Saturday, February 09, 2013

His Music, His Life

The life and times of Ravi Shankar ...

Here in the West in the late 1960's we began to hear a strange new sound -- a wiry, nasal, twanging sound unlike any instrument we were familiar with. It was of course the Indian sitar, a distant relation of the guitar, and chances are that the person you heard playing it was Ravi Shankar. Not that he was the only practitioner of this instrument -- far from it. But he was the one who single-handedly brought it to us, taught us how to listen to its alien music, and at last integrated it into the new tradition of World Music as we now know it.

It was a tough sell at first. I remember the father of a friend of mine walking through the living room while we were listening to a Ravi Shankar album and saying, "Has he got that thing tuned up yet?" To those reared on our own pop music those characteristic bending notes were simply the sign of someone twisting a tuning peg. The style of slide or bottleneck guitar is somewhat closer to the Indian tradition, and for the same reason: the notes are bent to imitate the expressive qualities of the human singing voice. Indian musicians are universally taught the art of singing before being allowed to tackle their instruments. They even sing the drum parts, with specific syllables assigned to the various ways of striking the head of the tabla.

Things really warmed up when George Harrison and the Beatles brought the sitar into rock. It first appeared, tastefully, in "Norwegian Wood" on the Rubber Soul album, before making its more bizarre statements in "Within You, Without You" on Revolver. It also appears in the movie Help! in a brief scene where some Indian musicians are playing -- what else? -- a rendition of "A Hard Days's Night."

Suddenly everyone wanted that sound, or something equally fresh and exotic. The Rolling Stones countered with an Arab stringed instrument along with a harpsichord on "Lady Jane." In record time an "electric sitar" appeared on the market, which was really just a guitar with a set of sympathetic strings like those on the sitar that lend a silvery overlay to the notes of the scale. If you google them you'll find they are still being produced by a variety of makers. (There was also an electric harpsichord, but those were quickly outmoded by more flexible electric keyboards like the Hohner Clavinet and the Fender Rhodes.)

Shankar hit the peak of his popular fame with the legendary Concert for Bangladesh, where he served as the warm-up act for most of the biggest names in rock at the time -- and, I might add, brought down the house. He acknowledged in a later interview that he knew he could have pursued a career in pop music from then on and earned a billion dollars, but that held no interest for him. He went back to practicing his traditional art, while also exploring new avenues through collaborations with a wide variety of Western musicians.

One of these fruitful collaborations was with violinist Yehudi Menuin, with whom he recorded two albums titled East Meets West and West Meets East. Menuin wanted to learn about Indian music as well as the art of improvisation, which before jazz came along had little or no place in Western music. The album covers show the result, with Menuin wearing an Indian shirt, sitting in lotus position on the floor, and fiddling like mad. Fun! East Meets West Music, the official recording label of the Shankar Foundation, would take its name from this concept. Later, on his album Tana Mana, Shankar playfully titled one cut "West Eats Meat."

Another fan was John Coltrane, the jazz saxophonist who became such a close friend that he named his son Ravi. Alas, Coltrane died before their partnership could mature into the musical collaboration they had in mind. What a recording that might have been!

One of my personal favorites is the album Shankar created with Philip Glass, called Passages. Glass, who has collaborated with his own wide assortment of world artists, and who lists the gamelan music of Indonesia among his early influences, took a unique approach to this partnership. Glass wrote melodic material for Shankar, who arranged and performed it, while Shankar wrote material for Glass, who arranged and performed that. The result clouds the differences between the two while creating a fusion between them that reads like something brand new. Indian music purists have sometimes criticized Shankar for deviating from tradition, but they should get over it. Any music that stops evolving is surely dying.

I'm also fond of several recordings Shankar made with an ensemble called the Festival From India. Besides introducing other Indian instruments such as the sarod (like a fretless guitar), the shenai (a double reed like an oboe) and flute, he includes an expanded percussion section and singers to give the full flavor of the Indian tradition.

In doing this he was really returning to his roots and completing a circle. Way back in the 1930's when Ravi was a small boy he went to Europe and America with his older brother Uday's dance company. Though the impression they made was a fleeting one at the time, it was the first attempt anyone had made to expose Western audiences to Indian music. The dances themselves had been nearly lost during the centuries of British domination, and Uday was one of those who reconstructed the movements by interviewing old practitioners and studying paintings and sculptures from long ago. Now you only have to watch a Bollywood musical to see how far they've come in popularizing the form and giving it new life.

There is a re-issue of the few recordings made of Uday's company, originally on 78 rpm records. It shows that he Westernized his presentation by creating short numbers that wouldn't tax the attention span of audiences unfamiliar with the material. But the flavor and texture is there. The seed was being planted, and all these years later Ravi came along for the harvest.

