Ravi Shankar – Retro Interview

Ravi Shankar Dead at 92 – Read Our Interview with the Musical Legend from 2002

December 12, 2012 – After doing hundreds of interviews in my radio career there are only a handful that I remember clearly and there is only one that has stuck with me as if it was done yesterday. My interview with Pandit Ravi Shankar. His passing on December 11th (interestingly 3 days after the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s death) brought me back to that rainy day in Vancouver, in early 2002, as I shared 20-30 minutes with Shankar. Being a huge Beatles fanatic was not the only reason for my excitement on talking to this musical legend but my fascination with artists who master a sense of peace in their music without saying a word. Shankar’s intent was always strong and he did manage to do, what many artists think they can accomplish but seldom do, spread peace with his music.

He spoke to me candidly about his dear friend George Harrison, who had passed the previous year, and in the end, before he hung up, he simply said, “John, God bless you.”

Here is my interview with Shankar in its entirety.

Rock History Book Exclusive Interview with Ravi Shankar
Some of us find God in the details and others with a mantra surrounded by our own silence. World music legend Ravi Shankar who became a household name in the mid sixties through his association with George Harrison and the Beatles has always found God while creating and performing his own music. His friendship with Harrison was strong right up until his death in November, 2001. Shankar, now in his eighties, is just as much the peaceful ambassador of world music that he was in the beginning of his recording career in the fifties. I spoke with Shankar by phone from London, England.

John Beaudin – Ravi, thank you so much for speaking to us. I’m really looking forward to experiencing your concert.

Ravi Shankar – Yeah, I am also very excited to be going out after a long gap.

John – A little while ago I interviewed Dave Brubeck who is also in his eighties and he says people come up to him all the time and ask him when he’s going to retire and he says he doesn’t understand such a question.

Ravi – Exactly. As long as I am wanted and people are there to hear and I am free to play then the question doesn’t arise. The difference now is I don’t like to tour as actively as I did. I like to choose fewer places on where I like to go.

John – So you are just more selective?

Ravi – Yeah that’s all. Traveling has become such a hassle and that’s why I tour less number of places then before.

John – What is the size of your current show? I know your daughter Anoushka is up there with you.

Ravi – Well my daughter is assisting me and I have two tabla players and a bigger band this time.

ravi_2John – You have certainly been the biggest ambassador of Indian music to North America but interestingly some people don’t realize that you started recording over ten years before your Beatles connection.

Ravi – I started performing in 1955 and since then I have been recording so it was fourteen to fifteen years before I met George Harrison. I have been touring so widely. I do think that I have been lucky enough to bring the music of India before anyone else.

John – What do you think of the newer brand of hybrid pseudo dance beat world music?

Ravi – Well you know, I am open to anything that goes on. I don’t police it(laugh)just creating new music or new experimentation as long as it pleases people and it stays. A lot of things are done as a gimmick you know, for commercial purposes. It just comes for a short while and then there’s something else but I try to represent as much as possible our tradition and our music has such a wonderful scope you know. We can always produce new things within the framework. There is improvising and thinking new ideas but without making it a fusion of other things. That’s a different genre all together and definitely there are some interesting things going on.

John – There seems to be a misconception in the west that if you play traditional indian Ragas that you can’t improvise but you really do a lot.

Ravi – Absolutely. That is the main thing. I have been very fond of that improvisation and almost ninety percent of what I play is taking the format of our old tradition and just letting myself go.

John – Are people even more open to it now?

Ravi – Definitely, there is no doubt about it.

Ravi-Shankar-harri_2425235kJohn – I remember reading an old interview where you said that in the beginning of the Beatles association in the sixties you were not so sure about the kids in North America. “The patchouli smelling long haired children” I think you called them but by the time you did the Monterey Pop Festival you sensed they were really starting to open for the right reasons. You started changing your mind. These kids really curious about you?

Ravi – Not only curious but they have much more understanding and that makes me very happy because I fought against that for many years.There were too many drugs. In the beginning of those years the young people came with a lot of curiosity and a lot of interest but it was very superficial and the whole questions of drugs was so mixed up with their listening to Rock and Pop. They came to Indian music with the same attitude. I fought against it for many years and I’m glad to say that that is gone. My audiences are now serious. They don’t come with the same attitude as when they go to listen to Rock or Pop.

John – As a planet spiritually are we going in the right direction?

Ravi – You see before it was a fad for everybody. You know there was Tanra, Mantra, Kama Sutra they got all mixed up but now it is really very much in the right direction. There are not as many people doing it but the people who are doing it are at a much more serious level of trying to go to this spiritual, musical experience.

John – The press have nothing but wonderful things to say about your daughter Anoushka. You were her only real teacher on the sitar. You have had many pupils, how was Anoushka?

Ravi – In many ways it was easier because when you are born in a family and from the time you are born you are listening and being brought up in the atmosphere it really does make a difference. It has always been alot easier for me and a pleasure for me to teach my daughter.

ravi_beatlesJohn – Anoushka is really carrying on the family tradition.

