Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan: Ragas

For a time in the "flower power" years of the 1960s, the music of India achieved a stunning degree of success in America and England, largely propelled by the earnest efforts of George Harrison, guitarist of The Beatles, to study and apply that music in his own work (in such songs as "Norwegian Wood" and "Within You, Without You.")  The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones played the sitar on the hit single, "Paint It, Black" in 1966.  A little later, Miles Davis employed embellishments from Indian instruments like the tabla and tamboura in his early 1970s jazz "fusion" experiments.  And, there was a time in the electronica/techno heyday of the 1990s that Indian music was given some exposure--hip hop label Tommy Boy, for example, put out a compilation album that fused electronica with Indian sounds in interesting ways.  At about the same time, producer/bassist Bill Laswell formed Tabla Beat Science, in which a wide variety of Western sounds were melded with the virtuoso playing of tabla master Zakir Hussain and other Indian musicians.

Still, there is nothing like going directly to the source to discovery the wonder and power of Indian music, although a vast country like India has a great variety of regional sounds and styles.  In southern India, to take one example, songs of the Carnatic tradition are very different than music played elsewhere in the country.  In any case, today's selection is a fantastic introduction to two of the acknowledged masters of Indian ragas: Ravi Shankar (born 1920 and who just recently performed in Los Angeles at age 91!) and Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009).  Sitarist Shankar is by far better known in the West, because of his association with classical musician and conductor Yehudi Menuhin and with Harrison and because he found a way to tap into the Western market, espeically his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival .  Khan, on the other hand, is hardly known, but his sarod playing is just as formidable and breathtaking.

The 1973 compilation album, simply titled Ragas, by Shankar and Khan is a fantastic introduction to Indian music and the work of these two masters.  The two appear together on the first two tracks "Raga Palas Kafi" and "Raga Bilashkani Todi" along with tabla player Kanall Dutta and Nodu Mullick and Ashish Kuman on tamboura.  These pieces were released in 1964 as The Master Musicians of India, while the third and fourth pieces, "Raga Ramdas Malhar" and "Raga Malika", feature Khan alone as soloist and supported by musicians on table and tamboura who were not credited on the album The Soul of Indian Music, which came out in 1965.  Both albums were issued by the jazz label, Prestige, which was bought later by Fantasy Records, issuer of this compilation.

Ragas represents exceptional performances that bring out the emotion and feeling that the word "raga" represents.  Indeed, there are important philosophical underpinnings to the raga tying into Hindu scriptural teachings, specifically the relation of the notes and tones of raga playing to the development of spiritual consciousness and a "non-manifest sound" that is a universal one, reaching to and from far beyond the confines of this planet alone.  The musicians, in fact, are trained to not only learn the technical aspects of playing their instruments, but the philosophical act of meditating upon the rupa or form of the piece as they play it, so that they can fully develop their playing and spiritual connection to the themes, which evoke particular emotions.

For most listeners, though, enjoying the raga does not necessarily entail the application of any spiritual connection to Hindu philosophical thought.  Instead, the listener can simply enjoy the music, from the slow introduction and statement of the melody to the gradual buildup of the music over the course of, in this case, roughly twenty minutes per piece, to a peak of brilliant improvisations that show the great range of Shankar and Khan in both the technical and emotional realms, while the rhythms of the tabla and the foundational support of the drone created by the tamboura underpin the flights of fancy achieved by the soloists.  Listen to what we might call the embellishments that Shankar and Khan employ, through such techniques as slides, trills and echoes, and the two utilize a wellspring of variations of notes in scales that lead to a hypnotic apex, which then leads to a conclusion through the tamboura's drone.

There are many examples of world musics tied to direct spiritual experiences, such as that of the Sufi and the whirling dervish or the gnawa of Morocco and the gamelan of Bali, to name a few.  The Indian raga is a kindred example and, whether one appreciates and accepts the philosophical premises and underpinnings or not, it is worth the effort to at least reflect upon the range of emotions that the music brings from a religious and philosophical standpoint.  It enriches the experience far beyond the playing of notes, tones, semi-tones and octaves and allows the listener to get some idea of the millenia of tradition embodied in the music.  A person can truly grow through the exposure to and appreciation of music from all over the world, including the sublime raga.  This album is as good an example as any that testifies to the power of this art form.

There have been comments online about the subpar sound on this recording, but the performances ought to outweight any concerns about the 1990 remastering job done by Fantasy.  This is spellbinding music by masters at peak form!

Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan:  Ragas (Fantasy, 1973)

Raga Palas Kafi  20:11
Raga Bilashkani Todi  19:56
Raga Ramdas Malhar  18:43
Raga Malika  18:59

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