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The Twentieth Century
by Don Robertson

Part Four: The Hero From Across the Sea

2005 by Rising World Entertainment

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Then, in the midst of it all, came a hero from across the sea, his armor burning brightly in the sun...

North Indian Classical Music  

     I would like to tell you how I discovered the Classical music of North India. I was studying music at Colorado University in 1965 when I met a young man from Australia named Richard O'Sullivan at an audio store "on the hill" in Boulder. We became friends and while my studies at Colorado University focused on more traditional music, it was here, in this store, that Richard introduced me to the major contemporary composers of the time: Boulez, Berio, Nono, Castiliani, Schockhausen, Cage, to name but a few. He was always very exited about all this music. Late one night he called me from the store and begged me excitedly to come immediately. He had something he wanted to play for me, but he wouldn't tell me what it was. Obligingly, I got into my car and drove to the store. It was well past closing time. He seated me carefully in the room were during business hours audio speakers were demonstrated, then carefully placed the arm of one of the record turntables onto a record. He was grinning with anticipation of how I might react. 
    I expected to hear another Boulez masterpiece of colorful discords, or perhaps a new serial piece by Luigi Nono. But as new sounds poured from the speakers, they were like none I had heard before and they were instantly captivating. I was listening to the master sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, from India.
     Thus I began a journey that I have traveled to this day. I left Colorado University to pursue the study of this newly found music, finally arriving in Los Angeles, where I began learning the sitar from Harihar Rao.
     The following year, I moved to New York, and there I began studies with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan himself. By this time, every note from each of the very few records that had been available in America, I already knew by heart.
     I was not alone, as classical music from North India would have an enormous effect on music in the West: a fact that has been too little acknowledged.
     As the situation in American and European concert halls continued to deteriorate, an important figure arrived from India. His name was Ravi Shankar, a musical diplomat that awoke the West to his ancient and great tradition of classical music, one that had been developing in a parallel course with ours, the classical music of Northern India, one of the greatest musical traditions in the world.
     It came heroically to our aid, and helped transform three of the major genres of Western music: rock, jazz, and classical music... all three deeply effected by this ancient music from North India, a fact that has not been fully understood in our culture. Most people still do not know what North Indian classical music is.
     Ravi Shankar was a dancer who became a musician while studying with the great musician and teacher Allauddin Khan. He began traveling to the West in early 1960s, and in 1966 George Harrison of the Beatles became his student. Following this, Ravi became a celebrity, stealing the show at three major rock festivals: the Monterey Pop Festival, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and the famous Woodstock Festival.
     Ravi Shankar inspired changes in the three major forms of Western music.

The Influence on Pop Music

    When George Harrison became his student, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney became interested and testimony to this are the songs by the Beatles that have obvious Indian influences, songs such as Norwegian Wood, Within You, Without You, and Harrison's My Sweet Lord. The music of the Beatles changed considerably after their brush with Ravi Shankar, and North Indian classical music influenced many other musicians and rock groups as well, groups such as the Byrds, Richie Havens, and the Doors.

The Influence on Jazz

    John Coltrane began listening to Indian Music in 1961. At that time Ravi Shankar's records were probably the only ones available to him. I collect the records hes made, and his music moves me. Im certain that if I recorded with him Id increase my possibilities tenfold, because Im familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his work. I also hope to meet him when I return to the United States, he told he told Franois Postif in France. Ravi and Coltrane met in December of that year and continued to stay in touch. Coltrane named his second son after Ravi in 1965. I like Ravi Shankar very much. When I hear his music, I want to copy it not note for note of course, but in his spirit. What brings me closest to Ravi is the modal aspect of his art, he said later.
    Coltranes understanding of North Indian music, however, was only rudimentary, and his familiarity with it apparently went no further than Ravi Shankar, not really Indias greatest exponent, but certainly the most popular in the west. But the scales that he became familiar with influenced his music considerably, and in turn influenced the course of jazz.   

The Influence on Classical Music

    The founders of minimalism, Terry Reilly, LaMonte Young, and Philip Glass were all extremely influenced by the classical music of North India. This is covered in the next part of this treatise: The Return to Tonality.

The Next Step

    For those who understood more deeply, the real masters from India was Ravi Shankar's teacher Allauddin Khan's own son, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this section, along with sitarists such as Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, and a handful of great vocalists and instrumentalists. But Ravi had an enormous influence in music. His appearance with tabla maestro Alla Rakah at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was a monumental event. The response from the audience was thundering acceptance, much greater than the stunned looks given Jimi Hendrix when he set his guitar on fire at the same event. Ravi Shankar provided a gift from India to the West. He influenced the Beatles, John Coltrane, Philip Glass and many others. Yet even now his influence continues, as he is the father of multi-grammy-award-winning singer and pianist Nora Jones.
     North Indian classical music was not a fad of the sixties. It became an institution in America, albeit a small one, and one that continues to grow and strengthen, with many serious devotees. It is a tradition of music that requires and deserves intense study in the West, and it will continue a role of influence that will deeply affect our own music of the 21st Century as an increasing number of composers and musicians begin to understand its importance and beauty.

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