Saturday, February 04, 2006

CD review - The Essential Ravi Shankar

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Into his 6th decade as a professional musician, 85 year-old Pandit Ravi Shankar is sometimes described as the father of world music and, "...his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s," according to Yehudi Menuhin. His impact on the music world, with his 90-something recordings and decades of touring, including sold out shows during his current tour, is absolutely immense. If there's someone else currently alive who has been an influential virtuoso for as long, I can not think of their name. Miles Davis would have been close but he passed away 1991. I'm also disappointed to see that on his upcoming tour, he's playing several Canadian cities, but not Winnipeg, where I live! He's selling out 2000 seat concert halls and could easily do the same here.

This two-CD set is actually more thoughtfully compiled than I imagined. Among my favorite recordings of his would be the 1990 album "Passages" - a true desert island recording - with Phillip Glass (1937). I assumed that album was too esoteric to be represented here, but it is, by two selections on disc 2. Disc 1, entitled "Out Of The East", features mostly ragas, spanning the decade from 1957 - 1967, from notable albums such as "The Sounds of India" (1954), "The Genius of Ravi Shankar" (1957) and "India's Master Musician" (1963.) "Into The West" is the title of disc 2 and it's 13 tracks, not surprisingly, feature Shankar performing with the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), George Harrison (1943-2001), guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and minimalist composer Phillip Glass.

I happen to like the traditional ragas but also the newer, easier-to-digest material, such as the George Harrison collaboration "Vilage Dance" from 1987's "Tana Mana."

Disc 1:
1. Introduction to Indian Music
2. Dádrá
3. Kafi-Holi (Spring Festival of Colors)
4. Raga Des
5. Raga Palas Kafi [Excerpt]
6. Sitar Todi
7. Dhun: Fast Teental [Excerpt]

Disc: 2
1. Swara-Kakali
2. Discovery of India
3. Vandanaa Trayee
4. Village Dance
5. Raga Miniature
6. Sandhya Raga
7. Memory of Uday
8. Shanti Mantra
9. Ragas in Minor Scale
10. Chappaqua
11. Friar Park
12. Vaishnava Janato/Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram
13. Offering

At the beginning of disc 1, Ravi Shankar narrates a 5 minute introduction to Indian classical music and at the end suggests best how western listeners can enjoy it.

What I like about the music on disc 2 is, I will shamelessly admit, the ease of remembering the music and being able to identify it during subsequent listens. Some of the tracks have taken on a soundtrack feel to them, which will not please those who prefer traditional ragas.

By and large, you don't listen to Indian classical music hoping to get the same experience as you would from most other forms of music, including European classical music. You let yourself get lost in the experience, the journey, and forget about repetition and familiarity. You can listen to a 15 minute raga and hear something new each time. The music is too rich to be absorbed in one listening and there's no way you can pick up your instrument of choice and repeat the entire raga that you have just listened to. For those with a fertile mind, the melodies are truly heaven sent.

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I'm always skeptical when record companies package compilations since they are rarely completely satisfying with their obvious omissions and inclusions of new but usually weak material. Columbia has tackled Ravi Shankar with a liberal representation of his works, but it won't necessarily please everyone. For those with broad tastes who are not Shankar experts, it's a great collection to have. Included in the liner notes is a brief but enjoyable article by Hank Bordowitz.

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