Ravi Shankar‘s arrival in Western music has widely been ascribed to his association with the Beatles, particularly George Harrison, and his stunning performance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival that also introduced West Coast audiences to Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and the Who at the dawn of the “Tommy” era. Shankar died at a hospital near his home in San Diego on Dec. 11, a day before it was announced he would receive a lifetime achievement award at the Grammy Awards in February.
RAVI SHANKAR: 1920-2012
John Coltrane sought out Shankar to free himself from Western chord structures, in a search of spiritual quality that Indian classical music possesses. The influence was considerable: John named his son Ravi. Bud Shank, an alto saxophonist and flutist who balanced jazz and film work, was behind the first-ever Shankar-jazz band collaboration, “Improvisations on the theme music from ‘Pather Panchali’.” The appeal, clearly, was the great improvisational tradition of Indian music, the shifting polyrythms and, at times, the speed and dexterity required to excel at any of the music’s instruments.
In the 1950s, Shankar had assembled an orchestra that brought together Indian and Western instrumentation. His association with the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin — with whom he would record albums in 1967, 1968, and 1976 — began in the early part of the decade and as Shankar built an audience through tours of Europe and the U.S., he also became the first Indian musician to score a Western film.
World Pacific Records, a jazz label based in Los Angeles, recorded and released Shankar’s albums beginning in 1956 with “Three Ragas,” a tour de force that impressed members of the jazz community and would equally influence folk musicians who would soon look to elements outside the folk tradition more exotic flair.
Using guitars to emulate the sitar had already cropped up in two British rock records — the Kinks’ “See My Friends” and the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” — but the Byrds took it a step further, embracing Shankar’s influence in song structure as well. David Crosby, already smitten by the sound of the sitar, attended a Shankar session at World Pacific’s studios and in 1965 began composing “Why?,” on which Roger McGuinn incorporated raga-style playing on his guitar. “Why?” appeared on the B side of “8 Miles High,” a track that turned Indian raga style into psychedelic rock that was acceptable for AM radio play.
Before Harrison, Crosby was the great proselytizer for Shankar, telling everyone he could that Shankar and Coltrane were the two greatest musicians living. Harrison became inspired to purchase a sitar and learn how to play at the feet of Shankar, using the instrument first on “Norwegian Wood.” Three of the Beatles most celebrated experimental songs include Harrison’s sitar – “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light.”
For all of his associations with musicians from around the world and fusion efforts, his fame with the general public owes largely to two festival performances of traditional ragas, the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 and the Concert for Bangladesh four years and two months later.
Shankar opened the final day of the three-day Monterey festival with a four-hour performance. An edited version was included in the film, cutting between an intense Shankar and a blissed-out and studious population of mostly college-age, white listeners. The Angel Records-released live album of his Monterey performance hit No. 43 on the Billboard 200 in 1968, Shankar’s highest chart position in his career.
By 1971, Shankar was based in the U.S. and focusing on music education, having written his memoirs and distanced himself from anything that suggested “hippie.” Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh to provide medical assistance and food to the Bengali people who were under attack from West Pakistan.
Harrison and Shankar discussed the idea of a large-scale benefit concert, the first of its kind, while working on the film “Raga.” Harrison took the stage at Madison Square Garden before a note had been played, advising the audience the music is “a little bit more serious than our music and I’d appreciate if you would settle down and get into the Indian music section.”
Shankar explained the rhythmic set-up of the two sitar-sarod duets he would play with the legendary Ali Akbar Khan. “This is music that needs a little concentrated listening,” he said before making sure all the musicians were on the same page. After applause broke out, Shankar famously joked “If you like the tuning so much I hope you enjoy the playing more.”
“The Concert for Bangladesh” would win album of the year at the Grammys, the second win for Shankar whose first collaboration with Menuhin, “West Meets East,” had been named Best Chamber Music Performance in 1967. Post-Bangladesh, Shankar was an elder statesman, performing for world leaders, taking on causes and collaborating with the likes of Philip Glass.
Shankar’s moment in the sun owed to a growing fascination with Eastern culture, first among artists and then with American youth. Grounded, educated and immensely talented, Shankar was able to provide guidance and embrace assimilation while retaining his own character as a musician and human being. As the colorful ’60s gave way to the beige ’70s, Shankar’s music faded to an exotic corner in pop culture but continued to be elevated in the serious performing arts world. A true master, much of his last 40 years were spent working within a tradition that was at the root of all his music. Ultimately, that dedication to tradition and an open arms approach to collaboration will define the man, Ravi Shankar.