Saturday, April 9, 2016

Thanks, Ravi

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the Concert for Bangladesh press conference.

Google honored Ravi Shankar with a doodle the other day.

Ravi Shankar is a great example of someone bringing a special point of view to pierce the bubble of "normalcy" in which a vast number of people live, and to agitate for tectonic change.

I grew up in an all-white New Jersey suburb, very sheltered from so much that was going on in the rest of the world. I have a crystal clear memory of the way in which Ravi Shankar started with a small but significant intrusion into my world, via his influence on George Harrison and the rest of the Beatles, particularly in songs like "Within You Without You" on the Sgt. Pepper album.

Ravi Shankar, My Music, My Life
So, at a time when I was expanding my musical horizons from trumpet and piano to guitar, and starting to dream about being in a real  band, checking books out of the library about "how to start your own rock 'n' roll group," I was also reading My Music, My Life and trying to make my guitar sound like a sitar.

When I did manage to put together a band with some friends, we were absorbed with the Concert for Bangladesh. Certainly there were benefit concerts before that, but that one is the first that I could really remember that was used as a call to action to respond to the suffering of people in a part of the world that people had never heard of.

It's quite moving to watch the film of the concert after all these years, and to see the press conference at the beginning where they ask George Harrison, "Why are you doing this?" He says, "Because my friend came to me and asked for help."

In 1979, when I was in Taiwan, many of my classmates and I had the opportunity to see Ravi Shankar in concert at the national concert hall in Taipei. I remember Ravi exhorting us to loosen up, to not be so stiff; he encouraged us to move with the music . . . .

I have a clear memory of being in Tower Records in the '90s, and pawing through rack after rack of "world music" CDs. It was funny to think about how a few pioneers cracked that open.

In the early '00s I saw two films that expanded my understanding of how steadily Ravi Shankar had worked to build his audience and his reach. One was the 1971 film Raga. The other was The World According to John Coltrane. (More at: John Coltrane and the integration of Indian concepts in jazz improvisation.)

Ravi Shankar playing with daughter Anoushka

In April, 2007, Ravi Shankar performed a sold-out concert in Chicago's Symphony Center with his daughter, Anoushka. I remember Ravi telling us that he was using a specially-designed sitar, a bit smaller than usual, that was easier for him to manage. I remember thinking how historic this was -- how there would a be a time in the very near future when people would not be able to see Ravi Shankar perform any more. I watched him beam as he watched Anoushka perform, and I thought, "She is a prodigy. How proud, how content he looks." And then Anoushka finished, and he played, and -- miraculously -- he took it to a whole other level.

(Of course, you don't need to be Ravi Shankar to feel proud and content . . . . )

Changing of the guard: Tip Scarry takes up my old Fender Stratocaster

I see now that one way in which I am different from many people around me is having a love of music and language and imagery and food and much more that carries me beyond what I already know and am comfortable with.

For this I am grateful.

Thanks, Ravi.

You can see a great set of Ravi Shankar clips on Youtube.

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