Ravi – I hope and pray and I’m sure she can. She is so tremendously talented in so many different things as an actress and as a writer. She has tremendous versatility in her talent. I just hope that she can carry on this precious thing that I have given her and still giving her and will give her as long as I live.

John – You must be a proud father?

Ravi – Very much so but I felt like a student even until the last day of my Guru’s life. We always grow. We don’t have a fixed repertoire like in the western music because it is not a written down fixed music. We grow more and more. I am learning myself more as I am teaching. You know what I mean?

John – That learning journey never ends does it?

Ravi – I can never say that I have mastered my music, mastered my sitar. I feel sorry for the people who say that.

norah_jones_004John – Your other daughter Norah Jones has been also doing very well. Have you seen her live?

Ravi – Definitely, I have and she is fantastic. I love her music, though her music is completely different. She sings in Jazz/piano form and all that but I appreciate and love it.

John – Norah is the hottest thing in Jazz right now.

Ravi – It is a miracle it really is and I’m so happy for her. I don’t take any credit for her music but I feel so happy being her father that’s all I can say.

John – Where were you on Sept 11?

Ravi – I was in Encinitas California where I live it’s near San Diego. It was such a horrible experience for almost three to four days. I was alone with my family glued to the television all the time and it was something so horrific really.

John – What was your first reaction?

Ravi – I was in terrible shock, any violence and anything of such a huge intensity you know. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.

John – What do you think about modern music?

ravi_shankar_george_harrisoRavi – To tell you the truth I think one has to be really young in age. I don’t like to criticize anything which sometimes maybe disturbs and I’m not very fond of. I feel that this kind of music that is very hard on the radio all the time is something that you have to be young in age to appreciate. It’s the whole bang bang bang and the continuous rhythmic pounding and the loudness is something that I don’t understand. At the same time I am very open to any music which is pleasant, which is lyrical, which is soft and which touches my heart. I don’t care from where it is from but something that hurts my ears and disturbs me does not really please me. That’s all I can say.

John – Do you do a lot of mentoring?

Ravi – Oh yes. I have a number of students in India and not too many in the west but I’m experimenting with a lot of new things with recording and all that.

John – You were still very close to George Harrison when he passed away right?

Ravi – Oh my god that was very sad. To me our relationship was very special. He was all combined, he was like a student, like a son and my very good friend. It was a great shock and still I cannot get over this.

John – Was he a good student when you met him in the sixties?

Ravi – He was a very good student and he was extremely talented. The trouble was he could not give enough time he was so busy with his own group at that time. What is wonderful is that he never really kept on practicing or developing on Sitar but his love for music and he listened to Indian music all the time and his knowledge was fantastic and until the end it grew more and more.

ravi_shankar_george_2John – What was your impression of all the hoopla surrounding the Beatles when you first met them?

Ravi – The thing is I had vaguely heard of them. I knew the name and that they were a popular young group but I had no idea of their music or anything.

John – What’s the fastest way to get to know God?

Ravi – (laughing) That is a big question. I am myself searching for the answer. It’s a personal thing and I find it through my music not just sitting praying or meditating. I feel very much connected to whatever you call God or some supernatural or some special feeling or experience only through my music.

John – Blaise Pascal said “Most of the evils of life arise from man’s being unable to sit still in a room”. Can you?

Ravi – Oh yes. That is something that is very important in life. One must experience silence as much as possible either through meditation or doing nothing or whatever. Silence is an important part of someone’s life.

John – What gives you peace?

Ravi – I do find a lot of peace through my music. When I am with my sitar and I practice by myself or in a concert it gives me peace. When I deeply immersed in my music I find the greatest peace and I think at that time anyone who listens have told me that they have also found peace.

John – Do you feel the audience?

ravi_shankar_2Ravi – Well you cannot have peace all the time but most of the time, when I feel connected I feel that I’m connected to the audience also.

John – At this point in your life what is the most important message that you want to share?

Ravi – Through my music what I try to say is there is something called purity that I try to maintain in the music. That purity should be understood and felt by the listener and really that all I hope.

John – You recently won another Grammy and you were knighted by the Queen. Do these things mean a lot to you?

Ravi – Well it gives temporary pleasure for the moment and it’s nice to hear people congratulate you but it wears off and ultimately it doesn’t make me a better musician. My greatest pleasure is performing and when I feel that tremendous vibration of love and appreciation which is not just clapping but you can feel it.

John – What scaravi_shankarres you?

Ravi – Well the only scare is this whole mess that we are in with all this ecology and everyday you hear that the world is getting warmer and water getting scarce and all the disease and terrorism and violence.
John – Some say it will get a little worse before it gets a little better.

Ravi – That is what I also believe.

John – Ravi, thank you so much for talking with me.

Ravi – John, God bless you and Thank you.