The date was November 1967 and I was in the car with my father, who let me tune the radio to WMCA’s Top 40 broadcast; and I was nevertheless annoyed. I was annoyed because the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” was #1 on the charts that week and getting entirely too much air play. Bubblegum psychedelics: what a bad idea. Besides which, I was on my way to what I hoped would be a truly psychedelic experience. Transcendent would be a more appropriate word, mind-expanding would do in a pinch. But my vocabulary wasn’t so good in those days.
I had scored a ticket to see Ravi Shankar in concert. I was all of fifteen years old, so charges of precocity could legitimately be leveled. But Shankar had become a hero to my generation. George Harrison introduced us to the sitar for the first time late in 1965 when Rubber Soul hit the Christmas markets. By the middle of 1967 Shankar was appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival, imploring potheads to abstain from the use of tobacco and other drugs during his performance. And now he was about to play at an old theater in suburban New York, and I had fifth-row tickets.
It was a school night, and I remember having a hard time not dozing off during the early ragas. But Shankar was a showman and after a short while he engaged the audience with a little chicanery courtesy of Allah Rakha’s talking tabla. Shankar and Rakha exchanged phrases on their respective instruments that echoed in a kooky fashion. Then Shankar spoke to Rakha, and the percussionist spoke back, using his tabla, mimicking Shankar’s intonation exactly. And then to prove that it wasn’t just a rehearsed trick, he asked individual audience members to address the stage, and Rakha threw Long Island inflected phrases right back at us.
I was awake for the rest of the performance, especially in the next raga as the pair began to play furiously fast. In those early days of guitar gods, when speed was king and flash was fire, I was stunned by Shankar’s ability to set his strings ablaze with runs that went on endlessly; I’d be tempted to call them supersonic were it not for the clarity and precision of every note that came spilling down over us. It was an exhilarating experience that kept me hopped up for days afterwards. For Christmas that year I received a copy of Ravi Shankar in New York, and probably for purely sentimental reasons, it remains my favorite and most often-played of all the master’s recordings that I own.
A little over thirty years later I heard that Shankar was coming to perform at the university where I work. Knowing that he was nearing 90 years of age, I realized that this was going to be my last chance to see him perform. If I worried whether his energy would attain the heights of that long-ago concert of my youth, my concerns evaporated quickly. The master was still the master. And for a bonus he had brought along his daughter, Anoushka. Here again, I didn’t know what to expect. I was only hoping that it wouldn’t be Norah Jones. I wasn’t disappointed. Although father and daughter only took the stage after the intermission, they played with all the passion I remembered from my youth. The affection that the two felt for each other, the father’s pride in his daughter’s accomplishment, and the daughter’s in her father’s, were visible even from the balcony where we were seated. In the intervening decades this “exotic” music had become “world music” and performances like this one were staples of the serious concert hall rather than marginal curiosities. What remained the same was the power of the music and the devotion of the performers.
Recently, with Ravi now gone, I decided to learn a little more about the career of Anoushka Shankar. I sampled her early albums, Anoushka and Anourag, and 2001’s Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded at a concert where her father also performed. All three demonstrate her mastery of the traditional forms. When I got to her fourth album, Rise (2005), some interesting things started to happen.
With Rise, for the first time, Anoushka began to incorporate instrumentation and styles from around the world, quite literally. The first thing that struck me in the opening seconds of the first track, “Prayer in Passing” were some brief descending scales on piano that sounded just the way that the first notes of a raga emerge from the sitar. The music is slow and dreamy, the development passing among the piano, an Indian slide guitar, flutes, and the sitar. If it not formally a morning raga (and I have no idea whether it should be), it is evocative of dawn opening out into day and the sunning spinning across a world of skies. Shankar here takes her Indian tradition into the more usual arenas of “world music” for the first time.
In the following track, “Red Sun,” Shankar’s tabla players are featured performing in the bol style of percussive vocalizing that recalled for me an inversion of Allah Rakha imitation of the human voice with his table. Here the percussionists are using their mouths to produce a sound that sounds like drumming. When the style reappears later on the album in the world-music context of “Sinister Grains” (the piece that incorporates the throaty resonance of the didjeridu along with a throbbing electronic bass), it’s impossible not to think of the “human beat-box” measures of urban New York from a couple of decades earlier.
“Mahadeva” is another percussive tour-de-force with men’s voices amplified by crashing drums and cymbals that put me in mind of some of David Van Tiegham’s pulsating scores for dance performances. The album then becomes quieter for a few tracks, with Shankar’s sitar taking the lead on “Naked” and the piano returning to set the pace, gentle as it is, on “Solea.” The sitar once again dominates the mix on the closing numbers, “Voice of the Moon” and “Ancient Love.”
But after listening to the entire album, I was struck by what an integrated—indeed almost minor—role Shankar’s sitar plays in the music she has produced here for her first venture into a broader spectrum of performance. In part, I suspect my reaction comes from decades of now having heard the sitar in the context of other musical styles from the Beatles to the Incredible String Band. But I think it’s not just that the strangeness of the sitar has worn away over the years. Rise represents Shankar’s move from defining herself primarily as an instrumentalist in her father’s tradition to a composer and arranger who draws upon the myriad influences she had encountered in her own decidedly multicultural experience.
In subsequent albums Shankar has gone on to further explore her fascination with flamenco music, only hinted at here on “Prayer in Passing” and “Solea.” She has performed and recorded her father’s “Symphony” with the London Philharmonic and teamed up with her sister, Norah Jones, on the recent Traces of You, that makes her sitar the lead instrument on a set of compositions that chart a course somewhere between traditional raga and traditional Western song formats. She is all of thirty-three years old. I find it impossible to imagine what she will accomplish if she continues to compose and perform for as long as her father did, but I’m beginning to believe that she will come someday to shine as brightly as he does in our canons.