Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

Yesterday, while using an Amazon gift card to acquire several CDs, including Ravi Shankar's 1968 album, The Sounds of India, a quick glance at the news found that the 92-year old sitar master had just died.

In the last couple of weeks, an entry for this blog was planned for what may be his most famous record in the U. S., the staggering Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival.  In truth, it may not be that Shankar and his associates, the great table maestro Alla Rakha, and tamboura player Kamala, necessarily played better at that concert than any other they had performed at, together or singly.

Rather, the most impressive aspect, perhaps, about the performance is the reaction of the crowd.  This was 18 June 1967 and the Monterey Pop Festival featured legendary rock performers like The Mamas and the Papas, The Who, and, in his first electrifying breakthrough in his home country, Jimi Hendrix.  Yet, there was a brief window of time there in the late Sixties in which Indian music, as especially promoted by Shankar, became a fad, to the degree that the master lamented that not enough Americans truly appreciated the artistry involved.

In any case, it is fascinating to hear how the musicians were politely applauded before the first raga, the bhimpalasi, began, after Shankar's brief remarks, including a little droll aside about not being rained out.  When these incredible musicians finished with the nearly-half hour raga, the reaction was palpable, as the crowd was clearly impressed with the energy, intensity, and musicianship of, in particular, Shankar.

Following, though, was the 6-plus minute showcase for Rakha, a table solo "in ektal," in which Shankar explained the usual meter of the style and then noted that Rakha was going to dramatically increase the tempo.  Indeed, this is tour de force of tabla playing that sent the crowd into growing waves of excitement and truly set the stage for the finale.

With "Dhun", which went just under 20 minutes, the performance peaked remarkably.  As it is, ragas uniformly start slowly and take, over a long period, a gradual ascent in tempo, improvisational showmanship, and intensity that can lead to what is almost an ecstatic, trancelike experience for those who allow the music to take them.  From listening to the sustained, thunderous applause that greeted the end of this amazing concert, it would appear that many in the audience, whether chemically enhanced or not and clearly not expecting what they were privy to, were transformed.

Again, it may have been a combination of surprise, awe and the rising tide of idealist that rode the wave of the Summer of Love, but Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians made their mark at just the right time.

Shankar had a very long career filled with highlights from his earliest recordings, to his long partnership with brother-in-law, sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, to his heyday in the U.S., and his continued excellent work long after the 60s.  May this master of his instrument and his music always be remembered and heard.

Live:  Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival

1.  Raga Bhimpalasi  27:28
2.  Tabla Solo in Ektal  6:20
3.  Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)  19:41

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