Remembering Ravi Shankar, Raga's Rock Star

[caption id="attachment_61020" align="alignnone" width="640"] George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images[/caption]

When a single artist comes to represent an entire genre in the eyes of the wider world, you know you’re talking about a true icon and innovator. In bluegrass, for instance, it’s the late Bill Monroe, in reggae it’s Bob Marley, and in Indian raga, it’s always been Ravi Shankar, who joined Monroe and Marley on the far side of eternity on December 11 at the age of 92.

The undisputed master of the many-stringed sitar, Shankar was born in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges in 1920. He began his career composing film music, and eventually scored all three installments of Satyajit Ray’s renowned 1950s Apu Trilogy. The North Indian classical tradition known as raga was still new to the West when Shankar started performing internationally, becoming the music’s main ambassador. Shankar had a profound effect on the rock world in the ‘60s, when British and American bands started opening their minds to an eclectic array of influences from other genres. The Byrds were among the first to fall in line -- you can hear it in Roger McGuinn’s modal, raga-like Rickenbacker guitar licks on 1966’s “Eight Miles High.”

Soon George Harrison was studying with the sitar master, resulting in such world-changing Beatles tunes as “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You Without You,” some of the first rock recordings to feature sitar. In due course, Eastern flavorings became ubiquitous in ‘60s psychedelia. Shankar’s set at 1967’s epochal Monterey Pop Festival confirmed his status as raga’s first (and only) “rock star.” This was further confirmed by his participation in 1970’s Concert for Bangladesh benefit, a Harrison-helmed all-star affair that found the sitar superhero appearing alongside everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan.

From the early ‘70s on, the adventurous Indian virtuoso freely followed his muse wherever it led him, be it his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra with conductor Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, his Grammy-nominated score for Gandhi in 1982, or Shankar’s 1990 collaborative album with Phillip Glass, Passages. But whether working with New York minimalists or British orchestras, Shankar always maintained the deep spiritual connection to his raga roots that made him such a titanic talent to begin with.

A true musical “lifer,” Shankar never stopped performing and recording, even after his offspring established their own celebrated careers. In 1979, Shankar’s eldest daughter was born to his American then-girlfriend, Sue Jones. A couple of decades later, Grammy magnet Norah Jones would make a musical impact nearly as global as her father’s, albeit in an entirely different framework. Shankar’s younger daughter, Anoushka, however, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a hotshot sitarist, keeping the raga tradition alive for a new generation and earning a Grammy of her own in 2003. She and her father often performed together, but in 2003 Anoushka conducted her father’s “Arpan” as part of yet another all-star rock show, the Harrison memorial Concert for George, with Clapton joining in on guitar. Anoushka was also part of her father’s final concert, on November 4, 2012, just weeks before his death.

Almost immediately after Shankar’s passing, the extent to which he has continued to inspire a broad spectrum of artists became clear. Twitter filled up with tributes from his famous fans, including Slash, k.d. lang, Peter Frampton, Charlatans UK singer Tim Burgess, Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe, British singer/songwriter Patrick Wolf, U.S. blues-rock guitar shredder Joe Bonamossa, and Shankar-sampling underground hip-hop hero El-P. The unlikelihood of another artist being able to attract such a disparate collection of disciples underlines merely one of the many ways in which we’ll surely never see Ravi Shankar’s like again.