Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ravi - Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar
Capitol ST 10504

I was very sorry to see that Ravi Shankar died the other day.  I had thought about going to see his show in Long Beach a month or two ago, but I waited too long to get tickets and only really expensive seats were left.  So I went to play hockey instead and it turned out to be the last concert he would ever give.  Lesson learned for me.  Like many rock fans I became interested in Shankar because of George Harrison.  Harrison's use of the sitar and Indian influenced music appealed to me and seeing Shankar in "Monterey Pop" made me a fan.  I bought this record in high school and listened to it often.  I know that Shankar had mixed feelings about Western pop music fans' attraction to his music, it did become sort of a psychedelic cliche that did not really give the music the respect it deserved.  Even without Harrison's influence I would have come around to him eventually anyway because of his early association with the filmmaker Satyajit Ray.  I saw most of Ray's films in college and particularly admired the "Apu" trilogy which Shankar scored.  I can't even pretend to be an expert in ragas or Indian classical music nor in Shankar's massive discography which I've only heard a little bit of.  I don't know how this album rates in his oeuvre but I like it a lot.  I believe it came out in India in 1966 and got its American release two years later.  It features Shankar with Kanai Dutt on tabla.  Each side of the album features a single raga.  Side one is "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" which according to the liner notes is an evening raga of a spiritual character.  I don't really hear that.  Nor can I tell the difference between evening or daytime ragas.  This is classical music, but I listen to it like I listen to pop music.  There is a reason why this music appealed to hippies and it has nothing to do with classical scales or variations within formalized structures hundreds of years old.  This music is entrancing and soothing and its virtuosity is not all that removed from listening to a Jerry Garcia or John McLaughlin jam, no disrespect to Shankar intended.  This raga starts quite slow with Shankar playing elongated notes in the lower register and then moving into some slightly faster paced riffing in the upper register.  As the raga progresses, the tempo increases.  The energetic main theme is played over a steady drone from the strings underneath, almost as if Shankar is dueting with himself.  That relentless drone is a big part of this music's appeal to me.  The music continues to increase in speed particularly after the tabla joins in.  The final third is quite exciting with Shankar's frenzied fingers running through fast-paced variations on his sitar as the tabla races to keep up with him.  It reaches a powerful climax and then abruptly fades out.  Side two features "Raga Tilak-Shyam" which in contrast to the slow, exploratory beginning of "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" features Shankar jumping right into a very pretty melody supported by the tabla.  He runs through variations of the melody and introduces a second melody and interweaves the two for the rest of the song.  Although there are some vigorous and exciting runs in the latter part of the song, it lacks the intensity of side one although I think it is the more consistently stimulating of the two ragas and it also features a thrilling climax where Shankar really takes off with breathtaking virtuosity.  This man could really play and the world of music both classical and pop, East and West, is diminished with his passing.  I don't wish to demean this music by likening it to Western pop music, but if you like be-bop or jam rock this should be right up your alley.  Recommended to John Coltrane fans.

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