Indian Classical Music: Opening the Within

Introducing HariSongs

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When George Harrison and Ravi Shankar met in 1966, no one could have guessed we’d feel its reverberations a half-century later, or that we’d still be celebrating its fruits.

It was an inspired union: the working-class Liverpudlian, a self-taught guitarist strapped to a rock quartet destined (or doomed) to become our culture’s perpetual epicenter, and an older man of more august stock, a multilingual intellectual who studied Indian classical music under master Allauddin Khan in observance of ancient tradition.

It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars, It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to see me, I didn’t know what to think.

— Ravi Shankar

Breathe the world.

Nevertheless, the relationship added yet another dimension to rock ’n’ roll, one Harrison promoted through his own work and by championing his mentors for the rest of his life. Recently, his estate furthered that dedication by launching, with Craft Recordings, the HariSongs label, established specifically to share Harrison’s world-music archive with, well, the world.

Its inaugural releases neatly bookend Harrison’s intentions. One captures Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, Allauddin’s son and Shankar’s former brother-in-law, one October evening in New York. Their spellbinding dialogue comprised In Concert 1972, released by Harrison through The Beatles’ Apple Records in 1973. Harrison later extended his creative gratitude to Shankar by producing his old friend’s Chants of India (1997), their final collaboration and an effort Shankar called “one of the most difficult challenges of my life, as a composer and arranger.” Formerly out of print, both are back, now in the digital realm, an exotic cosmos all its own.

Keep in mind that Indian classical music wasn’t foreign to our ears at the time of the Harrison/Shankar summit. Its sounds had been integrated into other forms already. In fact, its Western surge can almost be traced to an exact time and date, give or take a minute: 9:50 a.m. Friday, April 1, 1955, when Ali Akbar Khan, with sarod (a lute-like instrument) and entourage in tow, touched down at New York’s Idlewild Airport for a whirlwind month in conjunction with the Living Arts of India Festival and the “Textiles and Ornamental Arts” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Harrison later extended his creative gratitude to Shankar by producing his old friend’s Chants of India (1997), their final collaboration and an effort Shankar called “one of the most difficult challenges of my life, as a composer and arranger.”

Living arts, indeed. Khan debuted for a national audience that month on the CBS series “Omnibus.” On April 18, he recorded the first-ever album of Indian classical music, Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas, released later that year to widespread acclaim.

He capped his metropolitan commitments over the next two nights (at least one sold-out) with enthusiastically received and now-historic showcases at the museum. Shankar embarked on his own tour in 1956, a trek that yielded the Three Ragas LP and receptive audiences around the world.

The music’s influence naturally surfaced stateside. Although Shankar cautioned against likening it to American jazz, the genres’ mutual appreciation was undeniable. Clarinetist Tony Scott praised Shankar on “Portrait of Ravi” in late 1957. Separately, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef embarked on strings of themed albums, culminating in 1959’s East Meets West and 1961’s Eastern Sounds, respectively, two beacons of simultaneous discovery and execution. Shankar’s Improvisations (1962) featured flutist Bud Shank (late of Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra) and bassist Gary Peacock. The cross-pollinations deepened from there, growing, blooming: Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra — even drummer Buddy Rich, who swapped slaps with Shankar’s tabla man Alla Rakha on the aptly titled Rich a la Rakha (1968).

From jazz it made its way to rock. Saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy summoned its terrains on “India” during a November 1961 date at New York’s Village Vanguard; the track was released on 1963’s Impressions — which, incidentally, would be one of two tapes to accompany The Byrds on a 1965 tour. The other? A Ravi Shankar collection. Both unwittingly conspired to inspire “Eight Miles High.”

The Yardbirds commissioned a sitarist for “Heart Full of Soul” but were dissatisfied with the results, so guitarist Jeff Beck approximated its tones with the snarl that pumps its blood. The Kinks’ “See My Friends” wears its droning roots on its hypnotic sleeves, from Ray Davies’ chanted delivery (an alleged allusion to fishermen he’d witnessed while in Bombay in 1965) to brother Dave’s 12-string prickle. Even The Beatles themselves had begun exploring the possibilities of Indian classical music on 1965’s “Ticket to Ride.”

But Harrison’s interest in the music transcended accentuation. Borrowing was fine for others; he wanted to understand. He’d discovered the sitar during the 1965 production of The Beatles’ Help!, thanks in part to a group of Indian session musicians with a Beatles medley in their repertoire. He also came to know of Shankar’s work through The Byrds, particularly via discussions with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. (After witnessing Shankar at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Eric Burdon & the Animals were moved to sigh, “The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind / oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry” in “Monterey.”)

