This feature originally appeared in the October 2011 (#79) edition of Songlines. Photography [above] by Vincent Limongelli.
Click here to read the Songlines obituary from 2012.
Ravi Shankar The Indian music maestro is now in his 90s, but he’s still an avid fan of new, innovative music, as shown in his choice of artists for Songlines
Ravi Shankar doesn’t need much introduction, especially to readers of Songlines. ‘The godfather of world music’ was how the Beatles’ George Harrison described him. When looking back at his lengthy career, this certainly rings true – he’s done more than any other artist to showcase the music of India to the world. Ravi-ji, as he is affectionately known, has collaborated with everyone from George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin to Philip Glass and Herbie Hancock.
‘I will keep playing as long as my body lets me, and as long as I’m wanted by my listeners. Because music is the only thing that keeps me going,’ he told The Guardian some years ago. Now 91, performances by the maestro are rare, although he did play at the Barbican in London in July. We’re very fortunate that he’s selected six tracks for Songlines – five of which appear on the CD and a bonus track that can be heard on the podcast. Here he tells us why he’s chosen these particular tracks; how he feels the music scene in India has changed; and how to encourage people to be openminded and explore different types of music.
Music has the power to draw listeners into a common space and time – no matter what their backgrounds, interests and opinions. Audiences come to the music with the mindset that they are going somewhere together and that is a powerful motivator and wellspring for social change. If there is music, there is the possibility of people seeing beyond their immediate wants and needs.
Sadly, I fear that the classical music traditions in India are being lost. Today’s world of media, work, work, work and cell phones make it hard to completely lose yourself to a single dedication. There remains a respect and adoration for the music, but there is not the single-minded dedication to its study.
All I can really say is to listen to everything you can. There are artists who are open and artists who are not, just like audiences. The artists I’ve picked here all have that openness in common. I was thinking recently of a performance I saw of Sting with the Royal Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. I remember thinking that this is an artist with a surprising depth. I was very impressed, and I think it had to do with Sting’s seemingly very open-minded approach to music. It’s a powerful thing, this fearlessness to be open to everything.
These tracks are all inspiring to me, for one reason or another. I will say that I find nearly everything my daughters do to be inspiring. Often it may be because they each approach things so differently from one another, and more importantly, so differently than I do. I find it helpful and enriching to experience new approaches to things you’ve been doing for a long time. All these tracks have that in common for me.
“If there is music, there is the possibility of people seeing beyond their immediate wants and needs”
I remember when Anoushka worked with Karsh [Kale], her being very impressed by his unique restraint. He’s not afraid to use a lot of forces in a minimal way. It creates a very intimate music, so much so that his breathing even becomes part of the orchestration. He is very popular among the youth, although many with more experience in traditional Indian classical music may question this approach. I think it is interesting to take note of how successful he is with that approach, even though I, personally, would not gravitate towards it.
Photography by Bill Wood Photography
I’ve always loved violin and sitar together. They are very different and very similar at the same time. I remember when I wrote and played with Yehudi Menuhin there was a sense that the two instruments would continuously come together at a sort of point and then diverge, weaving a remarkable pattern. The sound created by the sitar and violin is so compatible yet so different, it’s a perfect improvisational match. We aimed to bring more possibilities in the dialogue between the two instruments. Eventually Yehudi and I found out how powerful this match could be when we played the United Nations concert for Human Rights in 1967. I think Anoushka and Joshua [Bell] have such chemistry here. It will be interesting to see what they will do after time has passed, if they record again later in their careers.
What more can one say about Philip Glass? Of course, I was first drawn to Philip by his rhythmic intricacies inspired by Indian music. There is a lot I like about this particular composition. It’s so short, but it is truly amazing as film music. In film, you have limited time to convey an emotional state to a listener. Here, Philip builds such suspense, such tension. Much is due to his ingenious use of non-Western instruments, in this case the didgeridoo – so inspired. I’m also always impressed with film music that is so precisely able to capture the appropriate mood, and with such efficiency. It is not easy to bring a voice to a director’s vision – as I experienced with Satyajit Ray and the Apu trilogy. But when you can come together and find the harmony between sound and vision – it is magic. Philip is gifted at bringing this magic out. I hope he gets his Oscar one day soon.
Nitin [Sawhney] is a brilliant musician and composer. I hear such joy in this tune. Its simplicity is its real strength, just like daybreak itself. So much energy! The pizzicato in the instrumentation combined with his melodic voice is just perfect. I am never bored when listening to his music. It always surprises me!
Norah’s voice has such range of emotion. I think that is what most impresses her listeners: her ability to cover a vast range with seeming simplicity. She has a rare ability to connect with nearly everyone. She is also very intuitive as a collaborator, and of course so is Herbie (who I’ve worked with on several occasions). Both are gifted at seeing where two musical minds must find each other in order to produce something truly memorable. They are wonderful together. And Joni Mitchell is quite a songwriter, so to hear their interpretation of her tune is really something special.
Touring with Anoushka has been one of my life’s great joys. A father often sees his daughter grow up from some distance. This is normal and there is certainly joy and pride in it, however, when on stage with Anoushka, it’s like I’m experiencing her grow as we experience and interact with the music. I am very fortunate to have had this opportunity.
When I hear this track, ‘Red Sun’, I hear Anoushka’s youth in the best way. There is so much energy and experimentation that I think it comes from a try-anything approach. It is something that one sometimes finds harder to achieve as you get older. It’s something I try to be aware of in my own music and when listening to others. Innovation is the only way to keep music alive and here, there is a bold compositional sense, pushing to get what she wants out of conducting. I also admire Anoushka’s drive to bring together very strong and diverse traditions to create something totally new. It isn’t easy but I see her relish in the challenge here, which, of course, makes me happy and reminds me how important challenges are to music.”
Five tracks chosen by Ravi Shankar
‘Daybreak’ from London Underground (Positiv-ID)
Ravi says he never gets bored listening to Sawhney’s music. This track features the classically trained Indian vocalist Faheem Mazhar.
‘Avalanche’ from Cinema (Six Degrees Records)
The UK born and US raised musician has collaborated with Ravi’s daughter Anoushka. Ravi describes Kale’s music as being ‘very intimate’.
‘Car Ride’ from Undertow (Orange Mountain)
Ravi is a big admirer of Glass and his film music, such as this track where he manages to create a great feeling of suspense and tension.
‘Variant Moods: Duet for Sitar & Violin’ from At Home With Friends (Sony Music)
‘The sound created by the sitar and violin is so compatible yet so different, it’s a perfect improvisational match’, says Ravi.
‘Red Sun’ from Rise (Angel Records)
‘There is so much energy and experimentation,’ Ravi says of this track by his sitar-playing daughter Anoushka. He describes touring with her as being one of the great joys of his life.