Enter the Sitar Master

Ravi Shankar, Indian sitar master, mentor to late Beatle George Harrison and a huge influence on Western music has released a three CD + one DVD set “Collaborations,” a package that includes work that these two musical icons teamed up on in various incarnations. Shankar, 90, father of Norah Jones, has had a monumental career and helped bring Indian music into the rock world.This nicely packaged collection includes a 56 page booklet, three CDs in replica sleeves, a uniquely numbered certificate of authenticity and a wonderful cover photo of Harrison and Shankar, but lacks musical consistency.

In 1966, the spiritual Beatle Harrison embraced Indian music and his emissary in that venture was Shankar. “Although I could not comprehend it, the music (which happened to be Ravi Shankar and his sitar) made more sense to me than anything I had heard in my life,” says Harrison. Shankar had met all of the Beatles in 1966, but took a quick liking to him. “George was something special from the beginning. Something clicked between us and he was so interested in wanting to know about Indian music.” This later led to Harrison’s adding the sitar and an Indian sensibility to such Beatle songs as, “Norwegian Wood,” “The Inner Light, “Within Without You” and “Love You To.”

The first CD (1997) includes Chants of India produced by Harrison which are atmospheric and contain hypnotic rhythms and wonderful vocals. These Sanskrit chants, which were recorded over three sessions, sold 100,000 copies in the U.S. and have been out of license for five years.”Vandanaa Prayer,” “Vedic Chanting One,” “Sahanaa Vavatu,” and “Svara Mantra,” are a few examples of the 16 tracks on this CD that will bring the listener to a contemplative state, perfect for meditation and Yoga. Despite this, Western ears will find the droning and incessant repetitive chanting monotonous. The spirit of god is invoked through this music with its ethereal and heartfelt sound (drones and flutes along with sitar) and Shankar’s musicianship is first-rate, but it lacks a brightness and would be a bit too somber for most tastes.

CD two, culled from a music festival in India (1974) includes Shankar and 17 Indian classical musicians, including Shivkumar Sharma. Alla Rahka, Sultan Kahn and others who play on this release. This same combination of musicians toured Europe and played the legendary London venue, Royal Albert Hall. Having previously been only released on vinyl, this is the first time it is available in another recorded format. Though more sonically pleasing with tabla, flute, violin and sitar more dominant on tracks like “Vandana,” “Dhamar” and “Tarana,” the chanting element detracts from the musical virtuosity displayed. The atonal vocal lines are harsh on the ear and hard to get used to.”Raga Jait” is a high point with its Chinese influence. Shankar’s sitar playing is phenomenal on this track along with a wonderful percussive section. Make no mistake; this is authentic Indian fare and not a westernized hybrid which aims to grab another audience. Shankar must be respected for being a conduit to Western music, but not losing his roots.

The third CD from 1974 is ideal one for a classic rock or jazz aficionado who wants to embrace music from another culture. This was the first musical project that Shankar and Harrison worked on together. It brought together Indian Classical musicians and Western rock and jazz musicians. Ringo Starr, “fifth Beatle,” Billy Preston, Jim Keltner, Tom Scott, Klaus Voorman and Harrison lend their musical brilliance to instrumentals and songs that are inventive and display great musicianship and passion. They contain elements of rock, funk and jazz with an Indian twist. It all starts with wonderfully sung track, “I am Missing You,” a devotional tribute to Krishna. Vocalist Lakshmi Shankar sings beautifully and the flute accompaniment is jazzy and intricate.Shankar’s “whirling dervish” sitar soling is stirring and rivals any classic rocker’s lead break. Track five, “Jaya Javadish Hare’ Dream, Nightmare and Dawn Music for a Ballet by Ravi Shankar” is part of a thematic ballet that has yet to be performed on a stage. It has a wonderful rhythm and musicality, but the background vocals are a bit annoying. “Overture” is where the CD takes off with the Indian element fusing with jazz perfectly. The flute, violins and tablas create a tapestry of sound that take a listener to his or her own private “Nirvana.” “Festivity and Joy” (track seven) is a beautiful piece of music with a melodic sitar- flute call and response.”Love-Dance Ecstasy” and “Lust” (tracks eight and nine)are high points on this CD with the former’s synchronized sitar lines and rhythms creating a whirlwind of sound cascading to a crescendo that leaves a listener begging for more. The latter piece is an example of funk meeting Bengali and shows how different musical traditions and styles can co-exist in one medium taking music to new heights.Track 10 “Dispute and Violence” features some expert xylophone playing and soloing.

All in all, this CD is a musical tour de force.

The DVD included is a video record of Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India- Live at Royal Albert Hall on September 23rd, 1974.This footage is quite rare and part of the DVD is audio-only because some of the film was lost. A nervous Harrison introduces Shankar and the two embrace warmly displaying the affection they have for each other. The early section of the DVD has Shankar conducting an Indian orchestra that is gathered in a semi-circle on a podium. Witnessing these musicians at work is a joy to behold and has a great impact through visuals.The sitar runs, tabla “battles,” flute magic and violin improvisation are quite impressive. The next section finds Shankar holding court alongside musicians who are clearly on his level. Shankar’s fluid runs up and down the neck of his sitar and the other players expert “chops” shine through.

“Collaborations” has its moments, but they are too few for a multi-CD and DVD set. Some of the songs are too repetitive in nature and lack memorable melodies. Since most of the tracks are not sung in English, some listeners will lose focus. This does not diminish the huge impact that Shankar has had on the music world, but this effort should be embraced by true fans of his and not casual listeners.

About Steve Janowsky 88 Articles
Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.

1 Comment

  1. Wow – I didn’t even know Ravi was still alive. He was always more a point of fascination than someone whose music I could appreciate. Still one of the best things to happen to The Beatles, though. Harrison’s infatuation with Indian music and the rest of The Beatles flirtations with the Eastern mysticism fueled some of their most creative years, IMHO.

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