He brought Indian classical music to the masses. He unwittingly made the sitar cool to scores of drug-addled dilettantes. He was responsible for some of the most remarkable, hypnotic recorded classical albums never heard by the above-mentioned masses. He was among the most respected musical artists of the past century, in any genre.
But yesterday morning, as I stopped to digest news of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s passing, what immediately came to mind was the loss of that rarest of popular musicians — a man who in 80 years of public performance never once sold out. The hippies may have come to him during those misguided late-1960s, but the master sitarist remained steadfast in his commitment to sounds well outside the fashionable. He never wavered from that commitment, and he as a result left us with a near-perfect track record, both as performer and recording artist. There is no ill-advised Ravi Goes Country or Disco Ravi album to tarnish the legend. When Shankar chose to explore new musical avenues, it was invariably from the perspective of an aficionado of tradition, and of spirituality. Hence, the sitarist partnered for one-off projects with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or composer Philip Glass. Calls from Slash and Madonna, meanwhile, were not returned. Indeed, Shankar resisted pressure to cave-in to even that more seemingly-inevitable of projects: a collection of Beatles songs. As a result, the world was denied a While My Sitar Gently Weeps LP. And Shankar was spared enduring embarrassment.
His relationship with one Beatle, however, served to be mutually beneficial. George Harrison first encountered the sitar during the filming of a scene set in an Indian restaurant for the movie Help! The Kinks and The Byrds were already flirting with Eastern sounds, as was jazz innovator John Coltrane. But it would be Harrison that would turn the sitar into the ukulele of the 1960s. And if he inspired too many psychedelicized wannabes to follow his lead, the guitarist was never less than sincere in his devotion to Eastern music and mysticism. Hence, it was to Shankar that the Beatle turned for instruction. And if Monterey and Woodstock provided the sitar legend with his largest if least attentive audiences, Harrison would via the Bangladesh benefit, a 1974 North American tour and recorded collaborations truly bring Shankar to a wider audience. No doubt, some in attendance at that 1971 benefit or during Harrison’s lone solo tour viewed Shankar’s opening set as an imposition. (Being asked by the performer to refrain from smoking during the performance, likely didn’t help.) Others, certainly, appreciated the exposure to new musical and spiritual worlds. Regardless, Shankar is to be commended for neither patronizing the patrons, nor compromising sounds he held sacred.
Yesterday morning, following a fine tribute to Shankar on the radio program Q, host Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Kathleen Hanna about her years as a member of the seminal feminist rock-and-roll band Bikini Kill. And while her subsequent project Le Tigre was barely mentioned, I could not help but be reminded of the fact that not so many years ago I referred to Hanna and said band as the biggest sell-outs in the history of popular music. Hyperbole? Of course. (It was written for the Ottawa Sun, after all.) Though, I did allow that Ice-T rates a close second. The politically-charged Le Tigre, you see, had licensed its music for use in TV commercials for the likes of Telus and Nivea. This, after having loudly derided peers that dare to not be true to their art. Now, it’s quite possible Hanna donated every dime she earned from those ads to worthwhile humanitarian causes. But still, selling-out your music for Nivea cosmetics?
It would be nice to think there’s a musician out there unwilling to stoop to such depths. Sadly, there is now one less. Sadder still, that may well reduce a number that previously stood at one.