By Katherine Cole
Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who became a worldwide musical icon through his work with the Beatles and introduced traditional Indian music to millions in the Western world over an eight decade career and was labeled the “Godfather of world music” by no less than George Harrison died December 12th at the age of 92. If you’ve never seen him play, here he is on Dick Cavett’s US television program. (And yes, that’s George Harrison sitting next to Cavett at the start of the clip!)
The Indian Prime Minister’s office has confirmed Shankar’s death and called him a “national treasure.”
I prefer to think of him as an “international treasure.” What do I mean by that? Well, I think he’s a big part of why my ipod contains songs that mix strains of classical Indian ragas with American pop, jazz with bluegrass, and all the other strains of musical gumbo that we now take for granted.
While Ravi Shankar was popular in India before he started collaborating with Western artists, it was his relationship with George Harrison and the Beatles that brought him to worldwide attention the 1960s. It all started when George Harrison became fascinated with the sitar, an instrument with a long neck and a gourd for a body–it kind of looks like a giant lute. George played the instrument with western tuning on the Beatles song “Norweigan Wood, ” but soon asked Shankar to teach him how to play it correctly. And proving that you can find anything on Youtube, here’s a clip of one of their lessons!
Shankar’s popularity skyrocketed after George Harrison got involved and soon he was playing in concerts with some of the top rock bands and at festivals like Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Everyone wanted to collaborate with him, and soon Indian music began touching more and more other genres. Who else was influenced by Ravi Shankar? Violinist Yehudi Menuhin recorded three albums with him. Sax player John Coltrane not only collaborated with him, he named a son after Shankar. And composer Philip Glass, who recounted their first meeting in a 2001 New York Times article, recorded 1990’s “Passages” with the sitar master.
And that’s just a little explanation of why I’m remembering Ravi Shankar as an “international treasure.” I bet you have your own thoughts (and maybe even a favorite clip or two?) —please share them with us!
And to find out more about Ravi Shankar and hear my radio radio story, click here!