras. Based on these tunes and George’s and David Crosby‘s and Roger McGuinn‘s recommendations (The Byrds‘ “Eight Miles High” features McGuinn emulating both Shankar’s sitar-playing and John Coltrane‘s mind-bending sax phrases on a 12-string electric guitar), I bought a Ravi album (on cassette!) in the late-1980s.

I purchased the The Sounds Of India,RaviSounds which was one of the few of his albums you could actually find in a mainstream record store then. The album was first released in 1960, but re-issued in 1968, with suitable “psychedelic” cover art. I dug Ravi’s spoken-word introduction to Indian classical music, even though it was tough to wrap my head around the cycles of 16 beats for the ragas. My knowledge of music theory leaves a lot to be desired, but this was just beyond even what I was used to. Once the playing started, however, I was entranced. I loved the expression he was able to convey from the instrument and the way the sitar blended with the drones from the tamboura. The ragas became even more amazing once the tabla beat kicked in. As with George, this music seemed to resonate with me, though I didn’t know why. It was the same with the low drones of bagpipes – I don’t know why, but I love those sounds. I played “The Sounds Of India” over and over, but the patterns of the music remained as mysterious to me as when I first heard it.

I wanted to buy more of his albums, but all I could find was the “Genius Of Ravi Shankar” cassette, first released in 1967. Still mind-blowing stuff (though now I prefer the 1964 classic “Portrait Of Genius“). Ravi, of course, was very, very prolific and released new albums around that time – like “Inside The Kremlin“, which I subsequently bought (though I still haven’t replaced the cassette), “Tana Mana” andPassages(an acclaimed collaboration with Philip Glass).

When I started collecting vinyl again in the early 1990s, I found used LP copies of “India’s Master Musician” and “Three Ragas“, which I eagerly snapped up. Angel Records finally started re-issuing his back catalogue in the mid-90s and by working at a record store, I was able to get a discount on some of them and free promo copies of others. Angel also released the magnificent “In Celebration” box set in 1996 – I highly recommend that one!

I discovered eBay in 2000 and found a few more gems on CD, like “Live At The Woodstock Festival” and “In Concert 1972” (a collab with Ali Akbar Khan – first released on Apple Records). A few years ago I found the “Homage To Mahatma Gandhi” LP in one of the market stalls at the Cropredy Festival and I got a copy of his tripped-out soundtrack, called “Transmigration Macabre” on CD. Still, there’s so much more to hear – I hope to get all of his 1960s and 1970s albums one day.

I also got to see him in concert twice in the 90s – once at UCONN, in the Jourgensen Auditorium and once in Northampton, Mass., at the Calvin Theatre. Both times his daughter, Anoushka, played with him. I wish I could remember what he played (did anyone keep track of Ravi’s setlists?) – but I was enthralled, just watching the maestro in person. Anoushka proved herself quite capable of matching his phrases in great call-and-response moments. Still two of the best shows I’ve been to – I walked out of the venues astonished at the level of musicianship I had witnessed. Always meant to see him one more time. Anoushka will carry the torch for some time, which is reassuring.

Farewell to the maestro – I’m not sure about the notion of an afterlife, but if there “is” such a thing – I’d like to think that Ravi is jamming with George and Ali Akbar and John and Brian Jones and Jimi and Miles. To wrap up, here’s one of my all-time favourite Ravi performances, as well as one of my fave filmed sequences. It’s Pandit Ravi Shankar playing “Dhun In Dadra and Fast Teental” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Oh, to have been there…

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