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RETRO: Ravi Shankar and the Quiet Beatle

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, photographed by Tom Wilkes, 1971

Madison Square Garden. August 1, 1971. Against all odds, you scored a ticket to a concert steeped in legend and mystique. 

Initially advertised as a benefit concert featuring George Harrison & Friends, it’s now being called the Concert for Bangladesh. And because it’s helmed by ex-Beatle George Harrison, now at the peak of his post-Beatles fame, there’s more than just music in the air.

The incense is a-burnin’ as Harrison introduces Ravi Shankar and his Indian ensemble. An atmosphere of calm fills the arena. The rambunctious exertions of so many performers who in recent years have waylaid audiences at either the Fillmore East or the Fillmore West now find their antithesis in the spirit, soul, and softhearted tone of voice Shankar employs as he greets the massive Garden audience.

“Friends,” Shankar opens. “As George told you just now: they will be participating in the second part. The first part is going to be us playing for you on the Indian instruments… the Indian music. This is a type of music that needs a little concentrated listening. And I would request you to have a little patience—I know you are very impatient to hear your favorite stars who will be in the second part.”

He continues, “We are trying to set the music to this special event, this historical program, which is just not a program as usual, but which has a message. And this is to just make you aware of a very serious situation that is happening.”

Not only is Shankar being listened to, he’s being heard. The audience is respectful and intent upon absorbing his words. But if his words are not wholly the focus of the crowd, it’s likely due to the panorama of his ensemble’s colorful manifestations. Aside from the unusual shapes and sizes of their instruments (neither the sitar nor the sarod nor the tablas of Alla Rakah can be found in American band rooms), their clothing is spectacular; the men are all adorned in loose-flowing white linen shirts that billow almost as freely as Kamala’s sari. 

Shankar on sitar, photographed by Barry Feinstein

Audience members wear similar tops. It is hard to imagine longhaired American men in such garments —a post-1964 phenomenon—back in 1961.

“We are not trying to make any politics,” Shankar insists. A huge relief during a summer of spiking political fevers. Scarcely two months earlier, the leaking of the now infamous Pentagon Papers reignited the perennial animosities of the hawks and the doves, the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans and just about everyone with any concern for the state of the nation. 

It seems as if the torments of 1968 have never receded. Old and young, hard hats and hippies, black and white, pro-war and anti-war, women and men, toxic tension is everywhere. Conflict is omnipresent. Culture wars predominate.

Thankfully, Shankar sets out on an entirely different goal: “We will play a dhun,” he explains. “Which means an air or a melody, which is based on a folk tune of Bangladesh.  And after that, we’ll play a gat, a fast gat, in teentaal of 16 beats.” His musical jargon may go over the heads of the listeners, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows that Shankar is Harrison’s dear friend, that he is a surrogate father for Harrison. With the music imminent, nothing else matters.

The next half hour dissolves as time collapses with a series of pieces that highlight every aspect of Shankar’s world-renowned gifts. The hallmarks of his international reputation are on display in the repeated phrases as they become melodic sentences in instrumental conversation with Ali Akbar Khan on sarod. Their duet is forever undergirded by the drone of Kamala’s tamboura and the foundation of Rakah’s tabla drums. Entranced, Kamala’s eyes close as she plays.

Equally entrancing is the boundless variations in which Shankar and his sarod player engage. They parry; they joust; they “trade fours,” as the jazzmen say.

The Shankar ensemble, photographed by Barry Feinstein

With his fingers and palms rebounding off the tablas at the speed of light, it’s as if a whirling dervish controls Rakah’s body from the wrists down. Otherwise he’s as still as a Buddhist statue, much like Kamala playing her tamboura.

Kamala’s head sways from side to side in a state of blissful repose. Shankar looks frequently at Khan, seemingly in a daze. His musicianship is clearly on a par with Shankar’s. Their fiery performance creates an escalating musical odyssey that’s easily the equivalent of John Coltrane’s most adventurous saxophone explorations.

When they exit the stage, an army of roadies, techies, and crewmembers go to work. The lights come up in the Garden. 

A transformation is required to accommodate the all-star rock orchestra about to take the stage. About to take the audience even higher. Who will play with George? Is this a Beatles reunion? Are any of the Rolling Stones in the house?

Soon enough, all questions are answered. Harrison helms a large ensemble to an awestruck crowd. They’ve only had one week to rehearse, but maestro Harrison has surrounded himself with musical allies: Ringo on drums is joined by second drummer Jim Keltner; guitarist Jesse Ed Davis is joined by bassist Klaus Voormann and Eric Clapton for the duration; Billy Preston is at the Hammond B-3 organ, while Leon Russell sits at a grand piano; a full horn section is ready to blaze away as are a soul choir of back-up singers, plus members of Badfinger on acoustic guitars. It’s a glorious assemblage. Harmonious.

But Harrison’s greatest secret won’t be revealed until later, when Bob Dylan appears out of thin air. Five years after his motorcycle accident, the Bard is performing live, yet again.

Less than one year later, the three-disc album of the Concert for Bangladesh will win the Album of the Year Grammy Award. In a way, the concert closed the door on the 1960s.

Video from George Harrison & Friends Concert for Bangladesh

M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.)

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