Skip to main content

Ravi Shankar, emissary for world beat

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 8:14 AM EST, Thu December 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Ravi Shankar brought classical Indian music to a global audience
  • He says he was legendary in India when he made cross-genre connections
  • The Byrds hip to Shankar before Beatles, but sitar could soon be heard on their records
  • Seymour: His sound transcended pop associations to carve out singular spot in music

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a jazz and film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. He is a contributor to "The Oxford Companion to Jazz."

(CNN) -- "Beauty" seemed somehow insufficient a description for the sounds that came from Ravi Shankar's sitar in a concert hall. It was as if nature itself were being replicated on the stage, whether it was gentle summer rain or late-autumn wind having its way with the landscape. There would be intense engagement between Shankar and his ensemble as they summoned into being tempests of interlocking phrases that seemed to coil and unravel at will. The audience would be enraptured, transported, energized into enthusiastic applause.

And this was before the actual performance started.

"If you enjoyed the tuning up that much, I hope you enjoy the music even more," Shankar can be heard saying on the recording of the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh addressing the appreciative, if nonplussed crowd at Madison Square Garden. It wasn't the first, or last time he gently (at times, not so gently) reproved audiences who, even with the benefit of his warnings, took the preliminaries for the actual recitals. Some learned, some never did -- and then there were those who really did enjoy the tuning-up as much as what followed.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Whatever his audience's reaction, Shankar, who died Tuesday at age 92 after undergoing heart surgery, seemed to accept it all with benign imperiousness and regal warmth. As emissary for a classical tradition of Indian music, Shankar was winning over global audiences for that music in greater numbers than could have been imagined when he started learning the music of raga almost 70 years ago.

He was already close to legendary stature in India by the 1950s as sitar virtuoso, composer, conductor and director of All India Radio in New Delhi. He had also written scores for several Indian films, notably Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" (1955-1959) whose international acclaim was a huge factor in increasing Shankar's worldwide profile.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



By the late 1950s, Shankar was making cross-genre connections with the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose seminal 1961 recording of "My Favorite Things" was infused with modal inventions that carried the incantatory fervor of classic raga music. (Coltrane would name his son Ravi after Shankar. This year, by the way, Ravi Coltrane, who like his father plays tenor and soprano saxophone, released his finest album to date, "Spirit Fiction" on Blue Note Records.)

As all this indicates, Shankar was already well-known before the Beatles got involved. In fact, they weren't even the first rock group to get hip to Shankar. That honor belonged to the Byrds, who recorded in the same World Pacific Records studios as Shankar did for producer Richard Bock. They in turn got George Harrison hooked on raga and Harrison began plucking the sitar on his own. (Dial up "Norwegian Wood" from the Beatles' 1965 album "Rubber Soul" and you'll hear that instrument poking out the theme.)

Harrison and Shankar met the next year and the "quiet Beatle" went to India to study sitar with the master. Back then, whatever the Beatles were interested in, the rest of the world was interested in, too. Brian Jones picked up the sitar on the Rolling Stones' 1966 hit "Paint It Black" and the Byrds appropriated a sitar-sound (and a Coltrane riff) that same year for "Eight Miles High." "Raga-rock" lasted just long enough to make the sitar part of the shorthand soundtrack of what's often derisively labeled "the hippie era."

Shankar was at best ambivalent about such associations. But his reputation, as with his music, transcended fashion to become its own singular, lasting presence in the world's cultural firmament. Anyone who can make a sound check sound like genius packs substantial weight with the rest of the immortals.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT