Within You – Without You – Remembering Ravi Shankar

If you’re into world music legends, then you probably know that Ravi Shankar, the father of the more-famous-to-a-lot-of-pop-music-fans Norah Jones, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92.

I was surprised to read about this – I thought he passed away some time ago. Ravi Shankar … he seemed quite old when I saw him perform at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 at Madison Square Garden. That’s the perspective of youth at work – in 1971 Shankar was several years younger than I am today!  So I suppose that means there are many folks out there who think of me as “quite old”!

That 1971 concert was a musical milestone for a lot of people.

Music critic, Gene Seymour, describing Shankar’s performance at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, says, “It was as if nature itself were being replicated on the stage, whether it was gentle summer rain or late-autumn wind having its way with the landscape . . . And this was before the actual performance started.”

Jim Fusilli, in his appreciation of Shankar in the Wall Street Journal, reminded me that Shankar’s tune-up before the actual concert provoked so much applause from those of us in the audience that he exclaimed from the stage,  “If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

Shankar was the first person I ever saw playing an exotic, non-western musical instrument – the sitar. It was Shankar’s influence on George Harrison that steered the Beatles to the inclusion of sitar on Harrison’s mesmerizing solo track,  “Within You Without You“ on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967 and on the song, “Norwegian Wood” on another Beatles album.

Harrison described Shankar as “the godfather of world music” and they performed together live at Royal Albert Hall in London, in 1974, a few years after I saw them.

I’ve always been amazed at how the use of sitar on a song transforms the song into something vastly more exotic than just a simple rock or pop song. The sound of the sitar can transport you to a place far away from home – and make you feel more at home in your own skin. And for those of us here in the West, we have Ravi Shankar to thank for opening our eyes, ears and hearts to a new musical landscape.