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Ravi Shankar's Rock 'n' Roll

Published: 12/12/2012
On the anniversary of Ravi Shankar's death, we remember the sitar master who influenced countless musicians from the Beatles to John Coltrane.
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In this Aug. 3, 1967, file photo, George Harrison of the Beatles, left, sits cross-legged with his musical mentor, Ravi Shankar of India, as Harrison explains to newsmen that Shankar is teaching him to play the sitar. (AP Photo)

When George Harrison met Ravi Shankar in 1966, Shankar had already been touring worldwide, performing his sitar music, for 10 years. In the mid-1950s, western audiences were interested, but a little bewildered by Indian raga. But a decade later, with psychedelia in full swing, we were ready for Shankar's sound – especially when it accompanied the rock music we already loved.
 

Though Harrison had begun playing sitar before he met Shankar – he used the instrument on 1965's "Norwegian Wood" – he was purely self-taught and wanted to learn to play properly from a master. Shankar was impressed with Harrison's earnest enthusiasm for his music, and they began working together.

Harrison learned fast, and within a year he was turning in fine sitar performances on songs like the Indian classical music-influenced "Within You Without You" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Thanks to the Beatles and other sitar-wielding rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Byrds, the sound of the sitar was soon all over the radio, and western audiences fell in love with the music they were once unsure of. Shankar himself became a superstar and an unlikely icon of hippie culture. He won a Grammy Award in 1967, the same year when he played at the Monterey International Pop Festival along with Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas, Janis Joplin and other rock stars. Two years later, he was featured on the opening day of Woodstock.

In some ways, Shankar was uncomfortable with his status as a rock star. He didn't like the drug use that was common among those who loved his music, and he was appalled by stunts like Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Monterey Pop. "That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God," he said. But he was able to use his influence in the world of rock 'n' roll for good – as when he and Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help refugees whose plight had moved Shankar.

Ravi Shankar died yesterday at age 92. To those he taught (Harrison, John Coltrane, David Crosby and more), to the generations of musicians he influenced, to the fans who were enthralled by his mastery of the sitar, Shankar was an icon. His death is a great loss to the music world.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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