Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso who is known to have broken cultural barriers by introducing Indian music to the western world has died on December 11, 2012 at the age of 92 in a hospital near his home in San Diego. As per a statement from his family, Mr Shankar has had a fragile health for the last few years and was forced to undergo heart surgery last Thursday on December 6. The operation was a success, but the condition of his lungs made it too difficult for him to recover. Mr. Shankar passed away with his family by his side.
Among his children were two musician daughters, Anoushka Shankar (also a sitar player) with whom he played his last concert in California on November 4, and well famous jazz singer Norah Jones who has always preferred to "downplay her relationship with her father in the press", describing their relationship as loving, but distant.
For most of us, Ravi Shankar is known for his collaboration with The Beatles, and specifically George Harrison. But in reality, this historical cultural influence in pop music all started with the Byrds, who were recording an album in the same studio as Ravi Shankar, and overhearing his sound, wanted to incorporate it to theirs, which is apparently how George Harrison discovered his new musical awakening. From then on, George grew a strong interest in Indian music and culture. But the actual first Canadian Beatles LP to include the sound of the sitar was the Help soundtrack (Capitol (S)MAS 2386) from the summer of 1965. The sitar appears at the outset on the instrumental opening to the title song Help on side 1, as well as on the track "From Me To You Fantasy" on Side 1, and then more prominently on Side 2 with "Another Hard Day's Night", and of course the very Indian closing "Instrumental". All this was George Martin's music of course arranged by Ken Thorne.
Beatles fans who bought the Help album when it came out that summer were intrigued by the use of this new instrument (even though it was not played by a Beatle) and of course the sitar would be used to far greater effect on the Beatles own (mostly George) compositions featured on the subsequent albums Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper. Ravi's influence on the Beatles discs beginning in 1965 should never be under-estimated." The song Norwegian Wood from the album Rubber Soul, became a clear symbol of the indian sound in pop music. It featured a clumsy but very efficient sitar track that changed popular music forever, and made it one of the most appreciated song of their career.
Soon after, George met with Ravi many times in the mid to late 1960s to practice and study the Sitar, and his interest in Indian culture even led the Beatles to visit India in 1968, resulting in them writing the amazing White Album, who, even though the album does not feature any Indian music, was almost entirely composed in the east. According Geoff Emerick, the Beatles sound engineer at the time, George was the shy Beatle who was in a way, living in the very strong shadows of John and Paul. Discovering and bringing Indian music to the Beatles' musical panorama gave him a lot of confidence, proving Harrison to be also be an exceptional song writer.
Many albums featuring the sitar master were issued in North America, and a few of them were even issued on the Beatles' very own Apple label and pressed here in Canada. Those records are:
The soundtrack for the film RAGA, Apple SWAO 3384
The Concert for Bangla Desh, Apple STCX 3385
The album "In Concert 1972" was also available in Canada but was most likely imported from the USA instead of being pressed here in Canada.
Finally, Shankar also issued a single on the Canadian Apple label, as Apple 1838, with the song "Joi Bangla"
Ravi also made two great albums with Yehudi Menuhin on the Angel label in Canada (late 1960s) called West Meets East, and many Beatles fans got introduced to World Music via these albums:
West Meets East - Angel S.36418
West Meets East (album 2) - Angel S.36026
(both albums were pressed in Canada by RCA in the late 1960s)
Ravi Shankar studied music in the late 1930s to complete his training in 1944 after which he dedicated his life to playing and composing Indian music. Only in 1956 did he started to tour Europe and America, raising awareness to the eastern culture and music. Praised by the music community and academy, his popularity grew exponentially once he started collaborating with the Beatles in the 1960s. His spiritual music was unanimously adopted by the love children of the hippie movement, and by 1970, Indian music was well integrated into the pop scene, both musically and spiritually. It is no surprise that Ravi Shankar has played famous festivals like Woodstock and Monterey during the late 60s.
Being treated like a rock star, Ravi toured America, and only a few days before his Woodstock concert, he stopped in Montreal to play at "Man And His World". Surprisingly for many, Mr Shankar did not like the Woodstock venue and soon after, decided to distance himself from the hippie community as he did not like the fact that kids mixed up drugs and Kamasutra to the Indian culture and spirituality of the music.
His ties to George Harrison has always stayed strong as they collaborated many times. In 1971, George invited Mr Shankar to perform at his benefit concert for Bangla Desh, the biggest benefit concert at the time with an audience of 40 000 people. Indian music and culture were a strong influence in George's life, and it was strongly underlined by being very present at the Concert in memory of Harrison on November 29, 2002, a concert where Ravi and his daughter Anoushka played many songs.
Ravi Shankar has not only been active in the field of music. Starting in 1986, he became a member of India's upper house of parliament, serving with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Ravi Shankar was very appreciated as musician of course, but also as India's cultural ambassador. Regardless of his many prizes (three Grammys, the music award of the UNESCO International Music Council, the Polar Music Prize, and more), Ravi Shankar will be remembered by many as a fantastic musician, but also as a unique influence that changed the world of music, bringing together two very different cultures that shaped the the soundtracks of our very lives. No wonder he was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2001, for his "services to music."!