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Ravi Shankar: Master Sitar Player

The sitar is by far the most well known Indian instrument in the west. And the reason for that is Ravi Shankar.

In 1966 American folk rock band, the Byrds, released the song “Eight Miles High” with the B-side of “Why”. Both were influenced by the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar. Some consider “Eight Miles High” the first “psychedelic rock song” although a few candidates appeared beforehand. The music press called the song “raga rock.” Put simply (too simply), a raga (raga ???) is a set of notes and how they are played that define a melody in Indian music.

“Eight Miles High” marked a transition for the Byrds from folk rock to psychedelic rock. It was a commercial failure and was the last time the Byrds would chart a song. It was soon banned across U.S. radio stations because it was interpreted as having drug connotations, even though the lyrics really just describe an airplane trip to London.

David Crosby (of the Byrds) introduced George Harrison to Ravi Shankar and his sitar work in 1965. George Harrison played sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in 1965 and a number of songs after that. He shows much better mastery on songs such as “Love You To” and “Within You Without You.” All of this brought great attention to Ravi Shankar who had already been recording in the United States for over a decade at that point. In 1966 Ken Hunt of Allmusic called him “the most famous Indian musician on the planet.” He performed at a number of pop music festivals, and in August 1969, he performed on the first day of the infamous Woodstock Festival.

Ravi Shankar performing on The Dick Cavett Show

After the sixties, he continued to record, working many times with George Harrison. He continued his involvement in music education which had begun in 1967 when he opened the Western branch of the Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles. He taught at UCLA, City College (NY), chaired the department of Indian music at California Institute of the Arts. A great introduction to Shankar is his CD, “West Meets East.” Shankar begins the album by explaining raga music and contrasting it with American jazz, which it is sometimes compared to (for lack of a better comparison).

Shankar has three children, Shubhendra Shankar, a son born in 1942. Shubhendra played sitar and surbahar alongside his father, but died in 1992. His daughter, Norah Jones, is a popular jazz artist. Anoushka Shankar, his youngest daughter is a professional sitar player.  Shankar is 92 years old and currently lives in Escondido, California.

Love You To (The Beatles) – Heavily influenced by Ravi Shankar

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