Shankar for Dummies?

Ravi Shankar has always been one of those musicians that I respect more than I listen to. A few musicians (Ornette Coleman, the Pop Group) as well as genres (opera, blues) fit into this category for me. I get what they’re doing, and I like what they’re doing. But I’m rarely in the mood to actually sit down and listen to an album from beginning to end. (Phillip Glass).

I was actually lucky enough to have seen Ravi Shankar perform with his daughter (Anoushka, the sitar player, not Norah Jones) on one of his last tours of the US. It was a tour-de-force- a snapshot of a virtuoso musician who had hit a peak and stayed strong for 50 years. That which goes up, evidently, must not necessarily come down. But as impressive as seeing the master perform was, I’m sure if I had access to a recording of that performance, I’d probably listen to about ten minutes of it, once a year. Somehow, the idea of listening to an entire raga evolve over the minutes or hours it might take has a tremendous artistic, intellectual and philosophical appeal, but is not exactly something you want to throw on while you wait for the subway. As a result, unfortunately, Shankar remained woefully under-appreciated in my music library.

Or at least he was, until a friend recommended me his 1964 album Portrait of Genius, which I could listen to every day. If I had to guess from the timing, this album corresponds to the first inklings of the neo-Orientalist fascination with India in hippie culture. It was two years before “Norwegian Wood,” three years before Monterey. It could be safely assumed that whichever marketing genius came up with the idea for this album, he was consciously trying to do a Shankar-for-dummies sort of thing.

But it totally works, and remains critically acclaimed nonetheless. Apart from the last track (which comprises a full raga), tracks are generally around the 3 minute mark. Shankar is teamed up with Ustad Alla Rakha, who is, more or less, the tabla’s answer to Ravi Shankar. As songs like “Tabla-Dhwani” and “Tala-Tabla Tarang” demonstrate, he is an accomplished virtuoso himself, filling each bar with percussion work so dense it makes blast-beats look anemic by comparison. Rakha has a masterful control not only over the percussive elements of the tabla but also over its melodic component- “Tala-Tabla Tarang” actually features no melodic instruments except the tabla (even Shankar himself is absent), and it takes you a few listens to even notice.

As satisfying as the solo-virtuoso stuff is, the album peaks when Rakha and Shankar, as well as jazz flautist Paul Horn coordinate their interplay- Indian music is not inherently harmonic, and any harmonies tend to be incidental. Nonetheless, when the three of them play in the pocket, it’s way, way more than the sum of its parts. My favorite track on the album, “Song from the Hills” (an original composition of Shankar’s posing as a folk song) highlights this brilliantly. In contrast to the relentless virtuosity displayed in some of the other pieces, the song is a masterwork of restraint: Horn introduces the sweetly wistful and unabashedly simple main theme in a non-rhythmic alap, Rakha introduces his tabla, followed by Shankar, and the three spend the rest of song repeating the theme, subtly varying the particulars of the performance with each repetition. The track ends after about three minutes with Horn playing solo again- he finishes the theme on the tonic, then ‘overshoots’ it with one last arpeggio, as if to say “we could keep going, but I guess that’s enough.”

That’s really the beauty of this album- it’s just enough.

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