He was 92. Incredibly, he played his final concert last month. Frail in health, he refused to retire. He was my kind of guy. He had been for over 50 years.
I remember the first time I saw him perform. It was probably in January 1965. I was enrolling as a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside. I was there to clear up the final details of registering.
I wandered by the auditorium where concerts were held. It was still the small one that sufficed for what was still a small student body of around 3,500 students, up from about 1,200 in 1960, when I enrolled as a freshman. There was a poster. Ravi Shankar was scheduled to play that evening. For free!
I knew who he was. I was a big fan. I had first heard his 1956 Angel Records album, Three Ragas, sometime in 1957, when I worked at a local record store. I got hooked. I owned several of his albums in 1965 — in mono!
I arrived at least an hour early. I wanted a good seat. The auditorium was empty. I took the best seat in the house: front row center. I do not recall how many students ultimately attended. I know this: the auditorium was not filled. It could hold maybe 500 people.
It was a great evening.
I saw him again in 1969. I drove 75 miles to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. which held 3,000 people. I had to pay to get in. Every seat was taken.
The complexity of sitar music is more than I can grasp. It sounds as though it is mostly improvisation — beyond mere jazz. Yet it is not chaotic. It does not repel. But I can’t hymn a Ravi Shankar solo. They last maybe 20 minutes.
The rhythm is provided by a pair of small hand-played drums. Without them, not many Westerners could sit through a sitar concert. The tablas — the designation for the pair — provide the crucial support.
Shankar’s tabla player in 1965 was Alla Rakha — a Muslim. Together they made beautiful music. This was a division of labor that worked for decades.
Shankar’s famous daughter is the incredibly versatile Norah Jones. She is known for jazz, but she is a great country & western performer. His other daughter, Anoushka, plays the sitar. His last concert was with her. He must have been very proud of them.
This may not be your cup of imported tea. It is mine.