#42: Ravi Shankar - “Three Ragas” (1956)

Where has this year gone? Ten albums away from completing this joint venture, Fiona and I have got to the point where we are wondering where to go next. This is the issue with coming up with ideas yourself to escape your echo chamber. Eventually, you’re going to realise you were just bumping against the walls of that chamber. I’m going to be opening up my Twitter feed to suggestions for my final four - as Fiona and I have a real treat for you for our last album of the year. 

But you know what, I actually went to a real life gig last week, my first in ages. I’m not much of a live music person, truth be told. My introversion too often wins out but having a music promoter pal means that I need to get my act together in order to support him and I never come away disappointed. An all women of colour line-up definitely gets my attention too. Shilpa Ray headlined and it was transcendent. Both she and my pal are of Indian heritage and I thought it’s about bloody time I dig into something distinctly less Western.  So I started with the absolute edge of my echo chamber - Ravi Shankar.

Younger me knew him as Norah Jones’s dad. Slightly older me knew that most of my music-loving pals at university rated him highly, particularly the guitarists. Now me knew him mainly as a great inspiration to George Harrison.  George Harrison will always be my favourite Beatle. He was monikered the quiet one but to me, he’s the epitome of still waters run deep. Listening to the instrumentals and koan-esque lyrics of Extra Texture or All Things Must Pass and of course, the later Beatles offerings, you don’t have to be a music expert to sense a non-Western influence. However, it is so rewarding to finally get to the source and appreciate the lack of appropriation, that Harrison saw himself as a student to Shankar and the spiritualism of the music of India, rather than a master of it.

Three Ragas is three tracks, each around the 12 minute mark, which to my cinematic brain equates to three standard length short films. It’s probably unfair to plant some kind of narrative to each of them but Evening Raga does expertly capture the mood of a bustling night out with friends, much like the aforementioned gig, with such buoyancy that I couldn’t help but smile. Morning Raga similarly matches my exact level of morning energy - not much, with lots of stretching and yawning and gradual reawakening to the world.  

Shankar spoke of his dismay at seeing Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight at Woodstock, where Shankar had been hugely well-received, that instruments were part of God, and music the most direct route to godliness. Not to sound too clean-cut or ascetic but I respect that respect, sensing it throughout Shankar’s work. There’s a vitality and harmony to it that’s accessible in a way that a lot of Western classical music isn’t on first listen.  

Shankar left us at the age of 92 but instead of setting his sitar on fire, his music continues to warm the heart and replenish the soul.