Just as one more sign of how broad the reach of this man was, I will say that I personally decided to take up the sitar in the early 1970's. I was an aspiring folk singer at the time, also fond of Renaissance recorder music and harpsichords. I found the sitar irresistible, and when I learned that Arnold Grayson, who owned a little music store called The Recorder Workshop in Coconut Grove, was importing them, I begged my parents and received one of the best Christmas presents ever.

But what to do with it, you might well ask. How do you hold it, tune it, what strings do you pick and how? There was only one place to turn: Ravi Shankar's book on the subject. Titled My Music, My Life, this amazing book (now available in an updated edition) is a combination beginners method for the sitar, autobiography, and brief history of Indian music. As something that covers so many bases it stands on its own.The man was impossible to separate from his music, and the history of the music was the story of his life. So besides learning the rudiments of the instrument I learned about the early life of the man, and the basics of a musical tradition markedly different from anything in the history of western music.

I learned how young Ravi, though drawn to the glitter of Hollywood, was challenged instead by the sitar master who was part of Uday's company to take up the instrument and devote the next years of his life to its study. Apparently he took to it rather well, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like Western European music, Indian music had its roots in religion. In Europe, the plainchant songs of medieval monks gradually transformed into harmonies that erupted into the polyphony of the Renaissance and Baroque, which then either progressed or degraded, depending on your point of view, into the emotionalism of the Romantic period and ultimately to the turgid experimentalism of modern music. Underlying it all are the same twelve tones of the scale, divided in such a way that you can compose music in any key -- meaning that any one of those notes can be the dominant one that will dictate which 8 of the 12 will be part of the scale. All the other variations such as major and minor keys, harmonic chords, and rules for modulating from one key into another, are based within this invariable system.

In India, instead of the wandering lines of plainchant there was the steady drone of the OMMMMMM chant, one single bass tone that formed the foundation on which music would be built. Before Ravi begins to play the first thing you hear is the tambura, a simple drone instrument with a few strings tuned to the one tonic note and its harmonic fifth. Against this invariable texture the notes of a scale, or raga, begin to be introduced.

But there is another difference. Instead of selecting 8 of a possible 12 tones, the raga may be a selection of 5 to 8 out of a possible 19 tones. The octave is the same as in the West, dictated by the mathematics of music, but the distance in between is more finely divided, with some of the notes being what we would call quarter tones. They are sharp-sharps or flat-flats of the notes familiar to our ears.

This explains the alien nature of the music, but also its great expressiveness. Our closest analogy is probably the blues with its bent notes, slides, and wailing voices. But in Indian music these techniques have been raised to a high art. Specific ragas are said to evoke specific emotions or ranges of emotion. Legend has it that the original masters could even light fires with their music -- something that is easy to imagine when you hear the way they accelerate to a blazing pitch toward the end of the performance.

There is harmony in this music, but not as we understand it in the Western tradition. A single melody line typically forms a harmony only against the tonic drone, a harmony that changes as the distance between the notes changes, like two magnets getting closer together or farther apart. Any other harmonies, as when another instrument joins in, are more or less accidental.

Shankar broke somewhat with this tradition as he extended his musical talents into new directions. He observed that the sitar has multiple strings and there was no reason it could not play chords. To purists who insisted that it wasn't done, he replied, well why not? So chords sometimes appear in his sitar solos. And he certainly used them in his writing for the Festival ensemble and collaboration with Glass.

He also wrote film scores, notably for the Apu Triilogy of Satyajit Ray, and the 1968 American film, Charly. Ultimately he even tried his hand at a symphony and concerto, both featuring the sitar. They both have been recorded by the London Philharmonic with Ravi's daughter Anoushka sitting in on sitar. Now that the torch has been passed along to her, Ravi may even find the pop career that eluded him, posthumously. Anoushka's own recordings lean very much in the direction of the "new age" atmospheric sound that has become a prevailing background to our 21st century lives.

So how did I do on the sitar? Well, thanks to my personal guru, Ravi, who taught me even though we never met, I had a lot of fun with it. I was able to work it into my folk song act, and it was the biggest reason I once won an amateur night audition at a local bar. At one point I heard that Ravi's friend and collaborator Ali Akbar Khan had opened a school in California, and I considered giving everything up to study there.

But when it came down to it I realized exactly how much more I had to learn, and wasn't willing to do what it would take to master it. I ended up donating the instrument to a local group that was promoting the study of Indian music. I'd like to think that, like Ravi's own music, my old sitar is still out there somewhere singing its songs.


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  2. hi. thanks for such a wonderful post. reallly was quite inspiring.
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