Ravi Shankar and George Harrison: Collaborations
To remain a recording artist who makes a substantial impact upon a genre for more than a decade is something of an accomplishment. Ravi Shankar’s 90th year, however, is a time to celebrate a career that is still vibrant. For this reason, Dark Horse Records, the late George Harrison’s label, has gathered together a box set, Collaborations, which highlights Shankar’s close relationship with the dearly departed Beatle and solo artist. The friendship that existed between these two musicians did more than just influence their work; it’s a glimpse into how Eastern influences penetrated the hippie movement and instruments like sitar became accepted into mainstream, Western songs.
The first disc, Chants of India, was recorded more than thirty years after Shankar and Harrison’s initial meeting. It’s a reimagining of ancient Sanskrit chants with new music penned by Shankar to enhance the sound. Without knowing the language, it’s impossible to connect to the lyrics or stories that are captured in these tracks. However, that doesn’t reduce their power for even a moment. It’s easy to get swept up in the chiming sitar and the swirling voices working together to induce a sense of peace. For some, it might stir the impulse to look deeper into the material that Shankar has brought to life more sensuously. These chants are reverent and respectful toward the source material while becoming more appealing to an audience that might not seek out spiritual music.
The second album of the collection, Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India, sweeps back to 1976. In the early ‘70s, Harrison established his Material World Charitable Foundation both to support alternative music and lifestyles and to bring relief to the needy. Under this foundation, he gathered Shankar together with other Indian luminaries to record and tour as the Ravi Shankar Music Festival. The project began in 1973, with the studio album being recorded in 1974. It only saw its release in 1976 on vinyl, but now with this box set, the material has been generously resurrected. The longest tracks on the album, “Raga Jait” and “Dehati,” almost feel like movements in a play, their styles changing from slow to upbeat and building so many elements that you can sense a story even through the instrumentation alone.
The CDs of this set conclude with Shankar Family and Friends, another record that had only previously been released on vinyl in 1974. In addition to Shankar and Harrison, the contributors on this early collaboration include many men linked to the Beatles (including Ringo Starr). This disc is perhaps the most appealing of the set to a wide audience. Some songs are in English, while others are instrumental or delve into Hindi. It’s impossible to guess what the next track will sound like, Shankar’s sitar holds the album together as a unit. It’s beautiful in its lack of ego, as all of the musicians clearly worked together to best highlight everyone’s talents. As the first album that brought Shankar and Harrison together, it’s a fitting end to remind the listener just how far the friendship between the two men progressed.
The accompanying DVD, also titled Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India, is a live concert recording of the material included upon that album. Performed September 23rd, 1974, at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, George Harrison delivers a warm, visibly emotional introduction and then embraces Shankar before the band launches into a seamless performance that seems as intimate as a living room. The visual component of the concert isn’t crystal clear, but it’s worth it to be able to watch a sitar master practice his craft with certainty and flare. The audio was recorded separately and more than makes up for what the video lacks, transporting you back to the early days of a relationship between two creative spirits.