The sitar’s sounds intrigued Harrison. He soon purchased his own from a shop on London’s Oxford Street (it sold for $62,500 in 2012 – surely a considerable markup) and recorded his then-progress for posterity that October on The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” While his contemporaries may have aped Indian textures, Harrison was the first of his tribe to have done so on LP with an actual Indian instrument. It sparked a minor creative stampede: within months, The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, then a student of Harihar Rao, who himself had learned under Ravi Shankar, hunkered in a California studio, coloring “Paint It, Black” with the sitar’s dark exoticism.

However, Indian classical music wasn’t meant as a pop accessory; it’s an ancient form of expression, originating some 2,000 years ago in the Vedic hymns of Hinduism — “classical” stretching centuries beyond our perception of time. And unlike its much younger Western counterpart, it’s an improvised yet structured form, notations nonexistent, unbound by conventional counterpoint or harmony. “It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars,” Shankar remarked in the 1971 documentary, Raga. “It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to see me, I didn’t know what to think.”

But Harrison did, proving an open and willing student. His post-“Norwegian Wood” evolution was evident as early as 1966’s “Love You To” (Revolver), upon which he’s accompanied by nary a Beatle, just the Asian Music Circle and table player Anil Bhagwat. This is immersion, not conversion nor allusion. Despite its single-friendly length, it adhered more to Indian than Western modes, complete with alap, gat, and drut.

It’s difficult, especially for Western-eared punks like me (I would likely have been among those prematurely applauding Shankar’s warmup at 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh, recipient of the rejoinder, “If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing even more”), to explain this form using such affectations as words, for fear of losing something in the translation between heart and verbiage. As Shankar said, “Music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self-realization.” How could mere words compete? One must winnow it down to sound, which, as Shankar explained, Vedic scriptures tell us can be divided into two classifications: the Ahata Nad, which covers the sounds that exist because something makes them; and the Anahata Nad, which are just the sounds that are. I think.

The “raga,” or “dye,” as in “color,” is considered the music’s heart, the foundation upon which a musician creates, albeit confined by the parameters set by the raga, which is usually set by mood, season or time. It begins like a sunrise, with an opening section known as the “alap,” or prologue. The “jor” then follows with expanding improvisations and quickening pulses before melding into the “jhala,” a playful excursion that ends the alap and blossoms into the “gat,” marked by tabla establishing the “tala,” or time cycle. The pace builds, the drums join the conversation; virtuosity reigns until the climactic “drut,” which culminates in returned unity.

On paper it sounds rigid. In execution, it’s anything but. These mesmerizing constructs can last near-forever, and you know what? When artists exploring a raga know one another to their cores, you won’t care. On “In Concert 1972,” Shankar and Akbar, with Alla Rakha on tabla, unfold “Raga – Manj Khamaj” for nearly an hour, and it’s all astounding bliss. You can feel their shared experiences and lifetimes, their confidence, their patience, their ease with one another, their willingness to recount that complex journey for listeners. They dedicate the full set to Akbar’s father, Allauddin Khan, who had recently died and loomed in both men’s lives as a mentor and inspiration. He’s here, too, a guiding force.

That’s really why, for me, this record’s important, because it’s another little key to open up the within. For each individual to be able to sit and … listen to something that has its root in a transcendental — because, really, even all the words of these songs, they carry with it a very subtle spiritual vibration. And it goes beyond intellect, really. So if you let yourself be free, to let that have effect on you, it can have an effect, a positive effect.

— George Harrison

Many more years of exploration followed. That’s a benefit of any music: perpetual discovery, endless learning, even within what you think you know. In 1997, more than three decades after he met the guru face-to-face, Harrison produced and participated in (you can hear him on assorted instruments and at times within a larger vocal group) Shankar’s “Chants of India,” a rapturous excursion into ancient scriptures, featuring chants and newer experiments.

Times had certainly changed by then, yet their devotion remained steadfast. When Harrison and Shankar visited VH1 on July 24, 1997, to promote the album, no one spoke of sales projections or cultural timeliness, just music as crucial to self-fulfillment.

Sadly, both men are among the spirits now, Harrison in 2001 and Shankar in 2012. But together and apart, they’ve left us keys to astounding, living bodies of work — theirs and others. If we listen, we hear them still. We feel them, too. And we have so much left to learn. May our search continue.

There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.

— Gilbert K. Chesterton