Olivia Harrison interview: “George gave me a crash course in Indian music” | Songlines
Friday, May 11, 2018

My World: Olivia Harrison

By Nigel Williamson

Olivia Harrison, the wife of the late Beatle George Harrison, talks about how George's collaborations with Indian musicians helped shape her own musical tastes


Among the pioneers who helped to popularise world music, few have done more or had more kudos than George Harrison. In the mid-60s, the Beatles’ guitarist took lessons from Ravi Shankar and introduced the exotic sound of the sitar to Western pop music fans via his songs with the Beatles.

As his wife for 25 years until his death in 2001, Olivia Harrison enjoyed a ringside seat at his collaborations with Shankar and other Indian musicians and they then explored a glorious range of other world music styles together, from Mexican corridos to Bulgarian folk music. Unsurprisingly, George’s influence permeates her playlist selections and her current project, releasing his archive of recordings by some of the greatest Indian musicians of the 20th century.“Being married to George gave me a crash course in Indian music,” she says. “George recorded many great Indian classical musicians, but he never revisited the recordings because he didn’t look back, he just kept moving forward. But I couldn’t sleep if I thought the tapes George made were going to degrade and never be heard. They’re a wonderful legacy.” The archive will be released on the HariSongs imprint, in conjunction with Craft Recordings, a division of Concord Music Group.

Olivia’s first taste of Indian music came when the likes of Shankar, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and santoor player Shuvkumar Sharma stayed with Harrison when he was producing the 1974 album Shankar Family & Friends. “Those musicians were the finest exponents of their instruments and it was a divine experience. While they were staying, they did three nights of concerts, which George recorded. The tapes have just been sitting there and that’s what inspired me to do HariSongs,” she says.

Before their release, however, comes the reissue of two important but out-of-print Shankar recordings produced by George, both of which feature on Olivia’s playlist.

‘Raga Manj Khamaj’ was originally released on the album In Concert 1972, which was released on Apple the following year. Featuring a ‘dream team’ of Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbar Khan on sarod and Alla Rakha on tabla, it was recorded at New York’s Philharmonic Hall before Olivia knew Harrison. “I wish could have been there because it’s a great historic moment,” she says. “That was one of Ravi’s favourite ragas. I remember him talking about it.” By the time of her second Shankar choice, ‘Sarve Shaam’ from the 1996 Harrison-produced Chants of India, she had got to know him as a family friend. “You revered Ravi,” she says of the great man. “He carried with him that great tradition, but he was also a very modern man and had a great sense of humour.”

Partly recorded in India and partly at Harrison’s Friar Park home in Henley-on-Thames, Olivia recalls the recording sessions well. “Ravi was very specific about the mantras and how they were recorded and orchestrated and George really wanted people to understand the vibrations of those chants was beneficial to their well-being.”

The track on her playlist is a particularly poignant choice. “At the end of his life George said to me that all he could listen to was ‘Sarve Shaam’,” Olivia remembers. “After all the sounds and sights and tastes you experience over a lifetime, it came down to the purity of ‘Sarve Shaam’.” The piece was also performed as the opening blessing at the Concert for George memorial, held at London’s Albert Hall in 2002.

Two other Indian selections on Olivia’s playlist also carry memories of George. One of U Srinivas’ very first albums, Mandolin Ecstasy, was “one of George’s favourite albums,” she says. “I think he was only 15 or even younger at the time. We went to see him in concert and afterwards George had a chance to inspect his electric mandolin. He had one made just like it and tried to play like Srinivas. He’d have a go at anything.” A track from one of Srinivas’ later albums recorded on Real World features on this issue’s covermount CD.

‘Bhoop Ghara’ from Call of the Valley, recorded in 1967 by Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia and slide guitar player Brijbhusan Kabra, was “something George had on our juke box. We played it as a remedy in our home if you were feeling a certain way. Kabra was one of George’s heroes as a slide guitarist, up there with Ry Cooder.”

The Harrisons met Cooder through the American producer Russ Titelman, who also introduced them to another of Olivia’s playlist choices, ‘Kalimankou Denkou’ from the Mystère des Voix Bulgares Vol 1 album, first released on an obscure label in 1975 and a surprise world music hit when re-released on 4AD a decade later. “Russ brought the album with him when he was working with George and we loved it,” Olivia says. When several of the singers on the album, including Yanka Rupkina, were working in London as Trio Bulgarka, the Harrisons invited them to their Friar Park home to give a private concert. “Russ and George stood in the hall and harmonised with them. It was a very reverential experience.”

Although born in Los Angeles, Olivia’s grandparents came from Guanajuato in Mexico. “I grew up with Mexican music and watched Mexican movies and my father played guitar and sang and recorded in the 30s,” she says. In 2016, Olivia presented a Songlines Music Award to the Mexican singer Lila Downs for her album Balas y Chocolate. “I didn’t know much about her until then, but I saw her perform and what a force!” Olivia says. “Last year I brought over a mariachi orchestra and we had a private concert at Friar Park because I got tired of waiting 30 years for someone else to do it. It was my way to let my friends experience that music – which was what George was always trying to do. He wanted people to understand and be moved by the music that he loved.”

Her playlist ends with a unique version of George’s 1968 song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by the ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro. She discovered his version when it went viral on YouTube in 2006. It has since received 15 million views. “Lots of people wrote to me or sent me a link saying ‘have you seen this?’ I was really floored by it,” she says. “Jake is a master and I then saw him play it one Christmas in Honolulu with an orchestra and it was beautiful. George wasn’t around to hear Jake’s version but he would have loved it.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Songlines. For complete access to our digital archive consider becoming a digital subscriber today!

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