Saturday, October 15, 2011

In review---Ravi Returns

Ravi Shankar
Nine Decades, Vol. II
Reminiscence of North Vista
East Meets West Music


Nine Decades, Vol. III
Orchestral Experimentations
East Meets West Music

Imagine it is 1969 and you’re sitting in Hollywood parlor witnessing two ragas performed in the intimate space of Ravi Shankar’s home.  Not only that, Shankar and tabla player, Alla Rakha just returned from playing Woodstock.  While we can’t travel back in time, you can listen to Raga Kaunsi Kanada North Vista (28:14) and Raga Bihag North Vista (39:22) in your home now that the ragas were re-mastered and on Reminiscence of North Vista released as part of Shankar’s Nine Decades series.  Shankar’s and Rakha’s performance feels alive and even spontaneous coming off this disk.  This vibrant presence in my room is hard to explain.

Raga Kaunsi Kanada begins with a meditative alap that last for most of the duration of the track.  An alap allow musicians to prepare themselves for the composition part of the raga and orients listeners.  I think of the alap is a bridges between outer world concerns and the inner listening experience.  And ragas definitely take me inward, even the fiery passages and delightful exchanges between musicians.  Here we have sitar and tabla, two instruments most of us are familiar with thanks to world music and East-West music fusion.  Sadly I can barely hear tabla on the first raga.  On the second raga, it’s another story.  On Raga Bihag the tabla comes in about two thirds of the way through the 39 minute raga, and Rakha comes out to play.

While I greatly appreciate the meditative quality of the alap, listening to the players build and release tension while increasing speed represents excitement.  Incidentally, Ravi Shankar has been credited as bringing the tabla from a background to a foreground instrument.  In his 90+ years, the master musician brought numerous innovations to Indian classical music and certainly possesses the genius talent to pull off such innovations, though not without controversial from the old school players of the past.  I’m pleased that Shankar has chosen to release archival recordings on his label since these disks provide for me thoughtful music and music education. 

Orchestral Experimentation marks another inroad for Shankar.  The compositions on this disks range from 1949 to 1954 when the sitar player had access to renowned classical musicians from South (Carnatic music tradition) and North (Hindustani music tradition), India and western musicians.  Oddly, many of these compositions end up sounding like classical Chinese music to my ears, and I definitely conjure images of the Silk Road.  Alternately I’m reminded of the passions and betrayals portrayed in Bollywood classic songs.  Again, Shankar was breaking new ground and I’m certain his fusion work inspired such modern labels as Sense World Music and its fusion projects.

Let’s look at a few compositions from the archival recording, Orchestral Experimentions (Nine Decades, Vol. 111).  The recording opens with the longest raga on the album, Gorakh 6 ½, ( 6 1/2 refers to the beat cycle),which sounds like Silk Road classical music with a sitar to my ears.  You’ll hear a lot of flute and strings on this recording, the composition Dhana Kauns is no exception.  It opens on a cheerful note as a trembling flute and warm tabla beats greet the listener.  The plucky Chanchal Rajani features a xylophone type instrument in conversation with a galloping orchestra and again I’m reminded of Chinese classical music.   Jantil Granthi (A Twisted Knot) closes the recording.  Percussion makes a stronger presence on this composition and the sitar performs a meatier role than on previous compositions on the recording.  I’m not sure what the title implies, but the musicians set a romantic mood with its sweeping melodies—probably my favorite composition on the CD.

To be honest, I wish I knew more about Indian classical music because these recordings deserve a more expert review than I can give.  As a listener I’m intrigued by the archival recordings and the love Ravi Shankar puts into them.  I thank him for sharing his memories with us while also educating us along the way.  Always the ambassador of classical Indian music, I’m glad he’s handpicking the music for this series.

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